Shiga Kogen Beer

by Kumagai Jinya

After last year’s inaugural hosting of Snow Monkey Beer Live, showcasing craft beer and good music, Shigakogen is doing it again this March. But how many have actually encountered one of those snow monkeys? During the winter when the snow falls, the hot springs must look rather inviting and those monkeys inevitably climb in, as shown on TV and in comics. Most have at least probably seen that.

Not far away from where those monkeys congregate at Jigokudani Onsen (in Yamanouchi-cho, Nagano Prefecture) lies Tamamura Honten. The company started out in 1805 and can lay claim to over 200 years of making sake. It also brews craft beer by the name of Shiga Kogen Beer.

“Certainly some hot springs are located close to Tamamura Honten, but Shigakogen’s greater business engine is its ski slopes,” says Sato Eigo, a director of the company and also the head brewer.

Sato joined the company in 2003, essentially continuing the family’s operation of Tamamura Honten. In the beginning, though, he never really thought about making beer. In addition to the production of fine sake, the company also sells its alcoholic beverages directly to hot spring villages and ski resorts. The number of skiers, however, was dwindling, as were their sales. They put their heads together and decided to start making craft beer. They acquired brewing equipment from another company that had already gone under, trained for a mere week at a brewery in Kyushu and had a consultant for launching craft beer ventures come and watch over them brewing their first batch.

“We wanted to make beer that we personally wanted to drink,” says Sato. They first thought about what style they should make. Hoping for “beer with character, even if we’re doing it on a small scale,” they decided to make ale. But since it wasn’t exactly clear to everyone in the company what ‘ale’ meant, they had everyone drink Anchor Brewing’s Liberty Ale and Anchor Steam Beer, and it all started to come together.

They applied for a brewing license in May of 2004 and received it four months later. They then committed to a higher aim, “to make an authentic beer distinctive to their region but worthy of the world that would also contribute to the region’s appeal.” One prickly issue there, however, was that the name of the brand, Shiga Kogen Beer, suggested “ji-beer” or regional beer, while the brewery was conversely trying to achieve world recognition. Sato harbors some strong opinions on this one. “I was raised in Shigakogen, our family business was established here, I skied here from the time I was a kid, and the water that bubbles up is used in brewing. Furthermore, just as this is a ski resort worthy of the world, I want to make a beer here of equal stature.”

Tamamura Honten emphasizes another key point.

“I think thoroughly sanitizing your brewery equipment, for example, is a part of technique, but to take a negative perspective, if a brewery’s technique is sufficiently good, then that brewery could potentially make the same beer regardless of location. So we look beyond technique to ingredients as well.” By this, Sato means that Tamamura Honten produces its own hops, sake rice, barley, wheat, buckwheat (soba) and blue berries.

Its hop production, in particular, is well known. Among readers, there are probably some who have participated, or have had friends participate, in the hop picking during the summer. Hop production began in 2006. Because of damage from a typhoon last year, harvest yields of their prized Shinshu Wase declined, though not the quality—that anomaly aside, Tamamura Honten raises roughly 20% of their hops used throughout the year. Taking cues from Belgian beers, they launched their Yamabushi series, which uses 100% homegrown hops. During the summer, other brewers and diehard fans come to help with the harvest, and it becomes an opportunity for further exchange.

The Shinshu Wase hop variety is a hybrid between Saaz hops from the Czech Republic and a native variety. It was originally used as a bitter hop for lagers. Shiga Kogen, however, now uses it as an aroma hop, which definitely gives the beer a twist.

When asked about important steps in the brewing process, Sato quickly answers, “We give a lot of thought to the beer before making it.” When drinkers praise a beer, they often claim it’s “clean” but Shiga Kogen’s beer begs a better word. Not only are there no distracting flavors, but the hop and malt character comes out wonderfully defined. So, “we give a lot of thought” seems an appropriate enough response.

Probably most people who have had Shiga Kogen Beer will agree that its flavor composition is exquisite. “We’ve never even had to dump a single bottle (because of off flavor)” claims Sato, as if in proof of their quality. The first time they brewed their Harvest Pale Ale, however, Sato says, “I thought we were going to have to dump it.” After a little aging, the harsh flavor mellowed and conversely they realized they had brewed one of their best beers. Having been created from nature’s bounty (barley, hops and other natural ingredients) and a living culture (yeast)—perhaps therein lies the interest and depth of this beer.

The company’s cool sophistication is also worth noting. Tamamura Honten is the main sponsor of Snow Monkey Beer Live, while the performing artists are those that tend to draw rabid fans. Even the posters boast better design than your standard music festival.

One final point of interest we shouldn’t forget is the design of their beer bottle labels. They are the work of Tanaka Noriyuki, a prolific designer who draws on a range of visual styles and expressions. In his previous job, Sato was in charge of advertising for a clothing company, which is how he met Takano. Inspiration for their art came from a legend surrounding Onumaike (a lake) in Shigakogen. On the label, a large snake (it’s not a dragon!) encircles the surface of a cobalt blue lake.

Of course you have the beer first, but when you also have snazzy label art, an event and a clear concept for the company, then people begin to identify a kind of charisma in the project as it moves forward. Two who can relate are Matsuzawa Motohiro, who shut down a bar he was operating in Nagano Prefecture and basically pushed his way through the doors of Tamamura Honten, and Todoroki Koichi, who was originally working in operations for Tamamura Honten and thought, “I don’t just want to make beer; I want to work with Sato.” The two are now the assistant brewers.

Last August, they built Teppa Room, a tasting room beside the brewery (“teppa” is to drink by the measure in front of a sake store). There, guests can purchase and drink beer fresh from the tanks. And from December until the end of ski season, there is a second Teppa Room operating in Shigakogen Ichinose Hotel’s Chalet Shiga. After skiers and snowboarders wear themselves out on the slopes, they can kick back with some great brews. But if you need any other reason to visit Shigakogen during the year, definitely make it Snow Monkey Beer Live.

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This article was published in Japan Beer Times #13 (Winter 2013) 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.