Japanese brewers in Oregon

Japanese Brewers during OBF

Red Gillen
Red Gillen of oshuushu

During this year’s Oregon Brewers Festival, the International Tent welcomed six craft brewers from Japan for the first time, each bringing two of their beers to pour at the festival (except Iwate Kura Beer which only brought one). And on Thursday, the 28th during the OBF, Belmont Station hosted a meet-and-greet event with the Japanese brewers, for which I was invited to a media preview beforehand. The short version: there is some really interesting brewing happening in Japan right now, and if you get a chance to try some of these beers, seek them out.

The visit was organized by Red Gillen of the oshuushu blog, which is an Oregon beer blog for Japanese readers. Gillen acted as the media event MC and informal moderator; each of the Japanese brewers had a translator if they didn’t speak English, and talked a bit about their breweries and the beers they brought (samples of which were poured for the assembled folks).

Each of the visited brewers also spent some time that week brewing collaboration beers with various Portland breweries, the results of which should be on tap now (or soon will be).

Here are my notes and photos, for each brewery and speaker:

Shonan Beer: Takashi Tsutsui

Takashi Tsutsui, Shonan Beer

Shonan is located about one hour from Tokyo, and takes its name from the region which is know for surfing. Shonan is part of Kumazawa Brewing, a sake brewer that has been making sake for 104 years. When Shonan started (1996, I looked it up) they began with German styled beers, and now are branching out into American- and Belgian-influenced styles as well as developing their own. One reflection of that is using sake rice in their brewing.

(In fact, many of these breweries started out as sake breweries, and using rice and sake brewing techniques in their beers is a genuinely Japanese innovation developing over there, as Jeff also pointed out.)

The beer we sampled was a single hop IPA with Mosaic hops named, aptly, “IPA Mosaic.” It was a nice ale with that distinctive Mosaic character (slightly onion- or garlic-like) and a bit earthy.

Collaboration: Shonan and Burnside Brewing brewed “Sakura Gose.”

Shiga Kogen Beer: Eigo Sato

Eigo Sato, Shiga Kogen Beer

Like Shonan, Shiga Kogen started out as a sake brewery. Currently they grow both sake rice and five varieties of hops at their brewery, including Cascade and Centennial. They too have taken to incorporating sake rice into their brews, and the beer we sampled was their “Number 10” — an Imperial IPA they brewed for their tenth anniversary, using homegrown sake rice.

As “Imperial” goes it was only 7.5% abv so a rather easy-drinking version of the style. I had also sampled this one during OBF previously in the day, pretty good.

Collaboration: With Hair of the Dog Brewing, a hoppy lager with jasmine rice.

North Island Beer: Takeshi Tagaya

Takeshi Tagaya, North Island Beer

North Island is based in the city of Ebetsu, which ironically is a sister city of Portland’s neighboring Gresham. The brewery started in 2003 in the suburbs of Sapporo, with 150 liter brewing capacity. In 2009 they moved to Ebetsu and expanded.

They make six styles regularly, and to sample that evening they brought their Coriander Black: a stout spiced with coriander. They had hoped to bring a fresher batch, but this one had aged longer leading to a mellower spice. I rather enjoyed it, and afterwards I bought another glass.

Collaboration: North Island teamed up with Widmer Brothers Brewing to brew a Coriander Black IPA.

Y.Market: Makoto Kachi

Makoto Kachi, Y.Market

Y.Market is only two and a half years old, based in Nagoya, Aichi. In general they have no “house” or regular beers, but tend to brew something different each time, and Kachi-san estimated he has brewed maybe 100 different kinds of beer.

The beer sampled was the Hysteric IPA, a standard American-styled IPA at 7% abv.

Collaboration: Y.Market teamed up with Ninkasi Brewing to brew a pluot beer (possibly two versions).

Baird Beer: Chris Poel

Chris Poel, Baird Beer

Poel was the one non-Japanese brewer from Japan, and Baird Beer was founded in 2001 by an American, Bryan Baird. Poel himself has been living in Japan for 36 years, and was a homebrewer who got his start working one day a week at the brewery and after nine years was hired on as lead brewer.

Baird is located near Mt. Fuji, in Izu city. They have a new 50 barrel brewhouse they are brewing on, but also they continue to brew on the (original) two barrel system and eight barrel system.

The beer Poel brought to sample is a Baltic Porter, their Pacific Porter which is brewed once per year. They use “black sugar” in the beer (which Poel admitted was really more brown).

Collaboration: With the Labrewatory, they brewed up a version of Baird’s Wabi-Sabi Pale Ale with Brettanomyces; the “base” Wabi-Sabi incorporates green tea and raw wasabi root.

Iwate Kura Beer: Wataru Sato

Wataru Sato, Iwate Kura Beer

Only one beer came with Iwate Kura Beer, their Sansho which is billed as Japanese Herb Ale brewed with sansho peppercorns. I had in fact tried this beer earlier at the OBF (see image below) and found it quite good.

Iwate Kura was able to come to Portland for the OBF because they won a contest which ran in Japan (I’m fuzzy on those details, unfortunately). In general Sato-san and the brewery focuses on truly Japanese styles, and the parent company Sekinoichi Shuzo is also a sake maker.

(No info on collaboration brewing.)

Japanese Herb Ale Sansho at OBF

Overall it was a fascinating look into the Japanese craft brewing scene and they are producing some very interesting beers— as well as developing as distinctive local expression for their beers. (At least, these breweries are.) Incorporating sake rice, techniques, and traditions is one aspect; brewing with local ingredients like sansho, wasabi, and other (indigenous?) spices is another. Which is what we’d expect of course, in theory, but it’s great to be able to taste that “theory” in the glass.

And those collaboration beers they brewed while here—those will be worth seeking out, as a local expression of that Japanese craft movement.


  1. Craft beer in Japan has come a long way in the last five years. Breweries here are really upping their game and making beer that is as good as the imports which have exploded as well—not that I’m complaining. I had a pint of Shonan’s Imperial Stout a few days ago and it was excellent, as most of their beers are. Problem in Japan though is that, outside of craft beer bars, it’s rare to see any craft beer at all at the places where the vast majority of drinking happens. At 95% of izakaya the beer choice continues to be simply draft or bottle of one brand. Hopefully, that’ll start to change.

  2. Jason is right — really hard to find craft beers outside of Tokyo, Osaka. There are starting to be some fissures in Izakayas though, as Kirin is leveraging its distribution channels to promote beer from Yo-Ho Brewing, in which Kirin owns a 33% stake. I guess that begs the point that with such an ownership structure, it’s debatable if Yo-Ho is considered “craft beer”…

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