Dogged drinking

21 05 2011

Despite my professed love for beer, I’m pretty much a failure. It’s Good Beer Week in Victoria, a week-long celebration of the current beer renaissance we are experiencing in this country, and I’m yet to turn up to a single one of the official events. I was particularly keen on two BrewDog tastings happening at Chapel St Cellars – a sample of eight different BrewDogs on Tuesday night, which I missed due to certain music commitments, and Sunday night’s BrewDog Abstrakt AB:01 – AB:05 tasting, which is now sold out because I’m slow and stupid.

To compensate for this, I headed on over to Chapel St Cellars anyway, as the miser in me couldn’t say no to free tastings of paired beverages from the Kiuchi Brewery in Japan, particularly known for their range of Hitachino Nest beers. First up was Hitachino Nest White Ale, which had the classic cirtrus’n’coriander hallmarks of that style, but felt a touch too light in body for my liking. This was paired with Kiuchi Umeshu, which was was sensational. Full-bodied and well-balanced, it doesn’t stray too far into the sweet or tart ends of the umeshu spectrum. Great on the nose as well – if you needed any further proof that the ume is a closer botanical relative of the apricot than of the plum, all you need to do is take a whiff of the empty glass. The Kiuchi Umeshu is like sticking your head into a bag of dried apricots.

Next up was Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale, a beer for which I expressed great fondness in another post about a month or two ago. The maturation in cedar casks adds a unique depth to it, I only wish I could say the same for myself after having sat around in a cedar bathtub in Japan for an hour. Anyway, if you’re familiar with the smell of cedar you’ll likely pick up a whiff of it in the Classic Ale. This was paired with Kikusakari Junmai Tarusake, a nihonshu (what we more commonly call “sake” in English) also casked in cedar. For all my time spent in Japan I know a pitifully small amount about this type of drink, as the styles and varieties can be as equally varied and intimidating (although, mercifully, not as pretentious) as anything the world of wine can throw at you. Unto that, I’ll just say that I really liked it. Great mouthfeel, wonderful flavour, perfectly suited to room temperature.

And I liked the Junmai Tarusake and the umeshu so much I decided to buy full bottles of them.

The final round of tastings presented the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale. Something of an enigma really, wasn’t sure what to make of it, although I’m keen to pick up a full bottle so I can give it another go. Lots of flavours and nuances seemed to be competing for attention in this one. Naturally, this was paired with Kikusakari Asamurasaki, a red rice sake. First time I’ve tried a rice wine that wasn’t clear or white, actually. Not bad, although a little thinner on the palate than what I’m used to. Perhaps I spent too much time in Japan getting blasted on rough-as-guts convenience store nihonshu.

A thoroughly unspectacular photo of my glass of BrewDog Tokyo... but you've gotta try this drink. Seriously.

Not to be let down by my inaction to secure a spot in the BrewDog tastings, I finished off the afternoon by ordering a glass of the notorious 18.2% BrewDog Tokyo, the release of which twisted the knickers of numerous clueless lobby groups. To think that people would abuse this drink is absurd. I’d wager that anyone who orders a Tokyo knows exactly what they’re in for, and you’d be deranged to think you could pound this like a cheap pot of lager. If you wanted to get blotto and destroy your liver, you could pick up a bottle of spirits for the same price as a bottle of Tokyo (and at an infinitely greater number of locations, considering the rarity of the Tokyo), so whatever criticisms these quasi-temperance nannies wish to level at BrewDog are completely illegitimate. Anyway, this is by far the richest and most intense beer I’ve ever come across (and probably will be until I one day try the Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink The Bismarck), it’s reminiscent of the dense fruitiness of a dark fortified wine, we’re getting into spicy pudding/treacle territory here. Delicious, astounding stuff. And great value at Chapel St Cellars at $8 for what I think was a 150mL glass. Doesn’t sound like much, but I spent almost 40 minutes on it. I didn’t ask whether or not they had some bottles for sale, although I’m determined to pick up a few if they’re still available somewhere.

So, that concludes it for another post. Let’s hope I’m a little more on the ball next time Good Beer Week rolls around.

Edit (22/05/11): I waltzed back into Chapel St Cellars this afternoon to find that the Abstrakt tasting was actually taking place at 2:30pm, and there happened to be a cancellation. Some sort of beer deity must be looking kindly upon me… a post on that event to come in the near future.


D-I-Y umeshu

3 01 2011

Of the collective two-and-a-half years I’ve spent living in Japan, one of my regrets (I’ve had a few…) is not having a crack at making umeshu. As the mercury begins to nudge toward some rather unpleasant summer temperatures, made all the worse by the vile humidity, the supermarkets start to sell all the ingredients and gear you need to make umeshu at home – generally speaking, a bag of unripe ume , a bag of white rock sugar, a huge carton of white spirit (or sometimes brandy) specifically made for D-I-Y homemade hooch, and a jar into which you throw all the ingredients. (For a fantastically informative blog post showing how it’s done properly, check this out).

Anyway, pretty much none of this shit is available in Australia.

Well, sure, you can find huge jars, but it’s difficult to come across the specific type of double-lid jars they like to use for umeshu. And, well, yes, I suppose you can find white rock sugar, but being a neurotic pedant of sorts, I was after a Japanese brand, which appears to be unavailable here. And the Japanese-made white spirits? Forget about it.

The greatest nuisance of all is that Australia appears to be virtually devoid of commercially available ume. I asked around at Japanese grocers, I called up orchards, I searched online. Nothing. I even downloaded a 124-page report titled “Development of Prunus mume, a new tree crop for Australia” (Prunus mume is the scientific name for the tree which bears the ume fruit) written by some egghead botanists from the Australian Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. I probably should’ve got in touch with those folks to ask them if there had been any developments since the publication of the report in March 2007, although in all likelihood they would have been busy getting their jollies talking about stamens and carpels with other flora junkies.

BUT!… it turns out, after trawling through some ethnobotany forums, that an unripe apricot isn’t all that dissimilar from the particular type of ume used to make umeshu. So, what the hell, I thought I’d give it a go. I grabbed a few bags of unripe apricots from Prahran Markets, getting ripped off in the process due to it being the very start of the apricot season, then bought a 1.25L bottle of Smirnoff vodka and a 750mL bottle of mugi-shochu (a 25%abv Japanese spirit made from wheat), and an assortment of different sugars – white sugar, light muscovado sugar, and black Japanese rock sugar. I also incorporated a bottle of Bacardi white rum which had been lying around in my liquor cupboard, unwanted and unused – and deservedly so – for a number of years. I’m yet to come across an umeshu recipe that mentions rum, but I figured a little experimentation couldn’t hurt. Finally, I picked up some shitty jars at one of those shops that sell a plethora of cheap and tacky homewares.

I made three different batches:

Jar 1: Smirnoff, mugi-shochu, white sugar.

Jar 2: Smirnoff, Japanese black rock sugar.

Jar 3: Bacardi white, mugi-shochu, muscovado sugar.


Gotta love drug company freebies, especially Post-It notes. Imigran can be used to treat migraines, so I may very well need a handful of them after drinking this crap. And I know it's a poor photo - I'm sorry - but I'll post up a better one once the booze has matured a little.

The jars really are shoddy, turns out they don’t even seal properly, hence all the layers of cling-wrap.

Most umeshu recipes recommend steeping the fruits in the liquid for a period of at least six months, although apparently this period of time can be shortened when using vodka. I made them on November 16, so perhaps I’ll give them at little taste in mid-February, then declare it open season on May 16. If any of them turn out to be a success, I’ll whip up enough to kill a small army next apricot season. Regardless of the results, you’ll be hearing about them here.

One final nit-picking point I’d like to make is that the word “umeshu” is frequently, and incorrectly, translated into English as “plum wine”. Ume are not plums, nor is umeshu a wine – it’s a liqueur. Best to just call it “umeshu”, as “a liqueur made from an Asian fruit which is somewhat similar to an unripe apricot” is a little unwieldy for a label.