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Wednesday
Aug312011

Aki Aji

   I love a good beer so much so that I once toyed with the idea of becoming a professional brewer. That was back when I was in college, studying pre-med and putting my education to good use by making a batch of beer every few months in my mother’s kitchen.

   While the new microbrew craze was about to take Portland by storm--the Widmer Brothers and McMenamins had only been in business a few years by then--home-brewing was still a novelty. And, the beer-making kits that would take a lot of the guesswork (not to mention the exploding bottles) out of brewing were not yet available. Let me tell you, it was a helluva lot of fun.

   My good friend and fellow gourmand Paul--a law student at the time and successful environmental lawyer today--and I would go to a supplier called F.H. Steinbart located on the east side of Portland to stock up on malt, hops, roasted barley, yeast, and so on. If we had extra money, which was rare, we’d also pick up a new piece of equipment, such as a bottle capper, to make the brewing process easier.

   We’d get together on a Friday or Saturday evening and spend the next several hours listening to music, knocking back beers, and bullshitting as we mixed the malted barley, grains, and hops that would make our wort, the liquid to which yeast is added to produce alcohol. After a lot of trial and error, and I mean a lot, we started to produce some pretty good beers.

   Now that I look back on those days, I realize that it was one of the few times during my “Oregon Period” that I was truly happy. After struggling for a year and a half, school had become fun and stimulating. More focused on my studies than ever in my life, I was at the top or a close second in all of my classes, breezing through subjects like physics, organic chemistry, and anatomy that half the class struggled to earn only a passing grade in. A few years later, everything would unravel and, by and by, I’d end up in Japan, but I’ll save that story for another day.

   As I wrote earlier in the Alsterwasser post, I was exposed to beer at a  rather tender age while an exchange student in Germany. One of the highlights of that year abroad was working for a month at the Göttinger Brauerei. Regrettably, the brewery no longer exists; the memories of my internship there, however, remain fresh thirty years later.

   With so many happy memories associated with beer, it was hard for me to accept my doctor’s advice to give the drink up. For the past two years, I have been struggling to get my uric acid level down. Elevated levels of the compound in the blood lead to gout, a painful form of arthritis in the smaller bones of the feet.

   Tell anyone in Japan that you’ve got the gout and they’ll laugh. In Japanese the disease--if you can call really it one, seems more like an inconvenience--is called tsûfû (痛風, literally “painful wind”). They consider it a zeitaku byô (贅沢病), that is, a disease caused by extravagant, luxurious living. While beer isn’t the only culprit in your typical gout case, it certainly is in mine: all the other foods, such as liver, which are high in purines, the crystalline compound which forms uric acid upon oxidation, seldom, if ever, pass my mouth.

   And so, tonight I say good-bye to my dear friend, beer. Not forever, mind you--I could never go completely without the occasional pint--but, I will refrain from having even one brewski until the end of the year at which time I’ll get my blood checked again to see if I have been too rash in maligning my friend. (God give me the strength to get through Oktoberfest.)

   It was tempting to go out in style, to, say, get a nice pint of Guinness at the neighborhood Irish pub, Half Penny, but then this blog would have little meaning. So, I opened up the last can of beer in my fridge: KIRIN’s Aki Aji (秋味).

   When I first came to Japan, most large-scale brewers came out with seasonal beers. They weren’t anything like the bockbiers or doppelbocks that you can find in Germany--heavy beers with extra malt and higher alcohol contents that are brewed for holidays such as Christmas or Father’s Day--but they were still nice.

   I first tried Aki Aji late in the summer of ’92. My girlfriend at the time, a real boozer, had brought a couple bottles of the stuff to my apartment and I remember looking at the label and asking what the kanji meant. (Parents and kids, never overlook an opportunity to learn something new! Even when you’re knocking back suds.) She translated Aki Aji as “Autumn Taste” and I’ll never forget how awkward that translation sounded. I suggested “The Flavor of Autumn” as a better rendering and took a drink of the beer.

   To this day, Aki Aji is still one of my favorite Japanese beers. Darker than most of the lagers and pilsners available in Japan, it is not as bitter as many of the “premium” beers, such as Ebisu and Suntory Premium Malts, tend to be. Brewed with 1.3 times more malt than ordinary beers and containing slightly more alcohol, Aki Aji is available from late August. The funny thing about this beer, and other autumn seasonal brew, is that it often sells out long before autumn has actually started.

   Kampai!

 

KIRIN 秋味 (Kirin Aki Aji)

6% Alc/Vol

Rate: ★★★★

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