Living in a foreign country means you’ll always come across things that are done differently. But generally speaking, any place you go on Earth an ice cold beer is always an ice cold beer.
I haven’t written in depth about Japanese beer before — because, while I am definitely a beer lover, I’m by no means an expert. But Japan has some great beers! All the Japanese brands of real beer are very delicious, smooth and drinkable. And Japanese bartenders pride themselves on pouring a proper pint of Guinness too! Most restaurants that serve Guinness actually have notices posted somewhere near the bar to show that the bartenders are certified to pour Guinness properly. They even put a shamrock design into the head.
On a Guinness, a nice head is always appreciated. That head doesn’t dissipate quickly and tingles your lips and gives a creamy goodness to each sip.
But the Japanese bar owners obsess on pouring a beautiful looking head on each and every beer no matter what the brand or style. Granted, it looks lovely if you receive your beer in a timely fashion. But soon it dissipates and you’re left with a very sad empty space — often two or three fingers deep — of air. And by “air” I mean “NOT BEER.” And by “not beer” I mean “seriously, it’s not beer, even though you paid for it.”
In America, if you served a beer with a head 3 fingers deep you’d probably get it sent right back asking to tip it off properly with, um, you know, beer. In NYC and parts of the UK or Australia, you’re likely to get the beer thrown back in your face — pint glass and all.
When I first visited Japan in winter 2003, I took the head with a grain of salt. I’m in another country. I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. I felt some social pressure to just go along and not cause any problems. But towards the end of my almost 2 month stay, I was DJing at a party as a personal favor to a friend. It wasn’t a club gig. There was no money involved. Not even free beer. It was for her university circle (like a social club) and I didn’t know anybody except my friend.
I kept ordering beer to loosen up, and kept getting tiny plastic cups full of Asahi Super Dry or something. But each tiny cup had a massive head on it. After my second beer, I was fed up. I asked how to say “without head” and decided to make my first attempt at complaining in Japanese.
When I got next beer, I pointed at the white froth on top and said 「泡なしで」 and waited for the guy to go “sorry about that, let me fix this for you.” But instead I got a blank stare that said “without head? what’s that???”
My friend explained to him my request and the bartender, seeming to understand, took the cup of beer and proceeded to dump it out. All of it.
I was shocked. Just pour out the head and pour in beer, you don’t have to waste it! Isn’t that one of the seven mortal sins? Oh yeah, he’s probably a Buddhist… Anyways… He didn’t have to pour the whole thing out and start over again. Sheeeesh!
Then he poured a new one and handed me what looked like a carbon copy of the first.
「泡なしで、お願いします」 (no bubbles… please!)
Again, with the same confused stare back at me, he took the cup of beer, dumped it out and re-poured it — capping it off again with a lovely head. A lovely head that I had just asked him twice to not pour.
My friend again tried to explain the situation to this bozo and he listened attentively, seemingly understanding everything. He then poured out the beer, re-poured it and capped it off with the same perfect head.
He explained to my friend that it’s a policy to pour beer like that and he could get in trouble for pouring headless beers. (I was thinking, you’d be in much more trouble with some of my British mates if they saw you dumping out beer after beer like a bloody wanker).
I didn’t know the word しょうがない at that time, but looking back, this was just one of those しょうがない moments. I just had to let it go and move on with my life. Getting worked up about this issue wasn’t going to help the situation.
A few years later I told the story to a colleague of mine who told me that he’d heard about a lawsuit “a few years ago“ in which a man tried to sue a bar for refusing to pour him beers without a head. In court, the defense showed that the alcohol content of the bubbles was the same as or higher than (I forget which) that of the actual beer. The court then ruled that he was not being ripped off, but actually getting his money’s worth.
At the time, I accepted the story as plausible. But now that I think about it, it’s gotta be an urban legend told by ex-pats trying to rationalize the ubiquitous refusal by bar staff to pour “a proper pint.” And by “proper” I mean “one with actual beer instead of 3 fingers of quickly dissipating bubbles.” It’s gotta be bullshit. I mean, the Japanese are not particularly litigious, like Americans. The costs involved to start a lawsuits are extremely high and the cash payouts are extremely low. All the guy would probably win would be the right to get a headless beer anywhere in Japan. This would be a great hit to take for the benefit of all beer lovers across the country, but who the fuck is that selfless? Furthermore, I’m no chemist, but I’m very skeptical that the alcohol content in the bubbles would be higher than regular beer, or that such a bizarre demonstration of scientific-legal acrobatics would be convincing.
Anyways, I couldn’t find anything on the web to corroborate this story.
So I’ve totally made peace with the fact that I can’t get a “proper pint” in Tokyo — no matter how much it irks me 嘘. And it really does irk me if I’m drinking 大ジョッキ, the extra-large sized beers in some izakaya. As you can imagine, those beers come with proportionally extra-large sized heads.
I can see the rationale behind wanting to save money by charging full price for a beer then skimming a bit of beer off the top. I can see management justifying in their own minds the aesthetic beauty of a cold mug of beer with a creamy head at the top. It does look good!!
And this in the country where the saying “the customer is king” is rendered as “the customer is god.”
After 5 years of living in Japan, the only reason I bring this up now is because the other day I was at T.G.I.Friday’s in Shibuya enjoying a full rack of baby-back ribs with a frosty glass of Premium Malts or whatever beer they serve there. As I was pointing out the extra-large sized head on the extra-large sized beer to my girlfriend, something caught my attention on the menu. You know how fine print jumps out at you while you’re eating ribs, right?
I know the picture isn’t very good, so if you can’t make out what it says, I’ll include the transcription at the bottom.
(I would include a transcription of the Japanese, but I can’t actually make it out due to the crappy resolution of the camera on the iPhone 3G)
We are serving No Head Draft Beer as these prices: (sic)
THE PREMIUM MALT’S
(M) +￥150 (L) +￥200
(M) +￥100 (L) +￥150
Oh, and just for comparison…
Here’s an (L) sized beer. I didn’t touch it. I just let the head settle on it’s own and then took this picture. That’s how much beer THEY DON’T SERVE YOU. And if you want it, you have to pay for them to fill that “extra space.”
Makes me wanna beat somebody over the head with that heavy-ass glass!!!
If you think I’ve been to heavy handed in this rant, or have your own “bad head” story, leave a comment and let’s discuss.