Good Beer Club Brewery Tour
Here's your chance to join a group of Japanese beer enthusiasts and tour a small brewery under the direction of the brewers. In addition to the tour, there will be a small lecture (in Japanese) and a beer tasting. The cost is only Y1,600 and you do not have to be a member of the Good Beer Club to join.
After the event finishes, you can stick around and hoist a few more brews with the gang. Reservations will be accepted until May 14th by e-mail or fax (in Japanese or English) to Mr. Harumi Kumagai: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax to 020-4668-5054.
Saturday, May 28th from 3 to 4:30 p.m.
Harvest Moon Brewery at Roti's House Restaurant
Ikspiari complex in Maihama, Chiba
Adjacent to Maihama Station, JR Keiyo and Musashino Lines
Brewery Web site (Japanese only): http://www.ikspiari.co.jp/harvestmoon/
German-style Brewing on the Sea of Japan
by Glenn Scoggins
One of the success stories of the first decade since the liberalization of small breweries in Japan has been Otaru Beer, both as a high-quality product and as a business venture. It is not as well-known outside Hokkaido as it should be (for reasons revealed at the end of this story), but Otaru's Dunkel, Weizen, and Pilsner count among the many rewards of a trip to Japan's frozen north. Thanks to Hokkaido's glorious scenery, friendly people, and mouth-watering cuisine fresh from the farm or the ocean (and some irresistible package air/hotel deals), the thirsty traveler can enjoy excellent beer from a well-run brewery, either in Sapporo or in its hometown on the wind-swept seacoast about 40 minutes away.
As the regulation barriers to microbrewing were finally relaxed in 1994, one of Hokkaido's most prominent businessmen put into action the dream of producing his own beer. The president of Bikkuri-Donkey, a chain of steak and hamburger restaurants, wanted to tap the medieval European traditions of fine beer-making.
For a start, he gave one of his American employees a dream assignment. Brian Dishman, originally of Vinita, Oklahoma, was sent (at company expense) to learn the biochemistry and the business of brewing at Doemen's Technicum in the heart of Bavaria, Munich. Intensive study here was followed by a graduate course at Edinburgh's Herriot-Watt University, the academic center of British brewing. Brian was charged with hiring the most qualified master brewer available and luring him to Hokkaido; on this decision rested the success or failure of the enterprise.
Enter Johannes Braun, scion of a brewing dynasty from Marburg (between Frankfurt and Dortmund), with a pedigree trailing back hundreds of years. Johannes had followed the apprentice path from one brewery to another across southern Germany, making a name for himself as one of the most promising of a new generation of braumeisters. He then reached the pinnacle of his profession at the Weihenstephaner (which Michael Jackson calls not only the oldest brewery in the world, but also includes the best-known university faculty devoted to the brewer's craft), where he qualified as a Brau engineer, an honor reserved for the very best, capping off his education at Herriot-Watt with a Masters of Brewing and Distilling.
Brian's biggest worry after catching this beer barracuda was whether he could keep him on the hook: would he consider Otaru just a diversion on his road back to a major brewery in Germany? No suspense here - Herr Braun's contented smile gave me the answer right away. This accomplished braumeister is now comfortably settled down and proud to be the only German within Otaru city limits, a modest and unassuming man despite his accolades.
Otaru Beer began operations in 1995 in a picturesque stone warehouse, Soko No. 1, on Otaru's trademark canals. The high ceilings and interior decor, dominated by a giant copper brewhouse, have greeted a steady procession of locals and tourists to step through a door from Japan to medieval Europe, with fine craftsmanship evident in the wooden tables, benches, and counters. (While this facility is still operated as a microbrewery, producing and serving seasonal and specialty brands, the restaurant operations have been transferred to the hands of new management.)
However, a big step forward was taken in 1999: Brian and Johannes were allowed full financial backing and total discretion by their parent company, Bikkuri-Donkey, to build a state-of-the-art regional brewery in Zenibako, on the dramatic, rocky coastline between Otaru and Sapporo. While nowhere near the scale of the megabeer industrial factories, the Zenibako brewery has all the facilities and cutting-edge technology of a major brewery, with every step of the process monitored by computer but evaluated by expert human eye, nose, and palate.
Despite the bursting of the economic bubble, during which the plans had originated, no expense was spared in building the plant. Brian (the brewery manager) and Johannes (the brewery director and braumeister) supervise a small, well-trained on-site staff, who produce over two million liters of draft beer annually. Every step of the operation takes place under one roof, including bottling and filling the kegs at the heart of Otaru's home delivery system.
Brian and Johannes have an almost fanatical devotion to the purity of their ingredients. The pristine barley malt, imported from Germany, is mashed using the traditional decoction method, while noble aroma hops (including the prized Tettnanger variety), are added in three stages. Lagering (cold maturation) continues anywhere from four weeks to six months, depending on the beer. A printed rendering of the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) occupies pride of place in an impressive wall display, but it is also the philosophical foundation of their work, as it is followed religiously for all beers in the Otaru Beer lineup. (The brewery also produces specialty beers sold at the parent Bikkuri-Donkey restaurants, including a line of organic beers, which diverge from the Reinheitsgebot tradition.)
The three year-round mainstays of Otaru Beer are the Dunkel, Pilsner, and Weiss, with a hearty Schwarz generally available. In addition, the brewery produces Oktoberfest beer in the Maerzen style, a Christmas seasonal Dunkel-Bock lagered for four months, and other styles such as Koelsh, Alt, Helles-Bock, Dunkel-Weiss, and Rauch (smoked) beer. Attention to detail, characteristic of Brian and Johannes, is seen in the specialized glasses for each type of beer, provided not as an afterthought but as an essential component of enjoying their individual characteristics. This spring they are featuring a Helles in April and May and an Altbier in June, and they are currently planning for a special celebration for their tenth anniversary in July.
Where to drink Otaru Beer? The most scenic and conducive place to enjoy it is the original warehouse microbrewery in the heart of the Otaru canal district, ten minutes downhill from the JR station. For fans of the brewing process who want to see beer being made, nothing beats a brewery tour in Zenibako (free, in English or Japanese). This can be arranged by contacting Brian or the brewery through its extremely detailed website (details below).
After a thorough tour of every aspect of the operation, the much-anticipated tasting follows in a cozy bar, with well-crafted wooden tables and counter. For a small charge, generous helpings of sausages, sauerkraut, bretzlin (soft pretzels), and even roast chicken can be arranged to accompany the fresh beer. In Sapporo, Otaru Beer operates Leibspeise, a small restaurant and a take-out stand with all three beers on draft and a menu of mostly German food to accompany it. The location can't be beat: it's directly under the television tower that anchors the eastern end of Odori Park, the green belt in the very center of the city.
Otaru Beer in bottles are on sale at many stores in Otaru, and a few in Sapporo, but Otaru Beer also operates a home delivery service throughout the local area, offering beer in normal-sized 330 ml bottles (a case of 12 for Y3528) and a five-liter "keggy" for Y3696, suitable for parties or just everyday drinking. (A larger 12.5-liter keggy is available too.)
While it is also possible to buy gift sets at most of the tourist shops in Otaru and have them sent by refrigerated takkyubin to your home, the bad news for would-be fans from Honshu is that Otaru has no plans to expand its distribution area beyond southwestern Hokkaido. The rationale, unassailable if tragic, is that yeast doesn't travel well and that the live yeast that give beer its taste can't be guaranteed more than 100 kilometers from the brewery: the self-imposed limit beyond which Brian refuses to deliver. If you want to drink Otaru Beer regularly, move to Sapporo or be prepared to earn a lot of ANA frequent-flier miles.
Otaru Beer is an instructive case study that should be taught at Harvard Business School: a project conceived during the go-go economy years survived harder times yet is flourishing; and you don't have to sacrifice quality to make a profit. Brian and Johannes are two foreigners in Japan who have overcome the well-known roadblocks in their path to achieve their dream, without having to compromise their ideals in the process. For those of us who hope for greater appreciation in Japan of good beer as part of a healthy and cultured lifestyle, not as industrial swill to wash down fast food, the success of Otaru Beer can only be good news.
Otaru Beer Zenibako Regional Brewery
Otaru-shi, Hokkaido 047-0261
10 minutes by taxi from JR Zenibako station
The station is on the main JR line connecting Otaru with Shin-Chitose Airport via Sapporo. Express trains run every 30 minutes in both directions.
Otaru Soko No. 1 (Warehouse Microbrewery)
Otaru-shi, Hokkaido 047-0007
Open 8:00 am - 11:00 pm (daily year-round)
10 minutes on foot downhill from JR Otaru station
Leibspeise (German Restaurant)
Sapporo Terebi-to (TV Tower) 1F
Chuo-ku, Sapporo 060-0042
Open 10:00 am - 9:00 pm
1 minute on foot from Odori subway station: All Sapporo subway lines stop here, and the TV Tower is a landmark visible throughout the city.
Michael Jackson's Japan Tour
by Bryan Harrell
Last February, world-famous beer writer Michael Jackson came to Tokyo to participate in the annual Whisky Live event. He wisely left three extra days in his schedule to check out the microbreweries, and the beer scene in general, in the greater Kanto area. When asked to accompany him as guide and interpreter, I naturally jumped at the chance. In this instance, the jump was a round trip to Tokyo from California, where I'm staying until July.
After booking the flight, my head was awash with the names of places I'd wanted to take him. But with only three days and nights, we could handle at best three microbreweries (in different directions out of Tokyo) plus a few key beer spots.
On our first day together, Mr. Jackson was kind enough to make time for a talk to the Good Beer Club, held at Beer Club Popeye. At this SRO event, Mr. Jackson talked on various topics related to beer and beer organization while I interpreted his comments into Japanese. The GBC and I'd decided to donate half the event proceeds to charities for last December's tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.
Finishing in mid-afternoon, we headed straight for Baird Beer in Numazu, Shizuoka prefecture. Fortunately, we arrived on Sunday, February 13, the final day of Baird's Winter Beer Festival. Michael Jackson was given tasters of all of Baird's regular beers and specialties. What impressed me most about Mr. Jackson was the remarkable detail of his questions on each of the beers, quizzing Baird on types of malt, mashing techniques, hopping and a whole lot more.
Mr. Jackson showed his remarkable journalistic instincts, and after some thirty years of writing on beer, this is why he now knows so much about the subject. What I thought would take thirty minutes continued non-stop for nearly two hours as Baird searched his memory to remember even the smallest details about each batch of beer at hand. At close to 10 pm we finally left, barely catching the last train back to Tokyo.
Since I'd hoped to introduce Michael to some of Japan's best craft-brewed sake, my choice for the second day came easily. Kiuchi Shuzo is a sake brewer of several centuries' standing, and for nearly ten years has also brewed the Hitachino Nest beers which, interestingly, are now being exported to the U.S. Despite its long traditions, Kiuchi Shuzo is a very enterprising company, also producing wine and even distilled sho-chu spirits. On Monday morning we took the train from Tokyo north to Ibaraki Prefecture to Kiuchi's elegantly restored 18th century brewery compound. After a tour of the beer brewery, we were given samples of all their brews. Again, Mr. Jackson inquired into great detail about each, keeping copious notes for some future book.
The choice for our third day was Yoho Brewing of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, where brewmaster Toshi Ishii (formerly of Stone Brewing in San Diego, CA) crafts the remarkably good Yona Yona Pale Ale in the West Coast style, but also a mid-bogglingly good wood-aged barleywine that some of you may have enjoyed at past Tokyo Real Ale festivals. After alighting the Nagano Shinkansen at Karuizawa, our first stop was a restaurant owned by the parent company of the brewery, where Mr. Jackson tasted Yoho Brewing's line of beers and we were treated to a lunch of local cuisine. Afterwards, we toured the brewery and were given a vertical tasting of Mr. Ishii's wood-aged barleywines. The brewery staff kindly drove us back to Tokyo, where we paid a visit to Bois Cereste.
For me it was fairly hard work, arranging train schedules and interpreting Mr. Jackson's interviews when necessary. Still, it was obvious that he worked even harder getting his beer facts in order, all the while imparting a strong sense of goodwill to the good beer community in Japan.
New Baird Seasonal Beer: Four Sisters Spring Bock
On Wednesday, the 2005 edition of Four Sisters Spring Bock (a Baird Lager Beer Series seasonal) began flowing from the taps of the Fishmarket Taproom in Numazu, Shizuoka. While Four Sisters is brewed in the spirit of a German Maibock (a unique golden colored bock annually released in the month of May), this beer itself harkens back to a time before the general association of bock beer with the city of Munich.
The inspiration is the beer brewed in the city of Einbeck from the 13th century, which was noted for its refreshing palatability and wholesomeness. It was said to be brewed with one-third wheat and two-thirds barley, hence the light, zesty feel for an otherwise strong beer. Four Sisters Spring Bock sports a deep copper-gold color and maintains a brilliance of clarity unique for an unfiltered beer. In the nose, you will be greeted with the sweet floral bouquet of Sterling hops, while the rich malty flavor gives way to an extremely smooth, dry finish in which a hint of honeyed-malt flavor will linger. Surprisingly, it's approximately 7.4% alcohol by volume.
For more information on The Taproom and Baird Beer, go to www.bairdbeer.com.