Beer Review: Kirin Heartland (ハートランドビール)

Price: 250 yen
Served in: 500mL bottle
In a few words: So damn close

Kirin's endearingly dubbed Heartland was the first bottle of suds I tried here that actually made something beery bubble up in my mind. I'd like to say that it made my taste buds scream, "Beer!" but really, what I got was more of a whimper, enough to make me think, "Beer... ?" In my book, this is an accomplishment by Japanese standards.

I tried this brew at the Beat Cafe in Shibuya, a favorite after-work drinking hole for me and my coworkers. It's stored in a fridge on the customer side of the bar; you grab one and plop it on the counter, and the bartender furnishes the bottle opener. It comes in a green, 500mL bottle, without any label to speak of except a small leaf around the neck. The front of the bottle is engraved with an attractive logo (also found on the cap) and the credo, "In Every Spirit & Every Season, Everywhere." Pretty ridiculous claim, if you ask me, but the bottle itself was a nice touch in a country where the can is king.

It starts off with a refreshing, pretty hoppy tang, sustains a barely discernible piney effect, and finishes with some sweet maltiness. It reminds me most of Becks or Heineken. In a way, it delivers the goods: you get the whole package of bitter and sweet, followed by a slightly boozy kick. There's even some citrus complexity in there, if you try really hard to find it. In another way, however, this beer fails in much the same way other Japanese beers fail: puny taste and limited range.

Outside of the taste, there is not much to speak of either way. The head is present, and provides a good amount of fizziness, at least at first. But there's no stickiness to it, nothing I can sink my lips into. The color is identical to that of any other Japanese beer; it's not unpleasant, but it also inspires no confidence. You know what to expect from a color like this. There is little if any aroma, and it smells no different than it tastes.

It's frustrating sometimes to try a beer like this. There's so much potential for greatness in this big green bottle, but it falls short because of its stubborn insistence on subtlety and quaffability. I can sense the quality here - it's pleasant all the way through. But really, the pleasantness is the problem. There's no balls in this beer, no bravado. I can't help but imagine that Heartland was something truly great when it first entered this world.

I can taste its roots: an incredibly diverse yet well-balanced concoction, flaunting fruitiness grounded in wholesome earthiness. Then, I visualize the tasting of the first batch: a collection of Kirin big-wigs seated around a cold white table, fluorescent lights blinking in the ceiling. They let that first drop hit their tongue and immediately let fear take its course. "The Japanese public will find the strong aftertaste off-putting," one taster sneers. With a toothy grimace, another offers, "The sour, bitter complexity of flavors may upset our core drinking market." "Can we take down the higher notes, and bring everything to a more mediocre range?" somebody in back sheepishly begs. "Where's the drinkability? People want drinkability!" this time from the well-trained parrot, is the final nail in the coffin.

It's not that Kirin's Heartland is bad. If it were, this review would have been much, much simpler. No, this beer will have to remain in my regular rotation, if only to give me a fleeting whisper, a reminder of the one that got away.


Food Review: チョコ棒 (Choco-Bo)

In the interest of providing a glimpse of everyday life here in Japan, I will be occasionally serving up some delicious reviews of uniquely Japanese foods. The inspiration for this came to me at the 100 yen ($1) store earlier tonight, when I was suddenly stricken by the variety and quantity of strange snack foods here. Actually, I guess it began when I found Pepsi White (that's right) at 7-11. I'm not blogging about that particular drink, though, as the Blogosphere is already inundated with buzz around this Pepsi and yogurt (that's right) blend. You can find a good review here: http://japanesesnackreviews.blogspot.com/2008/10/pepsi-white.html.

Name: チョコ棒 (Choco-Bo)
Price: 100 yen
Sweet/savory: sweet
In a few words: tastes as good as it looks!

I picked these up at my local 100 yen store, possibly because I was bored and wanted to torture myself. I was intrigued by the picture on the packages inside depicting the product. My logic went something like this: a sweet that looks like a nutty stool couldn't possibly taste like one. Plus, it was only 100 yen for 10 of these wonderful little poos, and I am not a man to pass up cheap sweets. There was also a certain attraction in the packaging; I can't explain it, but I think the Japanese have figured out how to tap into some deeper "spend center" of my brain with bright colors and pleasing designs.

On first picking up the package, I found it to be much lighter than the heavy-looking, seemingly choco-nutty bars that the picture suggested. I was half expecting this; at 10 yen a pop I was already prepared for disappointment. The name means "choco-stick," which is vague enough; it's actually even less information than the disturbing picture gave me. At least the picture gives a vague idea that these sticks may have come out of somebody who had spent the entire previous day eating peanuts, or maybe Cap'n Crunch.

The best way to describe the taste of these little gems is, "surprising." Notice that I left out the qualifying "pleasantly," because these were surprising in the worst way possible. Everything about that first bite is memorable to such an extent that I'm afraid it will never leave my mind. The chocolate was nothing but a thin layer, a rouse intended to disguise the truly evil contents of these sticks. If the chocolate were of a high quality, this would be slightly less insulting. However, it was a cocoa mix of the lowest caliber, something you might find on those prepackaged Hostess "Donettes," which immediately melted on my fingers.

After biting through the first nanometer of the snack, the chocolate ended and the pain began. What I found inside will continue to haunt my dreams until the day when sweet senility comes in to clear the slate and hush my fears to sleep. I don't doubt, however, that a disturbing, elusive shadow of the experience will remain somewhere in my mind along with all my other strongest memories. It was at that moment when I learned why the package was so light.

The core of the stick is nothing but Funyun with slightly less salt added and slightly more burned taste. Or maybe an unflavored puffed Cheeto that had spent a good amount of time behind the radiator. The taste of cheap, puffed corn mixed with a bouquet of old foot to create a truly rancid impression. There was also just the slightest hint of fish to round out the whole thing. (You find fish flavor inappropriately added to a lot of foods here; I'm convinced that the McDonald's fries are cooked with some sort of fish oil, which is actually quite good.)

For me, it was not any single element that made these nearly inedible, but a brilliant synergy of several factors. You start with the lowest-quality ingredients and make sure to put no thought into texture. Then, you disappoint with tiny amounts of near-chocolate. Inside, you give a healthy serving of fishy coagulated powder. Finally, you put it all together for the most bizarre and unpalatable experience possible. Well done Choco-Bo, this tour de force of offensive mediocrity is not easy to pull off.