This week, we have another beer from Japan, Kirin Ichiban Shibori Stout. Kirin had its beginnings in 1885, when it took over the assets of another company, Spring Valley Brewery, which had been established by a Norwegian-American in Yokohama, Japan in 1869. The brewery was originally known as Japan Brewery Company, but three years after being founded the company added “Kirin” to their name, taking the name of a Chinese mythical creature said to bring prosperity. Even after splitting off from Spring Valley Brewery in 1907, Kirin continued following its predecessor’s practice of importing hops and malt from Germany. Like Yebisu, Kirin employed German brewers to oversee production; and for about three years, Kirin’s staff even included a German brewer who had formerly worked for Yebisu. Today, the brewery is the second largest in Japan and forms a part of the integrated beverages company Kirin Holdings.
While Kirin’s best-known beer is most likely Ichiban Shibori, their Ichiban Shibori Stout is equally deserving of attention. In Japan, the most commonly brewed style among the big brewers is pale lager. At most izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and bars, you are likely to find Asahi Super Dry, Suntory Premium Malts, or the aforementioned Kirin Ichiban Shibori. All of these bear a stylistic resemblance to one another, being characterized by their pale hue, predominant hop bitterness, and high carbonation. They’re crisp, refreshing, companionable with most foods, and ultimately forgettable. Meanwhile, most of these big breweries also produce dark lagers often labeled as ‘black’ beers. They are similar to their pale counterparts except for the use of roasted grains. Before 2008, Kirin Stout was also a dark lager; but since stout is traditionally an ale, not a lager, ‘stout’ was strictly speaking a misnomer. Yebisu Creamy Top Stout also represents such a case. In early 2013, however, Kirin rereleased their stout with a new recipe which uses top-fermenting ale yeast instead of bottom-fermenting lager.
The distinction between ale and lager yeast is a technical one; the terms ‘top fermenting’ and ‘bottom fermenting’ refer to the tendency of yeast to clump after fermentation and to rise to the top of the vessel or sink to the bottom. The variable behavior of yeast was first noticed by brewers in Bavaria around 1420 who had been storing beer in cold Alpine caves and discovered that beer stored for long periods became clearer in appearance. Thus, one of the key differences between ale and lager yeast is the temperature at which they ferment—lager yeast works best around 8°C (46°F) while ale yeast works best around room temperature (20°C/68°F). To the consumer, the difference is most apparent in the flavor and aroma, as ale yeast yields certain byproducts that may contribute fruity and spicy qualities, among others, depending on the style and brewing method. By contrast, lager tends to be ‘cleaner,’ in that such byproducts are either less obvious or altogether absent. What this means for Kirin Stout is that it may have flavors and aromas that the previous version (discontinued in 2008) lacked. But even if they are not apparent, the use of ale yeast at least legitimizes the use of the name “stout.”
Kirin Stout pours an extremely dark—but not fully opaque—brown. The pale tan head holds its shape for a while. The aroma is very pleasant and smells of cocoa, mocha, and brown sugar with a hint of grapefruit. The predominant quality in the flavor is roasted malt, which thankfully is not very astringent (black tea-like). The earthy, herbal hops provide a firm background bitterness. It’s smooth and medium bodied but very carbonated with a substantial bite.
I suppose it’s not surprising that Kirin Stout has the hop bitterness and flavor of the more common Ichiban Shibori. It has greater body and a little more sweetness and has lots of roasted malt. I’m pleased that it has such a nice roasty flavor that doesn’t taste woody and acrid. The carbonation is a bit overdone but not altogether detrimental. I can’t say whether the use of ale yeast makes any notable difference—I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just a marketing gimmick in response to the growing interest in a wider variety of beer styles in Japan. Still, in the end, the malt is pleasantly smooth and flavorful. It’s also relatively inexpensive and easy to find, so I’m glad it’s around.