Japanese Dark Beers

stout.pngThere are 3 main dark Japanese beers: Asahi Black, Yebisu Black and Kirin stout. They are sort of common and can be found at the better stores. They are all 5% alcohol and like other Japanese beers tend to be mild in flavor but high in quality and a little more akin to German rather than English brews.

There’s not a huge difference between these three but Asahi I thought was the lightest, it has almost no aroma, but good roasted flavors and was the least expensive at about $1.80.

Kirin Stout is a good, drinkable beer with nice aroma and dark flavors I’d put above Asahi for second place. Don’t be surprised by the name “stout”… Kirin’s is no where near as heavy or bitter as Guiness or American holiday stouts–I drank 5 of these in 30 minutes on the factory tour and I’m not sure I could drink as many Guiness.

The best of these was Yebisu Black. It has just slightly more aroma and flavor than the others, and I think a bit more caramel edge to the taste. It’s about the same price or more than Kirin at $2.10.

Now for the mystery winner, Ichigo Stout. I only saw this beer once, in Tokyo for $2.30, but it was my favorite. Still 5% alcohol but had the most taste, dark chocolate, roasted coffee with a rich, creamy body. Still much lighter than anyything like Murphy’s stout but this might go better with a spring/summer meal.

The Perfect Mai-Tai Weather

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It’s no great revelation to blog about the nice weather in Hawaii, but what may not be so well known is that is rains practically everyday here… the weather’s otherwise so nice that no one care. A few sprinkles in the afternoon are very welcome in what sometimes can be a relentless furnace in the blazing sun. The rain clouds are a blessing too, they’re not only huge & beautiful but the shade is killer. It’s tough to take the full strength of the sun in the daytime–you need shade at high noon.

A couple miles east of Waikiki starts the mountain that forms the center of the island of Oahu. It rains every single day there, and magically stops at waikiki, the skies part and it becomes beautifully sunny. Everyday you wake up and walk outside towards the east and think “Darn! rain today” , then turn around walk a block to the beach where it’s always Summer and sunny. Amazing micro-climates in Hawaii.

Trade winds are what really makes Hawaiian weather the best in the world. Trade winds come from the East, so for Waikiki the wind comes from the cool, rainy, mountains. These winds seem to blow at a perfect 76 degrees all the time. When roasting in the open sun at 86 dog day degrees, I can’t tell you how great those trade winds feel. They are cooling in the day and warming in the night.

You can’t make a good Mai Tai in SF–it’s too cold, the ice doesn’t melt (a key ingredient, like a mint julep). For the ultimate tiki bar you can’t just set the heater to 75… it’s the slightly too warm, sticky air combined with the refreshing, cool breeze and shade that make for the full tropical experience.

La Trappe, the Last Trappist Beer

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La Trappe is one of my top ten beers in the world. A strong 10% amber ale called a trappist “quadrupel”. The trappists are the most respected of all abbeys. There are only six in the world–five are in Belgium. The 6th one, this one, is in Holland and it’s just as good as the Belgians.

Abbey beers are sometimes designated as single, double & triple with the single being a strong blonde, the double a stronger dark brew, and the triple as the strongest ale with a golden color. Quadrupel is a new term for me, but is basically an amber ale even stronger than the strongest, just a notch below “barley wine”.

La Trappe is a very rich, aromatic, strong beer with a flavor profile something like a super concentrated Bass ale. A deep caramel color with a big head, it’s pretty delicious with a very complex flavor, sometimes it smells like circus peanuts, sometimes it tastes like angel-food cake, but always with a deep, warming finish.

La Trappe used to be tough to get. I had my first one in Holland at the recommendation of my bartender and never saw it again until we ordered a couple online a few months ago through a gourmet beer seller. A week later I noticed our corner “party store” was selling this exact same beer under the American brand of “Konings Hoeven”. That’s convenient.

Another similar beer is Urthel, a Belgian ale with Dutch roots that also brews a quadrupel called Samaranth. Compared to La Trappe, Urthel Samaranth is a little stronger (11%), a little richer and more head, with complex flavors very similar but tending more towards the sour end, less sweet. Splitting hairs here, the two taste about 95% the same but I still give the edge to La Trappe because the flavor is slightly more delicious and it wins extra points for being the least known of the six trappist abbeys.

Tahitian Mai Tai

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It turns out the Mai Tais served in Tahiti are a completely different drink from the American ones.

It’s not true that “Mai Tai” refers to cocktails in a general sense as the guide books claim. Maitais (one word) were usually listed under a category of Exotic Cocktails. In Tahitian “maitai” means good. If you asked someone how they were today, “Maitai” is a reasonable response, and consistent with Trader Vic’s account “Maitai Roa Ae” means “the best”.

The most common recipes were along the lines of: a papaya-passion fruit juice base, white & brown rums, triple sec, lime, and either almond syrup or grenadine served in a tall glass for $15 – 18, about the cost of 2-1/2 beers.

The drink pictured above left was from the Le Meridien resort on Tahiti, and although its not the classic American recipe it was good. It had an awful lot of pulp, I think from fresh-squeezed tangerines I saw in the markets, and strong enough to taste the alcohol. The taste was mostly fruity, but much better than the usual ‘juiced’ Mai Tai. In spite of the unusual red sugared rim, this was a decent drink. Of particular note, this place had the best swimming pool I’ve ever seen. They constructed a huge white sand beach, carved out an irregular pool filled with giant rocks and lined with trees. Nothing like a pool, it was just like spending a day at the beach.

The drink on the right was from the exclusive Sofitel Motu resort, located on a tiny coral island a 5-minute boat ride from Bora Bora. This was a really odd drink created with white rum, coconut liqueur, kahlua, pineapple, grenadine, and blended like a milk shake. They got an A for effort (A+ for atmosphere) but tasted really funky. All the exotics were equally creative at this place and tasted equally weird — it’s not that easy to create a whole line of great signature drinks. This particular drink took the Mai Tai joke to an extreme, they might as well have used tequila because this had nothing to do with a real Mai Tai.

Overall, the cocktails in Hawaii and the mainland are much better tasting and consistent than those in Tahiti. There was enough similarity in the recipes from place to place that one could identify a Tahitian version of this cocktail, although pretty much anything could be mixed together and called a Maitai even at the classiest of joints. I wonder if any great cocktails originated in Tahiti? Because of the french influence they have the most extensive wine lists I’ve ever seen in the tropics and that’s their strength. The great tropical cocktails seem to come more from the Caribbean, America, even Singapore came up with a good one.

The Mai Tai in Tahiti

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Continuing our coverage of this fascinating cocktail the Waterblog staff is headed to Tahiti for first hand analysis.

Legend has it that when Trader Vic invented the drink in Oakland, CA he served it to some friends from Tahiti who shouted “Mai Tai – Roa Ae” which means “Out of This World – The Best”. The name stuck.

60 years later, the guide books now tell us that in Tahiti “Mai Tai” means “cocktail” that is, any cocktail, not just this one. We need to set the record straight and see just what they serve over there. Stay tuned.

The Mai Tai part 4, Best of the Worst

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A lot of places in Waikiki offer happy hour Mai Tais for $1.50 but what are you getting?

The Mai Tai started off as an evenly mixed cocktail. As it became popular the original rare old rum ran out, so bartenders blended different rums in an attempt to recreate the original flavor. Over the years the rums stopped being mixed together either to save time or just for appearance and you ended up with the light rum in the body and a floater of dark rum on top. That turned into the more recognizable form of the drink today.

Now just about any drink with a floater of dark rum is passed off as a Mai Tai in Waikiki. Most of the $1.50 ones are horrible–a plastic cup of cheap Hi-C punch and a dash of cheaper rum. One is enough then it’s beer after that.

Moose McGillycuddys in Waikiki has $1.50 Mai Tais (and Blue Hawaiis) just about all day long and they beat all the rest hands down. It’s not good, its not a real Mai Tai, but it ain’t bad. The current recipe seems like a glass a cheap guava juice (like Hawaiian Sun brand or worse… definitely not real juice) topped with a floater of Hana Bay dark rum (decent dark rum, a little cheaper than Bacardi, but better tasting than Myers’s) and finished off by dropping in a lime wedge. With a recipe like that Moose can crank these out all day long for as many rowdy drunks as it takes. It’s not a bad tasting drink, better than OJ & rum, and the ingredients are pretty easy to get. In a pinch you might try it, just make up a new name because it definitely ain’t a Mai Tai.

The Mai Tai part 3 – Best of Waikiki.

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What about the rest of Waikiki? The best of Waikiki, the big luxury resorts controlling the beachfront. This is where the Mai Tai became popular, I’d expect a good one here:

  • Moana Surfrider
  • Dukes Barefoot Bar (Outrigger)
  • Pink Palace (Royal Hawaiian)
  • Sand bar (Sheraton)

All serve decent Mai Tais, about $10, but mostly unremarkable… not bad, not great. Dukes stands out not because it’s the tastiest but was good-sized and a buck less than the others, with a $4.50 happy hour special!

The Sand Bar easily serves the most delicious blended drinks on Waikiki, and has the best entertainment with the sexy Tahitian dancers… but I didn’t go back for the Mai Tai. The Sand Bar is technically next to Waikiki beach, but looks out over it. Their beach is a tiny, weird sandy patch surrounded by concrete breakwaters but an amazing tree fort thing right in the middle.

The Ala Moana has the classiest mix of them all, watching them prepare your drink is pretty good, they’re serious bartenders and serve ‘em strong. The Pink Palace was the most mysterious–I never actually did see a bar, my drink just appeared, or not, depending on your reception. Most are using Bacardi rums or something similar. I thought Dukes was using Whaler’s dark at one time.

I’d still agree the Hale Kulani is serving the best Mai Tai in Waikiki today.

The Best Mai Tai in Waikiki?

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The Hale Kulani resort is reported to serve the best, most authentic Mai Tai in Waikiki. We tried it last month and it is pretty good, at $9 including a fancy basket of Maui chips, is about the best deal for a premium beachside cocktail. This Mai Tai is plenty strong, with a nice taste, pretty good sized, and defintely the best looking with the edible flower and natural sugar-cane chewable swizzle stick.

Three rums are used; Bacardi Gold & Special, topped with a floater of LemonHart’s 151. I gotta hand it to them for blending decent rums while some of the luxury resorts use Hana Bay rum (which I like more than Meyer’s) but still it’s an $8 bottle of booze and I expect more in a ten dollar drink. The LemonHart’s is a nice touch as many bars float dark rum on a Mai Tai for the looks, and some tropical drinks float 151 for a kick, the Hale Kulani kills two birds with one stone using this unusual dark 151 rum.

The volume is decent too, you can see in the photo that the ice is floating on top and you’re getting a couple good shots here. The San Francisco Trader Vics has the worst deal in this category; it’s more like a snow cone than cocktail… their ice is superfine and loaded in–two slurps and you have an empty glass of ice at Trader Vics.

My only negative comment is I tasted sour mix on the bottom, and I’d rather have natural flavors. I can’t say it’s the best deal at this bar either, because I followed the Mai Tai with a Tonga itch that was the strongest drink I’ve ever had–basicall a pint of Jim Beam in a hurricane glass, I had to order two more glasses of ice just to finish it! They also serve a delicious green blended drink that tastes like passion fruit smoothie!

Search for the perfect Mai Tai – part 1.

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Speaking of Hawaii, let’s look at the quintessential Hawaiian cocktail–the Mai Tai.

The Mai Tai is perhaps the most misunderstood and mis-mixed cocktail in the world. Hosts combine any fruit juice with rum in their basement luaus and call it a Mai Tai. Bad Mai Tais are almost always too sweet and over the years have given the drink a bad name as a fruity cocktail not for serious drinkers.

A real Mai Tai is more like a Manhattan in that it’s a strong cocktail, basically different liquors over ice–not a fruit juice drink. It’s served in a short, wide glass, and has a color about like iced tea. Decorations are a big part of the drink and can include a pineapple wedge, maraschino cherry, mint sprig, lime shell, tropical flower and novelty umbrella.

The Mai Tai was invented by Trader Vic during WWII with a subtle blend of flavors conjuring up the South Pacific. The original six ingredients are very rare rum, orange curacao, lime juice, orgeat (almond) syrup, rock candy syrup, and mint over shaved ice.

When mixed right, you’ll have a strong, refreshing cocktail, on the sweet side like a manhattan or old fashioned, with hints of orange, almond, and mint in the background. It’s a delicious mix, and delicate balance of sweet, sour, and heat (alcohol).

There are a number of ways to upset the balance of this drink. It’s very easy to become too sweet since most everything in it is sweet. Rum is distilled sugar cane, so it’s sweet, and the orange curacao, orgeat, and rock candy syrup are all horribly sweet, only used sparingly to flavor the cocktail, not add volume.

There are only two ways to repair a Mai Tai that’s too sweet, either add more rum or lime juice. The lime juice cuts the mix making it more drinkable and refreshing. The other way to cut the sweetness is by adding rum. A sickly sweet drink can really suck up a lot of rum before you even taste the alcohol. Some sweet drinks like a good Lava Flow or Slippery Monkey hide the alcohol entirely, you’d never even know until it hits you halfway through the second one.

Think of a Mai Tai as basically rum & ice. The dominant flavor and main ingredient is rum. The original recipe calls for a particular brand of 17-year old rum and that’s the biggest flavor in a Mai Tai. You can’t find this rum anymore but would be about a $60 bottle of booze. Is there any drink today that uses that kind of base? I doubt it. The best bars in town use Bacardi at most, about $10 a bottle. So the problem becomes how to make a drink using cheaper booze that tastes like the 17-year old stuff? This is where the different bottled mixes, and new recipes come in, all trying to recreate the particular flavor of that premium old rum. Our next few entries will look at some modern Mai Tais and see how they measure up.