Find the Gimmick: A Taste of Three Unusual Japanese Beers

Generally speaking, I’m not a beer drinker. But I am easily duped by gimmicky foods and drinks to try. A recent stay in Japan, one of my top three culinary countries (thus far), reminded me of the emphasis on seasonality of ingredients in Japanese cuisine, as well as how carried away some places get when they’re famous for a particular edible.

Yes, getting carried away is a popular theme throughout the country, so there’s no better place to start than one of my coolest day trips in recent memory, the Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), located in HotakaNagano prefecture. I will do more of a detailed post on this place at a later time, but for now, take everything that you believe to be the true flavor of wasabi, and hurl it out the window.

And if someone offers you wasabeer, ehem, wasabi beer, staunchly reject it.

Japanese wasabi beer
Wasabi Beer (わさびビール), Daio Wasabi Farm, Hotaka, Japan

Ah, so we’ve already located the gimmick … right? Time will tell.

Yes, wasabi beer was one of a number of unusual offerings at the farm, tinted green, and flecked with grated wasabi. It had a little bite, but it didn’t help that the flavor of the beer itself was not so pleasant. Still, you go in with an open mind, and you leave for the first time with a simultaneous hangover and nasal decongestant.

Following that brush with Japan’s most famous rhizome, it was time to move on to more stable beer choices. Continuing with the theme of trying regional food, a three-night stay at the Tateshina Shinyu Onsen in Chino, Nagano prefecture both reintroduced me to the joys of sampling nihonshu (日本酒), or what we call in the west as sake, and introduced me to rhubarb beer.

Rhubarb, I hardly know ye. Outside of a pie, I may have only tried your sour root once. However, your flavor lends itself quite well to fill a stein.

Japanese rhubarb beer
Rhubarb Beer (ルバーブビール), Tateshina Shinyu Onsen, Chino, Japan

Yatsugatake Rhubarb House produced this particular brand, using rhubarb grown at the foot of the Southern Yatsugatake mountain range (link in Japanese). Uncommonly known as the “lemon of the field,” rhubarb, being quite tart, is most commonly use  in sauces, dressings, and jams. Though, since beer often has a sour note, I’d say rhubarb was a pretty good flavor profile for this unexpected pairing.

Moving along to the last of the three unusual beers, let’s hoof it to Kanazawa, the largest city in Ishikawa prefecture, on the Sea of Japan. Now, this ingredient is much more widely known, grown, eaten, and imbibed around the world, but usually it’s a glass of wine.

That’s right, I’m talking about grape beer.

In a quest to try the elusive — and expensive — Ruby Roman grape, I visited the Budou no Mori vineyard and restaurant in the Morimoto neighborhood of Kanazawa. Even though I failed in my search that time, I still had a delicious buffet of autumnal specialties, a grape parfait, and yes, even grape beer.

Japanese grape beer
Grape Beer (ぶどうビール), Budou no Mori, Kanazawa, Japan

The description on the menu above reads that the grape beer is the pride of Budou no Mori (which means “grape forest”), and is a harmony of the sweetness and slight bitterness of grapes. I’d have to say that description was spot-on, and formed a tie with the rhubarb beer as my favorite of the three (not that wasabi beer ever had much of a chance). Come to think of it, it might as well have been a dessert beer, so I wonder which types of grapes were used.


Would you try any/all of these three beers?

Kvint Brandy, Transnistria’s Most Popular Culinary Export

Sadly, Transnistria has been in the news lately vis-a-vis the heart-wrenching conflict in Ukraine. I’ve written this post simply to introduce to you Transnistria’s chief export, Kvint brandy, which is so popular that it even makes an appearance on their currency.

While traveling through Eastern Europe a few years ago, I ended up in Chisinau (or Kishinev), the capital of Moldova.  It’s a small but busy city in the former Soviet republic, in which Romanian and Russian are the principal languages– Romanian due to its ethnic and historical ties to the region of Bessarabia, and Russian for its annexation by the Soviet Union.

Using Chisinau as my base, I looked in to possible day trips; after a brief search, one particularly unique locale popped up: Transnistria.

It was an anachronistic trip to Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, given the Soviet-era monuments and buildings, but this is a blog about food and drink, right?  Indeed…and it’s time to introduce Transnistria’s most famous culinary export, Kvint brandy.

KVINT -an acronym which translates to “divins, wines, and beverages of Tiraspol” – was founded in 1897 as Moldovan producer of wine and vodka.  Divin is an abbreviated way of saying brandy (from the Romanian phrase “distilat de vin), with a pun taken from the Romanian word divin signifying “divine” or “marvelous.”

KVINT introduced brandy to its collection in 1938, and has since formed quite the formidable presence in Transnistria, accounting for 4-5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP)!

The company is now owned by a local conglomerate called Sheriff, which runs everything from supermarkets to the recently successful football club Sheriff Tiraspol.

To show its national appreciation to KVINT, I guess, the central Transnistrian bank added its headquarters to the back of its 5-ruble banknote:

To add a personal anecdote to the backgrounder, when I first made it to Tiraspol, I went to a Sheriff market looking for a bottle, having been tipped off to the brandy from a nice hotel worker in Chisinau.

Long story short, a few older women chuckled at me as I wandered the streets of the Transnistrian capital, brandy in one hand, camera in the other.

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