WASHINGTON - On a recent night at Toki Underground here, the aromas of braised pork and ramen broth melded with the grapefruit, lemon and pine wafting from my beer glass. Each sip was both familiar and foreign: citrusy like an American India pale ale, yet subdued and mysterious, bringing to mind, not a gulp of orange juice, but something coaxed from a mountainside fruit tree.
The ale contained the elegance that often characterizes ji-biru, or Japanese craft beer. Yes, it was an IPA, but it was called Ozeno Yukidoke and came from a region of hills and hot springs known as Gunma Prefecture.
Toki is one of many restaurants in the D.C. area that feature one of Japan's least famous but most exciting gastronomic exports. As ramen joints and the small-plate specialists known as izakayas have proliferated so, thankfully, has ji-biru. It is now easier than ever to taste how Japanese brewers are reinterpreting American and European beer styles, adding their own balance and refinement, and sometimes local ingredients including rice and sweet potatoes.
Beer is Japan's most popular alcoholic beverage, and three brands dominate the market: Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo, all German-inspired lagers introduced in the late 19th century. Small breweries were prohibited in Japan until the mid-1990s, and the country lacked a beer tradition.
"When ji-biru started, it was at least 50 percent German-style," says Bryan Baird, who founded Japan's Baird Brewing in 2000 and is one of the country's most respected craft brewers. "Unlike in the United States, where craft beer was driven by home-brewers and people who were in it for the love of it, in Japan it was pretty much corporate from the beginning."
A few artisanal breweries paved the way for a more vibrant scene, including the Kiuchi Brewery, whose Hitachino Nest beers have become the best-known ji-biru in the United States. Riffs on American pale ales and Belgian styles have become common.
Especially widespread are straightforward versions of foreign styles with nuances considered distinctly Japanese.
"Even though they have IPAs and a huge variety of styles, these beers don't often have the aggressive flavor profiles that you find in a lot of American craft beers," says Izakaya Seki's Cizuka Seki, who offers a dozen varieties.
Colin Sugalski, beverage director at Toki Underground, agrees, pointing out even Japan's dark beers aren't too intense. "While they are big, robust and bold," he says, "they still have a lighter side."
To be sure, one aspect of ji-biru really is big and bold: its price. In Washington, restaurants tend to sell 12-ounce bottles for $8 to $12. Not everyone approves, including Daisuke Utagawa, co-owner of the Sushiko restaurants.
"We always have to think about the price factor," he says. "There's a lot to explore with beer and Japanese cuisine. Does it have to be Japanese beer? I don't think so."
Still, drinkers who try ji-biru will be rewarded.
A good starting point is Hitachino Nest White Ale, a Belgian-style wheat beer with notes of orange, nutmeg and Riesling-like fruitiness. Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale, meanwhile, contains 25 percent rice and is fermented with both sake and ale yeasts, resulting in a hard-to-categorize amber beer that smells like strawberries and tastes like caramel, apples and prunes.
Other breweries to seek out include Coedo, whose Coedo Beniaka is a spicy sweet potato beer that resembles a dark Belgian ale; Echigo, whose Pilsener-like Koshihikari rice lager contains hints of toasted grain; and Yo-Ho Brewing, whose Yona Yona pale ale bursts with tropical fruit.
Then there's Baird Brewing's Kurofune Porter, an elegant mixture of coffee and caramel flavors that is lighter in body than many American dark beers and unusually dry. "The aesthetic in Japan is an aesthetic of simplicity, with waves and waves of complexity within the simplicity," Bryan Baird says.
He adds, "I don't think I'd be making beer like this if it weren't for the influence of Japan."