(辛口) is one of the more bizarre
the Japanese culinary lexicon
The characters literally mean "pungent" and "mouth", so the
first meaning isn't too tough to puzzle out: karakuchi
is how the Japanese refer to spicy hot food,
like Japanese curry rice or kimchi. This can even be modified,
so that chûkara (中辛) is middling hot and
chôkara (超辛) is super spicy.
The older connotation of karakuchi, however, means not
spicy but simply salty; the chili pepper is, after all,
still a very new ingredient in Japanese cuisine. But this usage
is a little obsolete and is now usually spelled out in full
as shiokarai (塩辛い), "salt-hot"); this is how that
infamous dish of pickled squid guts, shiokara, got its name.
Hopping yet further on the association trail, things that are
salted tend to be dry, and that's why in the context of the
world of sake karakuchi means neither spicy nor salty, but
simply not sweet. For the technically minded among the audience,
dryness in sake is measured with nihonshudo (specific gravity)
and rated so that +2 is yaya karakuchi (somewhat dry) and
+6 and above is karakuchi (dry).
And so, when the Meiji era started and exotic drinks like
wine and beer were brought in from the West, this same label
was applied to them as well. Now, sweet and dry white wine
are easy enough to understand, but I'll admit the
concept of karakuchi beer had me puzzled for a while.
But evidently the Japanese had just applied the specific gravity
idea to beer as well -- a heavy dark stout like Guinness is
thick, sweet and very anti-karakuchi, whereas the light
lagers preferred by the Japanese are low-density and hence
karakuchi. This also explains why so many of them are
named things like Asahi Super Dry.
And finally, a friendly warning to you kanji students out there:
try not to get 「辛」, the kara bit of karakuchi
which can also be read tsurai to mean things like painful and
heart-breaking, mixed up with 「幸」(sachi, saiwai, shiawase),
which means happiness, luck or blessing. Look carefully at
the top bit: for karai it's a single vertical stroke ｜,
while for saiwai it's a cross 十. (Better yet: karai
is to stand 立 on a ten 十, while saiwai is some ground
土 on a yen ¥.) It took me at least three
years to stop writing about that super-happy curry I ate yesterday
or wishing people painful, heart-breaking marriages...