Whilst its reputation as a renowned and celebrated craft beer brewery is undisputable, what exactly Mikkeller has to do with Japan or its culture that would warrant a spot in this magazine is somewhat less obvious… at least at first.
Indeed, the innovative and quirky brewery (founded 2006, in Copenhagen, Denmark) operate one of their characteristically trendy bars in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. Yet, speaking from personal experience, (much as I enjoyed a pint and a chat there last Summer), the sociable barman was American, the beautiful beer was brewed in Denmark, and if I hadn’t swivelled my barstool 180 degrees to look back out onto the Dogenzaka street, I could have easily believed that I was sitting in any one of their Copenhagen locations, or Reykjavik or Oslo.
Again, I’ve tried, tested and loved all of those bars, but I had a much more authentically Japanese beer experience in the Ottotto brewery bar, literally a minute’s walk away from Mikkeller Tokyo.
The connection, however, is one much more affordable and accessible than a trip to Japan, especially at the minute. There are other options but today, it comes in the form of a 500ml can of lager. Again, the instant association is probably to continental Europe. But, wait! This is Japanese Rice Lager.
Details are unfortunately a little vague; even Mikkeller’s website doesn’t go much further into the exact rice used. Japonica may be a decent guess, and it’s likely that actual sake brewing rice is reserved for the pumped-up Sake Bomb beer the brewery has also created (8% ABV) as part of this little experiment. However, even without confirmation, its intriguing enough for me to let my senses do the exploring, without too much worrying about technical details.
The beer pours from its (unmistakably Mikkeller) Japanese-inspired can, a watery, light golden colour. There’s plenty of carbonation, but not much head, so little chance of being able to pour it as one might do in Germany.
Depending on one’s opinion, it’s either strikingly different in appearance from a lot of craft brewery produced lager in a very interesting way, or looks suspiciously like a cheap, diluted mass-produced swill.
For me, the quality is confirmed right from the aroma. Distinctly dry, reminiscent of hay and sawdust, with an underlying rice characteristic; not dissimilar to certain junmai or honjozo sake examples, perhaps. There’s also a wafting booziness, though 5% is far from strong in today’s modern beer scene.
The taste is definitely where things really get interesting. I’m struck by how easy Japanese Rice Lager is to drink. Its extremely well-balanced, with absolutely no bitterness, and pleasant dryness on the finish. I’m surprised that there is only minimal sweetness, and less so by the lack of malt character, although this isn’t of course brewed entirely from a rice base.
There is a gentle, short and crisp finish in the first instance, but what really makes this special is the aftertaste. Fragrant, perfume notes and a sort of dancing nuttiness rise back into my senses on swallowing. It’s this final sensation that makes this an unmistakable and unforgettable beer. I’m confident that even inexperienced beer drinkers would easily identify it in blind tastings against other high-quality lagers on this characteristic.
Japanese Rice Lager is a puzzlingly complex, yet extremely moreish beer. Far removed from soulless, corporate beers that use rice as a low-cost (and taste!) alternative to malt. Instead, here it has been expertly used to add real personality and create a unique and special drinking experience.
Surely, the aforementioned Sake Bomb – Japanese Rice Lager’s high strength counterpart, can only build on this enticing complexity? But that’s for another day.
That Mikkeller have previously collaborated with Ishikawa prefecture nihonshu producers, Mioya Shuzo on a genuine sake (sorry – long since sold out and discontinued, I already checked!) shows a real passion of the Scandinavian brewery for rice-based alcoholic beverages and expanding them into the Western market.
Even if Japanese Rice Lager is the most ‘ordinary’ of their flirtations in the field, it’s an incredibly tasty brew for all palates, that one will struggle to find a convincing comparison point for in the beer world.
Bio: Jordan Smithcroft is a Manchester-based healthcare worker with an interest in Japanese culture, including Studio Ghibli, Haruki Murakami and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Having travelled to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in 2019, he hopes to return to see more of Japan in the near future.
Jordan was shortlisted for the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Best Young Beer Writer in 2016 and has since expanded his interest into sake. He recently passed his level one sake education qualification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and hopes of becoming a judge and educator.