Most beer drinkers in Singapore would be very familiar with Kirin; the Japanese beer brand has been the choice of many beer lovers here since it was officially launched back in 2010. What some may not realise is that there are actually two variants of Kirin beer currently available in the local market – Kirin Lager Beer, and the brand’s flagship offering, the Ichiban Shibori.
But first, a little about the history of beer in Japan.
Prior to the 1850s, isolationist Japan was largely closed off from the rest of the world for over two centuries until it was diplomatically prised open by the Americans in 1854. Yet even in the 17th century Japan still had limited connections, particularly with China and the Ryukyu Kingdom (which we known today as Okinawa), as well as with the Dutch. It was through the Dutch that Japan first encountered beer; a beer hall opened in Nagasaki by Dutch traders to serve its sailors operating throughout the Dutch empire exposed the Japanese to the bitter brew the rest of the world knew as beer.
A monument set up to commemorate Kirin’s original Yamate brewery that was destroyed by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923.
But when Japan ditched its isolationist policy, it finally opened the floodgates to Western influences. Yokohoma, a sleepy fishing village, was designated as one of the very few official ports for foreign ships to call, and quickly became the base of foreign trade in Japan and the gateway to the rest of the country. One of those foreigners to arrive was Norwegian-American William Copeland, and it was in Yokohama that the trained brewer in late 1869 would set up Spring Valley Brewery, one of the first – if not the first – beer breweries in Japan.
Japan Brewery Company Limited then took over Spring Valley Brewery in 1885, which started to make Kirin Beer in 1888 and later was renamed Kirin Brewery Company in 1907. Its competitor Sapporo Beer by Sapporo Brewery was founded in 1876, while another key rival Asahi Breweries traces its heritage to its precursor Osaka Beer Brewing Company that was founded in 1889, which launched Asahi Beer in 1892.
Kirin – the Japanese version of the Chinese “qilin” (麒麟) – is named after the mythical creature in east Asian cultures that symbolises prosperity.
As you can see the story of Kirin is intimately intertwined with the history of beer in the country; it can be argued that Kirin helped kickstart Japan’s beer industry, which today produces over 700 million gallons of beer – enough to fill 1,100 Olympic-size swimming pools – annually.
The First Press Method
Barley malt, a key ingredient in the making of beer.
Many of the brewers who moved to Japan during the ensuing Meiji period were German; in fact, so too were most of the malt and hops imported into the country to make beer. With talent, techniques and ingredients being mostly German, the beer style that have endured in Japan to this day unsurprisingly is the German lager. Today, the top-selling product for each of the five biggest commercial beer brewers in Japan is a take on that style; for example, Kirin’s Lager Beer (which you can find locally in Japanese megamart Meidi-ya) .
But while the Kirin Lager Beer – thanks to the inclusion of rice as an adjunct in its making – would not have conformed the German Reinheitsgebot beer purity law, Kirin’s flagship all-malt Ichiban Shibori certainly does. More importantly though, the Ichiban Shibori employs an uncommon technique in beer making that’s been widely discarded in modern brewing.
First press wort, pictured left, is much darker than second press wort on the right.
Ichiban Shibori actually means “first press” in Japanese, and it refers to the method takes place during the end of the mashing process when the ground-up malt (known as the grist) has been steeped in water to extract its sugars and create a sugary-sweet liquid known as wort. But while most breweries would follow that with sparging during the lautering process – a technique to extract any remaining sugars by washing the mash with water, thereby increasing yield – the first press method eschews that step altogether and collects only the initial wort.
This is conceptually rather similar to free-run juice in winemaking – where juice is collected before any berries are pressed – or the fukurozuri (袋吊り) drip method of making sake, in which the mash is hung in bags to separate the sake from the lees without the use of any external pressure.
Wellington-based New Zealand cult brewery Garage Project makes a beer called Hatsukoi, a Japanese-style pilsner that uses the first press method. Brewer Pete Gillespie readily credits Kirin for inspiring them to experiment with the technique.
But what does this mean in terms of taste? The problem with sparging is that it can lead to the extraction of tannins from the grist, resulting in the beer made with it more harsh and bitter. The first press method on the other hand creates a luxurious and rich wort that can make a refined and full-bodied beer without any undesirable flavours, shares Takaichi Tamaoki, the deputy brewery manager of Kirin’s Yokohama Brewery.
What’s interesting is that the first press method isn’t really any kind of modern innovation. In a time when brewers hadn’t quite discovered sparging, first pressing was actually the norm. After the process came about, obtaining higher yields through sparging made plenty of sense – why waste all of the residual sugars in the mash?
Mao Sugihara, deputy brewmaster of Kirin’s Yokohoma Brewery (left), and Takaichi Tamaoki, the deputy brewery manager (centre).
Mao Sugihara, deputy brewmaster of Kirin’s Yokohoma Brewery, agrees that the first press method can sound wasteful. “There’s no second pressing done (to make small beer or happoshu), so the spent grain is sold off as animal feed,” he explains. “There are some very happy cows and pigs in Japan.”
But deputy brewery manager Tamaoki insists that the result is worth it. Since its introduction in 1990, he says that Kirin Ichiban Shibori has captured the imagination – and palate – of the Japanese beer drinker with its quality but also its harmony with Japanese cuisine. “The smooth crispness of Kirin Ichiban Shibori is a great accompaniment to more delicate Japanese dishes,” he says.
Kirin Ichiban Shibori is a great accompaniment to any Japanese meal.
The truth is that most beer drinkers are unlikely to appreciate how the intricacies of the first press method help contribute to the flavour profile of the Kirin Ichiban Shibori they hold in their hands. But to Kirin’s Takaichi Tamaoki and Mao Sugihara that doesn’t quite matter – both of them are quite happy as long as consumers know they’re holding a quality product.
You can find Kirin Ichiban at all major supermarkets and convenience stores islandwide.
* Thanks to Kirin Brewery Company and Asia Pacific Breweries for arranging this visit to the Kirin Yokohama Brewery.