Helios Distillery and Brewery

(Naha, Okinawa, Japan)

The day after Ukishima, our final day in Naha, and coincidentally, our final brewing in Asia, we stuffed our faces full of ramen at a nearby, hidden-gem, and hit up Helios Brewery and Distillery.  With the exception of some age-old Japanese whiskey (scotch) distilleries and the region’s traditional drinks (sake, soju, makgeolli, etc) the existence of craft breweries, distilleries, and wineries is relatively new on the Asian continent.  Not so in the case of Helios;  they’ve been pumping out high-quality spirits and seriously-sippable brews since 1961.

Of course, we had a beer flight, but before that, we split our standard ‘vacation drink’; a mojito, made with Helios’ silky-smooth, white rum.  The mojito wasn’t great; skimpy on the mint leaves and sugar, but the straight shot of rum afterward was full of that cane sugar sweetness you’d expect,  very well balanced, and without the smoky aftertaste.

First up on the flight was Goya Dry.  Goya or “bitter melon” is all over Okinawa:  it’s in everything from breakfast to dinner, sodas, and even ice cream, and the native Okinawans attribute it to their high life expectancy rates.  What it did to the beer was add an intriguing champagne quality.  Think current brett-IPA trend without the hop characteristics.  It was really well done and actually left me with a lack of proper adjectives.  Imagine a cross between brut champagne, dry chardonnay, and crisp blonde ale.

Next on the list was a really bad porter.  I don’t know, sorry if you’re reading this, you’ve had it and you like it, the description says “mellow and drinkable”.  I got mellow and stinkable.

Finally, all was not lost, a special release called “Other Heaven” Red ale won the day.  Maybe after that porter, this one just wasn’t bad, but I choose to not be cynical.  Other Heaven was a great balance between sweet, caramelized malts, bitter hops, and a delightful cherry- toffee finish.  I’ve been lacking some good ambers in my life and this one truly hit the spot.

The rum was great, but the mojito was lacking, the 1st and last beers were great, but the porter was downright awful.  Maybe someone else might rate them slightly higher, but it’s tough to have one bad apple that is that bad of an apple, all in all, I give Helios Brewing and Distilling an 8.4 out of 10.



Ukishima Brewing

(Naha, Okinawa, Japan)

At the beginning of August, we spent a week in Japan for our summer vacation.  Disclaimer and short rant: I didn’t love Tokyo (except for the markets) and travel bloggers are full of s*!  Case in point- every travel site you read up on for some recommendations says that there are vending machines on every corner and “you can buy anything”.  Granted, there are vending machines everywhere, but we only saw one the whole week that had some weird trinkets and one with beer, other than the normal snacks, soda, and water.  That being said, Okinawa pleasantly BLEW US AWAY!  The people of Okinawa are friendly, warm, and welcoming, they don’t consider themselves Japanese (I love learning things google doesn’t tell you), their food is incredible, and the weather?… Oh, the weather!

We did some research and had a brewery on our list for the next day, but as we were strolling through the old streets of Naha after grabbing a bite in the market we just randomly stumbled past one.  Nothing better than surprise breweries!  Enter Ukushima Brewing: They’ve only been open a little over a year and they’re cranking out some great brews.

Starting out with the Ukishima Golden 107 was an interesting surprise.  107 stands for how many IBUs they pack into this quaint little ale!  When you think golden ale you think crisp, clean, and easy-drinking, but Ukishima expertly flipped the script on conventional knowledge.  It wasn’t my favorite, but my hat’s off for the attempt and if you’re looking for a nice throat punch; Golden 107’s your man.

Next up was Ukishima IPA.  I’m not sure which hops were used, but it was a well-balanced and delicate blend.  I’ve missed certain styles from the US during our time in Asia, but one constant has been solid IPAs.  Ukishima’s is no different:  Quality ingredients and freshness are obvious factors in this very well done brew.

Long Summer is a rare occurrence in Asian countries in the form of a saison.  Being someone who usually really enjoys the style I was a little underwhelmed as it was a bit lacking in the flavor department.  That being said- it was super smooth!  I could crush a couple dozen of these and be good to go.

Finally, we ordered a full poor of the Strawberry Stout.  Many times I feel like a fruit stout has way more aroma than it has a right to as the flavor behind it is a complete bust.  Ukishima did a nice job binging subtly sweet and floral strawberry notes right to the front of the tongue followed by barely-present, yet still silky smooth, cocoa.

We had some great bar snacks, a solid flight throughout, and a great interaction with the friendly staff and atmosphere.  All in all, I give Ukishima Brewing an 8.9 out of 10.

Craft Roo

(Jongno, Seoul, SK)

Apologies! This review is a long time in the making. Since visiting this brewery with an identity crisis- could be Craft Roo, Craft Root, or Kraft Lu- we’ve gone on vacation, moved to another country (coming soon), and migrated the site to a new host. Needless to say, it’s been a mess, but I digress. 

My sister in law and her husband were the first (and only) friends or family to visit while we were in Korea, so we showed them as much of Seoul as we could, which obviously had to end with a brewery.  We wound through the hidden alleys of Jongno’s Hanoks in the dark until we finally found it. 

(Careful, you might miss it…)

We sat in the cozy, dimly lit pub, and we split some fried chicken to soak up the following brews.  It was quite the day and everyone was tired, but the conversation was as warm as the room.  We had our brews and departed.

First up was Gaetbae pilsner.  Not much too it, but what can you expect from a pils.  I haven’t had too many that gave me pause to think about having another.  Still, this one seemed a little worse than those.

Second, on the list was Abai weizen; not the best of the bunch, but a solid, full-body, wheat beer nonetheless.

During my time in Korea, I noticed that the burgeoning craft beer scene had some common peaks and pits. As a 2018 IBC award winner, Sokcho IPA, was no different.  As a whole, Koreans have missed the mark when it comes to darker and lighter beers on either side of the spectrum, but their IPAs come full-bodied and complex.  Just like the sweet balance or warm and cold weather the beach town enjoys, Sokcho is a delicate dance between bitter and sweet, citrus and earthy.  Well done.

Another IBC award winner, Dongmeong Port pale ale was a great example of a style that seems to be lost in the shuffle these days.  This pale ale is robust without being overpowering and a true pale ale without becoming an IPA or falling into a pilsner pit.

Next up was Snow IPA, I don’t normally like sessions as they tend to not just be less bang for your buck, but less flavor as well.  Snow was a nice, sweet, sipping ale that would make for a great afternoon of going through 15-20.

Remember those common trends I mentioned before?  Daepo Port Stout was watery and other than maybe a little coffee- flavorless.

Other than a couple of missteps I really enjoyed this flight and all in all, I give Craft Roo an 8.2 out of 10.



Under construction

Bear with us as we are still currently under construction.  In the meantime- instagram is still wildin’… go follow!

Samhae Soju

(Jongno, Seoul, South Korea)

The saga that is Samhae Soju actually began months ago when I found an article listing Kim Taek Song as the 8th ranked intangible resource of Korea.  The day came, so The Editor and I traveled an hour by train, followed the GPS to the location and stood outside the unassuming little building at the top of Bukchon Hanok Village’s hill for about 15 minutes too nervous to ring the doorbell and proceeded to walk all the way back down empty-handed. Fast forward to this week:  we came to find that a reservation is required and a Korean speaker is not required, but it is recommended. Once we arrived it became apparent that the reservation either didn’t go through or was not done correctly, so they didn’t know the NINE of us were coming AND there was a tour of people who did it the right way scheduled at 6 (just 30 minutes later).  Despite all of this, Korean hospitality won the day and we were set up for our tasting and treated to nothing but sincerity and smiles…and a ton of booze.
We were first lulled into a false sense of security with iwhaju.  An 8% booze-pudding that might make you want to spread it on a cracker; Iwhaju was slightly creamy and a little gritty with a tart start and a mildly bitter finish.
The first official liquid we drank was takju or rice liquor.  A cousin to makgeolli, takju is an unfiltered wine drained directly from a fermenting pot.  There are two main differences between takju and makgeolli: makgeolli tends to be more carbonated and a little more sour and takju pours at a sneaky 15-17% ABV while makgeolli sits at 6-10%.  I didn’t love this one- maybe I just need some bubbles in my ‘drunken rice’?
Next up was yakju.  Yakju is the filtered layer above takju taken from the same fermentor.  I don’t know if it is all the same, but the two times I’ve had yakju it has been incredibly clean.  I can’t find any other way to describe it other than to say: a lack of harsh flavors- no boozy finish, no malts, no herbs… nothing.
The following two yakjus are brainchildren of Master Kim himself.  Essentially made the same way as above with the exception being that the base used is Chrysanthemum tea instead of water.  This yakju was like a semi-dry white wine blend. A bit more backbone and flavor yet still a crisp and clean finish.
Podo (grape) yakju is made from Korean grown Campbell grapes and then fermented in pots rather than aged in barrels and had a brandy-like flavor.  Still not as thick as brandy or red wine. This one had a nicer bouquet and a solid sweetness throughout to add some substance.
We then transitioned from fermented to distilled alcohols.  The first was the flagship Samhae soju: Made by Master Kim’s parents before him, perfected by him, the catalyst to the title of an intangible treasure of Korea, and though not as badass a title, the best soju I have ever tasted.  Soju typically pours at around 20%, while Samhae soju is a 45% (or 90 proof) and still manages to be incredibly smooth.
Following the same progression chrysanthemum soju was next.  Much like the two yakjus from which these two sojus spawned it was difficult to differentiate very many flavors.  If anything, the mum added a light earthiness.
Podo soju, much like the yakju above, just added some sugary notes and a slight dryness. I’m trying not to sound like a broken record, but again, delicious.  I like craft beer, I like good scotch and good bourbon, and I like vodka mixed with something, but I don’t really looooovvve much else, so for these to all be above and beyond is rather impressive.
Sanghwang mushroom soju was distilled using fungus taken exclusively from mulberry trees.  This was the only thing I drank all day that I didn’t like. Each of the other Samhae varietals had different flavor elements that masked the harshness of the alcohol or complimented it to make it smoother.  This one was just a bit too much like lighter fluid for my tastes.
Gwiju or ‘ghost liquor’ is triple distilled sanghwang soju (above) that comes in at a whopping 71.2% alcohol.  Its origin started when Master Kim himself tried Bacardi 151 for the first time- his immediate thought was “I can make that stronger and less harsh”.  Its name was later coined by a local tv network staff member after he said: “If human drinks this he becomes ghost, if ghost drinks this he will turn back to human”.  I personally was a bit apprehensive based on its predecessor and its unapologetic scent, but if you like a little backcountry white lightning in your life then I’d say you’re barking up the right tree.
If that wasn’t amazing enough, on our way out the door, Master Kim followed us down the stairs to pour a sample of his delicious, dessert-like, tangerine yakju still bubbling in the fermentor.  Truly an amazing experience.
If I haven’t raved enough- this was quite possibly the best 10 dollars I ever spent (an additional 10 to turn into a ghost), so, for the sake of habit, I’ll give them a rating, but it’s almost not even fair.  I give Samhae Soju a 9.9 out of 10.

East-West Brewing

(Ho Chi Min, Vietnam)

I don’t normally review a brewery I’ve never physically been to, but I had so many amazing beers by East West that I’ll never be able to find again, so I thought it appropriate.  From guest beers at other breweries to beer houses to random hole-in-the-walls and from Ho Chi Min to Hanoi- Vietnam is crawling with East West brews. I had one every time I saw it on the menu and I didn’t hate a single one.
The first one I found at a beautiful corner pub, 20 feet from the river in Hoi An was Saigon Rose.  This ale starts with a wheat backbone, but is absolutely bursting with sweet, ripe berries. Perfect.
Further down the menu, in the same location, immediately following Saigon Rose was Summer Hefeweizen.  Not quite as impressive is his brother, but this unfiltered semi-dry Hefe really hit the spot on a hot muggy evening.
I think a lot of how I judge IPAs these days is based on how they’re marketed or what the brewer wants you to taste.  In the age of oversold hazy juice bombs and big bretts that taste more like champagne, it’s nice to have a regular IPA that doesn’t taste like anything crazy and also doesn’t taste like water.  Far East IPA was just that. Maybe a little too heavy to be pounding back on the front porch, but a nice, middle of the road, well balance IPA nonetheless.
My favorite find was their Coffee Vanilla Porter.  Just enough, but not too much, coffee with just enough sweet malts and power punch of vanilla at the finish make for a truly awesome beer.  This beer was smooth and richer than many stouts I’ve had in this part of the world and my only regret is that I didn’t have 10.
To be fair, when I had the last brew on this list: Belgian Dark, I was at least halfway, if not all the way, in the bag.  I remember some juicy dark fruits and a little chocolate, but I couldn’t even manage to take a picture… not even a bad one. So, there ya have it.
No official ranking for East West, as I didn’t actually go there, but I recommend you search them out if you’re anywhere nearby.
‘Til next time, vô!

Siem Reap Brewpub

(Siem Reap, Cambodia)

Cambodia was never on our travel radar or a “must see” location, but the opportunity presented itself and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  After a day of beautiful temples (including, but certainly not limited to Angkor Wat) a brewery warm up before hitting up the local haunts was a must.  Not far from the river walk and Pub Street, tucked back from the corner of the street is Siem Reap Brewpub. We tried all 6 available beers (4 in flight form and 2 full) as well as some wings and a fried chicken sandwich as the standard pub fare because why not.
First up was the Blonde Ale.  I found her a bit too light. An easy drinker, but not much muster in this one.
The Golden Ale was a nice break from the mundane.  Darker than expected and a bit hoppier. This brew is a bit like a semi-sweet pale ale.
There wasn’t much separating the Honey Weiss from the Blonde at first, but this wheat finished with a strong raw honey flavor and delicate earthiness.
The last of the flight was the Saison and I must say this beer comes together nicely.  It was REAL heavy on the lemongrass, but followed through with a complex and unique finish.
The IPA wasn’t great.  It’ll do in a pinch, but there’s not a lot going on other than what I’m going to start referring to as the “standard pub IPA”.
The Editor liked the Saison best, but the Dark Ale was the pick of the litter for me.  Super chocolaty and creamy, great mouthfeel, and what’s described as being brewed with “100% local, organic Palm Suger for a uniquely Cambodian taste”.  Great backbone, complex, and truly well done.
All in all, I give the Siem Reap Brewpub an 8.6 out of 10.
‘Til next time- Luektukchet! (លើកទឹកចិត្)