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Turning Water into Happoshu

In Japan it will cost you two to three times as much as it does in the rest of the world if you’re keen to drink a beer. That’s because the Japanese government in their infinite wisdom (why is it governments are all so dogmatically stupid in creating laws without thinking them through?) placed an onerous tax on any beer who’s weight of malt extract exceeds 67% of the fermentable ingredients. In fact, that is their definition of what beer — biiru in Japanese — is. This was done to protect the more traditional sake (or nihonshu) and, of course, it backfired.

Breweries did just what you’d expect them to do. They began making beers with less than 67% malt, using rice or other adjuncts. Suntory made the first one in 1994, called Hop’s Draft, and it contained 65% malted barley. Because it no longer fit the definition of beer, a new name was required and it has become known as happoshu, which means “sparkling alcohol.” Naturally the Japanese government saw what was happening but instead of reversing a foolish decision, changed the standard to 50%. Japanese brewers responded by lowering the malt even further so that today about 25% malt in happoshu is common. The lower malt produces more fusel alcohol that many argue leads to greater hangovers. By all accounts, it tastes awful but has been growing in popularity because it’s so much cheaper. One snarky account I read mentioned that happoshu tastes more like American beer.

Recently, around thirty students from Fuji Women’s University, a catholic school, worked with a local brewer, Yasuharu Osugi, from Nihon Ji Biiru Kobo, to develop a pink happoshu brew aimed specifically at women. In hopes of it appealing to females, they lowered the hop character and made it 4.5%, so it’s a bit weaker than most happoshu. The ingredients include a hoshinoyume, a local rice, along with the herb shiso, a pink-colored juice that gives the brew its distinctive hue. The label will feature a four-leaf clover and goes on sale today.

Students from Fuji Women’s University give their pink happoshu a taste test.

It being a catholic university, they chose the name “Cana Story,” after the place in the new testament story in which Jesus is supposed to have turned water into wine. Of course, it may be fitting. I’ve heard some credible theories that when the new testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek that they had no word for beer and thus translated the line to wine instead. Certainly beer being mostly water would make more sense, though makes it a bit less miraculous.

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