Brewpubs: a Blueprint for Japan’s Craft Beer Future?

by Kumagai Jinya

The great appeal of brewpubs, where beer and food is made on the premises, is without a doubt that you can get beer freshly made right there. There are actually quite a few brewers that serve their own beer, and asking them about brewing techniques and beer condition is fun, too.

Brewpubs are actually popping up everywhere in Japan right now. If we include the ones in planning and building stages, too, there are a startling number of them. The phenomenon of a pub with its own beer was born and developed in Europe, and perhaps because of that, the brewpubs that have sprung up in Japan take many forms. Let’s look at a few examples.

T.Y. Harbor on Tennoz Isle (Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward) opened in April of 1997, relatively soon after the liberalization of brewery laws in the mid-90s. The shareholder organization was Terada Warehouse Company, which operates a number of businesses mainly in the warehousing industry. Around 1996, the Tennoz Isle warehouse neighborhood converted to an office district. The company decided to refurbish one of the pre-existing warehouses in the hopes of turning it into a brewpub like the kind in San Francisco the staff found popular, housing both a brewery and restaurant.

In the summer of 1996, the company conducted an internal search for employees interested in this work and Abe Kazunaga, who is now the brewmaster, quickly raised his hand. The beer Abe makes balances the fruity notes of an ale with clean, crisp, easy-to-drink flavor that pairs quite well with ample servings of beer. His regular beers include a pale ale, amber ale, wheat ale and an imperial ale.

Presently, the same operation runs T.Y. Express, which is also in the Terada Warehouse Company portfolio. Another of the company’s restaurants, Cicada, moved to Omotesando this October, to be joined on the premises by a café called Crisscross and a bakery called Breadworks. All offer new opportunities for enjoying their beer.

Nômura Kakyu, head brewer of Asagaya Bakushu Dojo, which opened this past July, left his job at an advertising agency for this new line of work. As many may know, Nômura first opened the brewpub Koenji Bakushukobo on Christmas, 2010, in Koenji, right beside Asagaya.

In October of 2009, shortly after leaving his job at the advertising agency, Nômura traveled to Kinugawa hotsprings on vacation, and from there on to Utsunomiya City, where he visited Tochigi Microbrewery and realized that he could brew on his own. Nômura, who had always been drawn to hand-made craftsmanship, decided as his next step that he would make it his vocation. He then traveled around to a number of breweries to gather some ideas for his launch and in the end received some help from Nagahara Satoshi of Kibidoteshita Brewery. For half a year, about once a month at Nagahara’s side, Nômura studied the ins and outs of running a food and beverage business.

At present, Asagaya Bakushu Dojo employs six staff, all of whom are considering opening a brewpub in the future. As for their bar names, the prevailing idea is, “it should be where they hail from.” Nômura is already thinking about opening some more places along Tokyo’s Chuo line.

Another brewery to have benefited from Nagahara’s help is Ichijoji Brewery in Kyoto’s Sakyo-ku. Brewmaster Kanehide Maeshiro, also a lover of craftsmanship, once worked at iron and steel manufacturer, but wanted to try his hand and brewing beer he liked. Meanwhile, one of his drinking buddies, a mental health doctor named Takagi Shunsuke, had the goal of building a place that could employ mentally challenged individuals.

They began their preparations for obtaining a brewery license in 2008 and submitted their forms in April of 2010. However, they soon realized that they needed documentation of technical support from some other brewery in operation. That’s when Maeshiro called on Nagahara and had him fill out the proper forms. Then in June of 2011, they finally received their happoshu license.

Since then Maeshiro has been making a surprising variety of beers, many of which in their use of fruits and vegetables do not conform to any particular style. He approaches the production of happoshu in a special way, explaining, “I don’t think of it as, ‘I have to include some adjunct.’ Rather, I take a positive approach, ‘I can add anything!’ With so much freedom, I want to keep making unique beers.” The brewpub additionally offers Okinawan food, Maeshiro being an islander himself.

Nagahara’s help has extended to two other places: Mabichikurin Bakushu, in Okayama’s Kurashiki City, and Tanba Sasayama Zig Zag Brewery, which opened this past August in Sasayama City, Hyogo. Having participated in Kyoto’s autumn beer festival at Zest, they are well on their way to wider recognition.

Like Nômura, who runs his brewpubs with his wife, Suzuki Hitoshi and Yumiko together run Zakkokukobo Brewery in Ogawa Town, Saitama. Towering Suzuki is the second brewmaster there, having taken over from his wife’s father, Baba Isamu, who got his brewing license in 2004.

The first beer most associated with Zakkokukobo is their weizen. The family farms on the side and for Baba, who cultivated wheat and barley, making weizen was a natural direction. Until the fall of 2011, they had been using 80% of their homegrown malt in their beer, but by this autumn, they hope to reach 100%. For food they eat homemade bread the vegetables Baba raises—even their brewpub his handmade!

Although Suzuki has taken over the reigns of making beer from his father-in-law, he has devised some of his own recipes, too. At this year’s Keyaki Hiroba Beer Festival, he debuted his “Calico Cats Amber” using Cascade, Amarillo, Target and Saaz hops. Look at the first letter of each and what do you have? Yep, “CATS.” Look for his new stout this winter.

Kobatake Shoji, operator of Pangea in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward launched his brewpub in August of 2010. Kobatake traveled around Scotland in 1999 and was influenced by that pub culture. A lover of beer from the beginning, it was only a matter of time before he decided to open a pub rich with beer options. He opened up Pangaea in 2004, focusing on bottled selections of German and Belgian beer. Kobatake notes how happy he was when regulars accepted his recommendations in beer.

On the first-year anniversary of the pub, he served some original beer he had brewed at Kiuchi Brewery (Hitachino Nest). But when customers told him how delicious it was, Kobatake says, “I felt a different kind of happiness because it was beer that I had brewed on my own.” He then resolved, “I want to make my own beer some day.”

He got his license in July of 2010 and first served his beer the very next month. In the two years since opening his brewpub, Kobatake has tried his hand at some rather challenging brews, like an American sour ale which even Charlie Papazian praised on a recent visit.

Many will be surprised to know there is even a brewpub in Tokyo’s Ginza district: Hachiban. It opened in 1995 as an izakaya (Japanese pub), but got its brewing license in 2002 and began serving very shortly thereafter. Brewmaster Suzuki Toshiro went on a winery tour of Germany just before the reunification. While at a brewpub in Rüdesheim, nestled along the Rhine in central Germany, he decided to make brewing his mission. The place was open, comfortable and casual in appearance and he thought with confidence, “I could one day make a place like this.” After the reunification, he traveled back to Germany several times to learn how to brew and then set out on his own back in Japan once he had his restaurant.

Hachiban has a two-hour all-you-can-drink plan that features two styles: a weizen with bold banana notes and a porter. He also serves sake and shochu. For food, course dinners are offered, and the atmosphere is lively much like your standard izakaya.

Before the end of this year, with craft beer gaining mainstream popularity, he hopes to open an second place in Nihonbashi. Next year, he plans on finding a third location and making fruit beers there.

I can’t list all the brewpubs in this article, but there are several others in other regions of Japan that fit the definition of a brewpub. We’ve already received information of some that are opening within the next year. There are two of particular note. Catharsis Brewing, by world-famous homebrewer Fujiura Ichiri, will open beside Watering Hole in Yoyogi, Tokyo, next year. Meanwhile, Ushitora has teamed up with widely-respected brewer Luc LaFontaine, formerly of Brasserie Dieu Du Ciel, to run a new brewpub in Tokyo sometime next year as well. Japan is definitely trending toward an increase in brewpubs.

As shops that carry beer increase, so too will the varieties of beer available. Shops that try to specialize in beers made from one particular country will find it increasingly difficult to create a distinct identity. Brewpubs, however, serve beer that you can only drink there and nowhere else in the world. Now that’s distinction! And when they assume the identity of the region, too, the brewers, the drinkers and anyone who lives nearby stands to benefit.

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This article was published in Japan Beer Times #12 (Autumn 2012) and is among the limited content available online. Order your copy through our online shop or download the digital version from the iTunes store to access the full contents of this issue.