The Zen of Beer (Part One of Two)

drink-60436_640Oftentimes, I’ve spoken about Zen concepts on my weekly podcast, The Happy Road Ahead. Perhaps it was my extended tenure in Japan that has brought out that particular side of me, and helped me make sense of many things that I saw before, or that I never truly saw for what they were or understood. Just for a moment though, I’d like to contemplate the Zen of beer drinking and explain how my perceptions of God’s greater use for barley have changed, and evolved over time. While I will not claim any sort of enlightenment (as any enlightened being knows — you cannot be enlightened if you claim enlightenment), I will say that I now understand, that the more I know, the less I know. Since I have many thoughts about this topic, I’ve decided to split this article into two separate ones. In this, the first of the two, I wanted to examine my own, personal journey through beer, and how I’ve gotten to where I am now, which will be the conclusion of this piece. Then, in part two, I’ll be looking at local, Vancouver Island beer culture, as a social commentary on the incredible, vibrant community that exists in this Zen-like cultural space of malt, hops, and water.

For the longest time, I felt very comfortable in my knowledge and understanding of beer. After all, I am of Czech lineage as far as I can trace back. I’ve been taught from a very young age, that the Czechs are the masters of beer. When it came to beer, my father has always been a beer nationalist. He has always been quick to point out that Czech beer is the finest in the world, and more specifically, Pilsner is the undisputed king of beers. Having essentially invented the pilsner, the namesake remains with the original brewery to produce this variety of beer, Pilsner Urquell, from the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic. To many a Czech, this is the mecca of beer, and since I’ve been there, I suppose that means I’ve fulfilled one of the five pillars of beer connoisseurism, if there ever were such a thing… I was further taught, that very few countries and peoples can come even close to the Czechs’ annual consumption of the product. From the point of view of Kirin Holdings anyway, who publish regular, global beer consumption statistics, the Czechs routinely top the list, or very close to it. Indeed, in 2012, per capita, the Czechs drank a staggering 148.6 litres of the stuff, which even the Austrians and Germans (in second and third place, respectively), couldn’t get anywhere near, at 107.8 and 106.1 litres. Canadians however, don’t even make the top ten, and the Japanese are way down the list at the 39th spot. Kirin, being a Japanese company, DOES compare all their statistics to Japan however, so the ratios are as follows: Canada – 1.5:1, United States – 1.8:1, Germany – 2.4:1, and Czech Republic, an incredible 3.4:1. It’s no wonder then, that I’ve lived so long, in my sheltered little beer bubble when it came to drinking beer.

Even going into university, my worldview was severely sheltered, and my opinions biased. Having been well indoctrinated with beer nationalism, I was convinced that the Czechs knew best. But those bastions of surety were about to get severely shaken. The first cracks in the walls came when I started brewing my own beer. While I knew that I could not make true, Czech beer, since most of the home brewing products available were far more local in nature, I figured that it was still a Czech making it, which had to count for something. But this was my first exposure to different kinds of beers, and I started reading some of the bibles of the beer world, most notably those by eminent beer taster, writer, and critic, Michael Jackson. His World Guide to Beer was a revolutionary work for me, and the first time for me to see that there was indeed a world far beyond the lagers that I drank and loved. Then, in later years, as the Internet and World Wide Web matured, I was turned onto beer review sites, which further shook the foundations of my beliefs. Sites like Beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com introduced a level of cognitive dissonance to my belief structure that essentially broke the remaining ramparts into rubble.

When I looked at Beeradvocate’s Top 250 beers, I was shocked that Pilsner Urquell wasn’t anywhere in that list. When I searched for the beer, the info page rated it as a “good beer” with a grade of 81/100. Unbelievable! Clearly, this site was full of crap and had no idea what they were talking about. Off I went to ratebeer.com Looked up Pilsner Urquel — Bam! 100/100. That’s what I’m talking about! And yet, it was still rated by drinkers at 3.94/5, which was a far cry away from the top rated beers on the main page… Beers that I’d never heard of, from countries that had absolutely no business brewing beer.

It was a very revealing experience when I moved to Japan. Without getting sidetracked or completely derailed with the generalities, my beer drinking experience was shaped in the very same way as was my whisky-drinking, wine-drinking, and cake-eating. See, all of these products are not particularly Japanese. French pastries, European beers, Scottish whiskys, are all cultural imports that have only been around for the past couple hundred years at best. Yet, the Japanese are masters of knowledge absorption and adaptation. They have this unique ability to create amazing products, and the way it works is something like this.

1) Taste a new product. Concede how fantastically amazing it is, and that you just MUST have more!

2) Begin importing the product.

3) Go on a personal/corporate crusade to learn EVERYTHING there is to know about the product. Become an expert on its history, production, culture, varieties, methods and techniques. Leave no stone unturned. Travel internationally. Taste the best of the best at its source.

4) Bring in the world’s leading experts. Brewmasters from Germany and Belgium, Patisserie chefs from France, vintners from Italy, whisky experts from Scotland, etc. Pay them to begin production in Japan. Alternatively, send people to the source, to apprentice under the masters.

5) Pay close attention and learn EVERYTHING there is to know about creating the product. Glean, and start making it yourself in the style of the masters.

6) Take over operations, start experimenting, and create a product that is not only uniquely Japanese, but in your eyes, an improvement on the original.

7) Dominate.

I saw this happen in so many different industries, it should have been no surprise that beer-making was one of them. There’s a reason why Japanese single-malts consistently win international award after international award, and why whisky drinkers are no less thrilled to get their hands on a bottle of 21 year-old Nikka Taketsuru  (the going price for which is $180 USD), as they would on ANY fine, single-malt scotch from Scotland. Indeed, while Japanese beer consumption is not all that high, there are experts, connoisseurs, and industry intelligentsia that would make your head spin, and are at par with any global beer professional beerdom has to offer. In my first years of living in Japan, I drank pretty much the Japanese equivalents to Budweiser and Molson Canadian… Basic, mass-produced, lager-variety beers that were virtually indistinguishable not only from one another, but from any other such beer in the world. Love Bud? Have a Sapporo. Love Sapporo? Have a Bud. Or an Asahi Super Dry. Or a Kirin. Doesn’t matter — they’re all pretty interchangeable. But then, somehow over time, I got introduced to a new Japanese term that would rock my world: ji-biru. Ji-biru (pronounced: Gee Beer) means “craft beer” in Japanese, and that’s really when my tastebuds started to experience what good beer could actually taste like. I found local pubs that actually specialised in carrying these beers, both in cans and bottles, but also on tap. I also found, that there were literally thousands of craft beers made by small, local breweries all across Japan, and all of them had some unique, often very tasty offerings. I also uncovered a craft beer subculture, to which some of the most unsuspecting people belonged. And it only took 9 years, but I was eventually invited to become a member of the local branch of the “Good Beer Club,” a ji-biru appreciation society that prides itself on the motto that friends don’t let friends drink bad beer. But finally, a Japanese friend thought that I might appreciate some of the beer tasting that the group did, and that I might make a positive contribution to the club. The group was a fairly small one, consisting of no more than a dozen or so members. But each was essentially hand-picked and individually invited to take part. One of the members was the brewmaster of a local craft brewery, called Fujizakura. Hiromichi Miyashita is a bit of a local celebrity, as some of his original creations have won international awards. Both his Rauch (a smoked beer) and Hefeweizen (German, white or wheat beer) have taken gold medals at several international events. He was always great to have at events, as he was a vast wealth of information about all aspects of brewing, but also the various types of beer, tasting, and unique characteristics of each particular variety.

It didn’t take that long for me to really start some serious experimentation with beer. It was then that I realised, that the more beers I tasted, the more beers there were to taste. When I attended a beer festival in Tokyo, I was astounded at the incredible variety. For the first time, I tasted a Palestinian beer called Taybeh. I was quickly impressed by the subtle, fruity tones, in a golden coloured beer that was remarkably easy to drink, and yet, not too sweet. This was my first taste of a beer that was not from what one might consider a beer-drinking country, and yet, quite pleasantly different. But in spite of all my experimentation, the one category of beer that had always been my downfall, was the Weizen. This type of beer, made with at least 50% wheat, has the unique characteristic of producing phenolic compounds during fermentation, giving the final product a very particular flavour. It has a strong taste of vanilla, bananas, oranges, and cloves, and it’s the latter that had bothered me the most. Ever since I was a kid, I had associated the smell and taste of cloves with the topical anaesthetics used by dentists. So the result, whenever I would have a mouthful of Hefeweizen, I’d be reminded of the whole unpleasantness of being at a dentist’s office. Plus, tasting those additional, foreign flavours really put me off, as I had always drunk beers where the prominent notes were either malt or hops to various degrees. Belgian beers then, for the most part, turned me off entirely. In fact, I rapidly began to associate ANYTHING from Belgium with having that sickly, clovesy taste. That is, until I happened to try Leffe. Actually, it was the Leffe Brune, which is a dark ale that doesn’t taste of cloves or spices at all. This was a huge surprise to me, so I went on a quest to see what other Belgian beers I could find that did not have that awful clovesy taste. Before long, I started trying out Chimay, a unique product, traditionally made by the Trappist monks of Belgium. My first Chimay was a Chimay Red — which is not particularly clovesy or spicy, although it is somewhat sweet and fruity, with apricot notes. But having begun to enjoy Chimay Red, I was curious to try the others. So at the suggestion of a friend, my next adventure was Chimay White (tripel). Considered to have the most hops of all the Chimays, it also had a bit of the cloves aftertaste that I was trying to avoid. But much to my surprise, it was not unpleasant. When I finally tried Chimay Blue, what surprised me the most was that it was a 9% alcohol beer, quite sweet, peppery and spicy, everything that I would have despised in a beer only a couple years prior, but this time, enjoyed it immensely. In fact, rather than beer, it was more like a barley beer, again something that I wouldn’t try until a few years after that. Interestingly, I’ve also grown more tolerant and interested in high-alcohol beers. Not because they’ll get you there, but because they have a whole different experience to offer. At a special event in Tokyo, I had the unique privilege of tasting Brewdog’s Tokyo* Imperial Stout, which contains a whopping 18.2% alcohol! It was served after a very fancy meal, in the same way one might enjoy a digestif, or after-meal liquor. Indeed, I would not wish to drink it in excess, and it was really made to be sipped, rather than gulped. Incidentally, Brewdog is the brewery responsible for creating the world’s strongest beer, The End of History, with an alcohol content of 55%, which sold for £700 a bottle, and was bottled inside a taxidermied squirrel. No, really! While I never got to taste the brew, I did get to play with the squirrel, which Brewdog’s brewmaster brought along to Japan with him.
My first Hefeweizen that I set out to try on purpose (and not stumble into accidentally) was the award winning Fujizakura. I still remember, that when I first sat down to drink it, I knew what I was in for, and yet, steeled myself for the inevitable shot of strong cloves. And then, much to my great surprise, found that I didn’t even focus on that particular flavour. Rather, I tasted the beautiful citrus notes, light spices, with hints of banana, and wheaty aroma. I was amazed at how good it really was. Now, I’d be lying if I said that this has become my favourite beer but I do admit that I’m glad to have overcome this huge hurdle to my understanding and enjoyment of a large swath of the beer world. Nowadays, especially in the summer, there’s nothing that I enjoy more than a good, craft-brewed Weizen.

The next revelation for me came in the form of a home brew… Actually, it wasn’t truly a home brew in the literal sense of the world, but rather a brew-on-premise beer. About two years ago, and a full year before deciding to make Victoria, BC our home, I was visiting friends on a holiday to Canada. Since moving to Japan, we had made efforts to make biannual visits in order to keep up with friends, family, and Canadian culture. Most of our previous visits however, had centred around Alberta, and more specifically, Edmonton. This time, we made B.C. our prime destination, and in particular, the lower mainland and Vancouver Island. Long story short, we were at a house party where someone had brought several bottles of an extremely tasty beer that I hadn’t ever heard of before. I asked, what it was that I was drinking, and enjoying so much. To my great surprise, the beer’s maker told me that it was his own creation, and part of a limited batch from his private collection. Intrigued, I asked if it was a home brew. He responded that it was, but not in the common understanding of the term. The beer was a brew-on-premise — something I hadn’t ever heard of before (especially given that I had spent the past years living in a country where home brewing was strictly forbidden and quite illegal).

For those unfamiliar, a brew-on-premise beer is essentially a custom-commissioned beer that is made at a small, commercial brewery, on behalf of a customer. It’s a “home brew” in the sense that the customer comes in to the brewery, pitches the yeast themselves, and then shows up again a few weeks later once the fermentation process has completed, to bottle the creation and take it home. Depending on the operation, people have the option to be as closely involved with their beer’s production as they wish, including measuring out raw ingredients, boiling, pouring, and operating the equipment. Alternatively, leaving just about everything to the full-time, professional staff is also possible. The history of brew-on-premise services is interesting, and much of the initial impetus behind the movement had to do with otherwise high taxes that beer drinkers were keen to avoid. It wasn’t long however, before people started to discover the advantages in having access to professional, commercial-grade facilities and equipment that would result in a final product that could taste even better than the liquor store offerings, and at a fraction of the price too.

What I found, with my trip to B.C., was that more often than not, the real “beer people,” that is to say, the ones for whom beer represents a culture and lifestyle choice as much as it does a beverage, are the ones who are open to the world of beer and do not restrict themselves simply to a particular product or style. I found that the ones who actively participated in brew-on-premise production, weren’t simply out there to make and drink a cheap product. These were people who would experiment, taste, create, enjoy, inspire, and get inspired by a wide variety of beers. The people who were most involved in brew-on-premise, were the same people who would be out at the local pubs, enjoying the hundreds of locally made craft beers, from an amazing selection of local breweries. Indeed, a trip to just about any liquor store was an adventure, with the shelves and coolers stocked with a dizzying varieties of brands and labels that I never even know existed. It was then that I also realised that the beer connoisseur’s mecca was not in Pilsen, Czech Republic — it was in Victoria, B.C.

One thought on “The Zen of Beer (Part One of Two)

  1. Pingback: Atley Jonas.com | The Unique Beer Culture of Vancouver Island (Part Two of Two)

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