Gigantic Brewing’s Ume Umai Beer Debuts at Izakaya Festival

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Portland is getting a taste of Japanese pub culture this Friday, 11/16, when our first ever Izakaya Festival takes place at the Jupiter Hotel. This unique fest shines a spotlight on Japanese art, cuisine, shochu, saké, and beer for NW drink connoisseurs and foodies alike. With Portland’s craft beer-minded consumer in mind, the festival has wisely teamed up with Gigantic Brewing to create a beer called “Ume Umai” brewed with black rice and plums just for this event.

Photo by macduckston

Izakaya is a Japanese word for pubs, drinking establishments that also serve food and cater more towards the casual drinking class for after work refreshment. Much like the brewpubs and gastropubs we make our 2nd homes, Japanese pub culture is thriving. While Sake may be the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, most izakayas carry a variety of beer, wine, and cocktails, and whiskey is also a popular spirit there. Food is an equal accompaniment to the free flowing alcohol, many izakayas prefer larger shared plates that fit the communal shared nature of a traditional izakaya. These pubs in Japan are often marked by a bright red chochin (lantern) like that depicted in the poster to the right. There is something beautifully quaint and romantic about the simple marker of a lantern to signify a warm place for food and drink.

In creating a beer for the Izakaya fest, Gigantic owners/brewers Ben Love and Van Havig worked with local restaurant Shigezo. Sourcing enough black rice was somewhat difficultonly about 40 lbs were available at the local Asian grocery Uwajimaya and the remaining 44lbs were found at Gobuji in Beaverton.

Using a base of 85% Pilsner malt, they left 15% of the mash for black rice that was prepared in huge cookers at Shigezo. We had them leave the rice “as is” – not rinsing it, so that we got as much color and starch as possible,” relates Brewmaster/Owner Ben Love. The cooked rice was added by the handful to the mash and stirred in. The enzymes of the mash worked their magic and extracted more sugar than thought from the rice, resulting in a higher gravity than expected.

“After the mash, the rice looked relatively the same, but when you ate it, it wasn’t sweet. All the sugar was gone”

With just that 15% of the mash being black rice, the wort picked up enough color to take on an orange-amber hue. Ben Love tells me that the black rice contributed an aroma similar to white tea, as well as a savory mushroom flavor and subtle black licorice-like spiciness.

Last week I joined brewers and volunteers to help slice around 1,260 pounds of black plums to be added to three 270 gallon wine totes and topped off with the beer which is how the beer earns it’s unusual name “Ume Umai”. Plums are a staple of Japanese culture and come in many varieties, “Ume” is the word used for plum and “Umi” means literally “yummy”. The “Ume” is processed in different ways before eaten and is more tart than the western plum. The most popular plum dish is the “Umeboshi,” a pickled plum typically enjoyed with cooked rice much like the ingredients of the beer. There is also “Umeshu,” which is a sweet alcoholic plum wine.

Each plum was hand sliced in half,the fruit brand sticker removed, and then crushed by hand and tossed into the big plastic totes. We did not concern ourselves with the plum pit, that went in, too. The black plum skin is tart, the inside sweet, and modest crushing and slicing reveals a sweet meal for the stillactive eager yeast already pitched into the beer. The brewers hope that the dark skin of the fruit will contribute even more color to the finished ale and maybe even help it take on a purple tone.

Try the fruits of their labors on Friday at the Jupiter Hotel. I recommend purchasing tickets in advance, they are affordable. http://celebrateizakaya.com/

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: [email protected]


  1. Anonymous

    November 12, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    While many izakaya in Japan have a selection of different sake and shochu, the majority only have one or two beer brand choices. The most common choice is simply between draft or bottled beer.

  2. Jeff Alworth

    November 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    This is a fantastic post, Ezra. I am mightily intrigued…

  3. Anonymous

    February 13, 2013 at 1:42 am

    Those fruit pictured are not ume. Ume are small (about 2 cm in diameter), green to yellowish, quite firm, and pretty much inedible until processed in some form. They are more closely related to the apricot than the plum, but really a fruit of their own. The taste is quite different from plum. Umeshu is not wine either. It’s a fruit-infused liqueur. Unripened, uncut ume fruit are steeped in shochu (or some mystery ultra cheap liquor that comes in a carton and is often labeled in English here as “white liquor”) for months. Sugar is added somewhere in the process. Some people also dilute it with water to a specific ABV. The result is usually aged for at least a year before drinking.

    I just removed the ume from the umeshu I made last summer and tossed them into a baltic porter, lying in wait in secondary, along with some fresh sansho I bought at the market. Hoping it will be ready before the ume blossoms start blooming here.

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