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.