For a young Japanese entrepreneur, Shiro Yamada has a perhaps unlikely-sounding hero: Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, lawyer, accountant, son of an Indian army general, and the first Parsi to sit in the British House of Lords. Bilimoria’s establishment credentials were enough to get him in the Royal Box at the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations last year. “He’s like Steve Jobs to me,” Yamada says.
Bilimoria earned Yamada’s admiration for being the man who founded Cobra Beer in 1989, to be the curry eater’s beer: designed specifically to complement food, with lower carbonation and a smoother taste. Yamada, who had worked as a venture capitalist, and been involved in dot-com start-ups in Japan, was studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, part of Cambridge University, around 2005 when Bilimoria, himself a Cambridge graduate, came to deliver a presentation to students at Judge on the Cobra operation.
Yamada had already become interested in beer after going drinking with fellow students around Cambridge, and taken trips to Belgium and Munich to widen his beery knowledge. Listening to Bilimoria talk about his desire to brew a beer that would match up with Indian food, Yamada had a revelation. What about a beer specifically brewed to match up with Japanese food?
The Japanese have been brewing beer since the mid-1870s, after Seibei Nakagowa came back to the town of Sapporo having spent two years learning how to make lager at the Tivoli brewery in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Today, despite a reputation in the West for mass-produced blandobeers, Japan is the home of a thriving microbrewing scene with some excellent products – Yo-Ho Brewing’s SunSun lager was one of my personal beers of the year for 2012.
However, no one seems to have thought to do anything for Japanese food what Bilimoria did for curry: design a special beer to fit in with and enhance the different dishes. That, Yamada, decided, would be his task. “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK,” Yamada says, “beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.”
It took four years, and 14 different recipes, making adjustments along the way, but eventually Yamada picked two typically Japanese flavourings, sanshō, or Japanese pepper, most famously used for flavouring baked eel, but also used on yakitori (chicken skewers) and other dishes; and yuzu, a citrus fruit that looks like marriage between a grapefruit and a mandarin, and also, apparently, tastes like a cross between grapefruit and sour mandarin as well. Yuzu zest, or outer rind, is used in sauces and to flavour miso soup, while yuzu juice goes into ponzu sauce, vinegar and (like other citrus fruits) cakes and marmalades.
With those two flavourings, Yamada designed two beers, best (if unfairly) described in shorthand as falling in the “Belgian strong golden ale/brune” department, one daffodil yellow and called Kagua Blonde, the other ruddy cornelian and called Kagua Rouge. The name “Kagua” comes from the two kanji, or characters, for “Japan aroma”, if I’m reading my notes from dinner correctly, and Yamada (whose surname, strangely, the 13th commonest in Japan, is made up of two of the very few kanji characters I can read, 山田, meaning “mountain field”) told me: “Kagua is the conclusion of my work – my baby.”
The beers are brewed at the De Graal brewery in East Flanders, on the edge of the Flemish Ardennes, and the sanshō and yuzu that give them their aroma and flavour, grown by “top quality producers who have exceptional reputations”, according to Yamada, are flown out to Belgium from Japan, 6,000 miles. Once the beer is brewed, then it has to make the journey back again, to go on sale in Japanese restaurants and bars. Yamada says he went to Japanese brewers to try go get his beers made “but in terms of quality and passion” nobody matched Wim Saeyens, the brewer at De Graal: “He instantly understood the concept of the beer, that the goal was to make a high-end beer to be enjoyed on high-dining occasions.”
The beer pairing dinner I met Yamada at in Hong Kong was certainly high-end: a private room off the £100-a-head Philippe Stark-designed Felix restaurant on the 28th floor of the five-star Peninsula hotel in Kowloon, with a panoramic night-time view over Victoria harbour of the lights of Hong Kong. The food, five courses of Asian-tinged French excellence, culminating in roast beer tenderloin and beer-braised beef tongue with cinnamon pumpkin, shallots, celeriac and endive, was as good as you could wish for in such a venue. The beers – well, the beers were excellent, actually, at the same time both not quite like any beers you will have had before and rooted firmly in beery tradition.
The Kagua Blonde, which was paired to start with a couple of fish dishes, scallop carpaccio and pan-seared shrimp, and accompanied them both like a concert-hall pianist with a bright young soprano, was beautifully perfumey, with a good, tight, aromatic head, a strongly rose-like nose from the sanshō, and a sharp bitterness on the swallow that came from the yuzu more than the hops. The Rouge, which more than held its own with the beef, has less of the sanshō than the Blonde does, and more of a sage-like note in the front, with less herby bitterness and a fuller, sweeter mouthfeel, while red fruits – cherries, raspberries – come through at the beginning. The Rouge is kettle-hopped with Tomahawk (alias Columbus) for bitterness and Styrian Goldings for aroma, though Yamada says he is going to stop using the aroma hop as it does not seem to be adding anything worthwhile.
The Blonde is 8 per cent abv, the Rouge 9 per cent – “It’s better to have a beer with body for food,” Yamada says – each is bottle-conditioned, each comes with a label designed to echo the traditional Japanese kimono, and each is served deliberately in a plain, stemmed wine glass, exactly as a fine wine would be. Both beers were designed with their main purpose being food pairing, Yamada says, “but I don’t want to limit the possibilities.” Certainly the Blonde is a great beer for sipping in tiny quantities, as it fills the mouth with tremendous, lasting flavour.
The Kagua range was launched in Japan in March last year, and is now in 170 top-end restaurants and hotels in the country. Launches in Singapore and Hong Kong took place last autumn, and the beers sell in the better class of Hong Kong hotel for HK$148 a time – £12, or two to three times what you would be paying for an American imported beer in one of the city’s specialist beer bars.
Brewers have been banging on about getting diners to appreciate beer with food for many decades now, and there have been numerous attempts to launch a “beer designed to go with food” in the past. The Kagua pair are the first two I can recall which actually hit that target: and the reason, I’m sure, is because they are foremost a couple of excellent beers.
Four hundred years ago British brewers used “culinary” herbs, such as rosemary, sage and even mint, to flavour their ales, a tradition that has now been almost entirely lost. When Shiro Yamada’s Nippon Craft Beer company starts shipping the Kagua range to Europe and the US, which is planned to happen some time this year, perhaps it might encourage Western brewers to start looking at reviving some Tudor and Stuart-style beers, from the days when food without beer would have been unthinkable.