at Crafthouse Kyoto
The founders of the Kyoto Brewing Company, head brewer Chris Hainge, Paul Speed (CEO) and Ben Falck (Chief Commercial Officer), accomplished what nobody else could seem to do in Kyoto, namely establish a modern craft brewery that would help foster a viable craft beer ‘scene’. They did so in part by navigating the city’s notoriously complex maze of social behaviors and expectations.
There’s a way of doing things in Kyoto that’s informed by centuries of tradition, and even the world’s best beer won’t sell if you ignore the subtleties of interaction in the ancient capital. Which raises the question: what’s ‘best’ for a place like Kyoto? The answer might be KBC’s Ichigo Ichie (“Once in a Lifetime Encounter”).
Even after you’re accepted into Kyoto, the challenges don’t end. If you’re selling beer, it must not only be good, but also the right fit. Hainge nailed that imperative with “Belgian-American-style beers with a Japanese twist”. Before unpacking this, let’s consider what preceded the launch of Kyoto Brewing, known as KBC, in early 2015.
Shortly after brewing laws in Japan changed in 1994 to allow for small-scale brewing, two established Kyoto sake manufactures launched beer brands. Kyoto is one of two sake meccas in Japan and local producers have significant power when it comes to distribution. These companies got their beers onto shelves and menus in Kyoto, but they did little to enamor people to what was then called ji-beer or “local beer.” The beers tasted uninspired. They were mostly intended as omiyage, or souvenirs.
Japan’s microbrew industry collapsed a few years later due to poor quality. Kyoto’s beer producers survived due to the insulated nature of the city and their sake businesses. In the mid-aughts, the industry recovered as producers refocused their efforts on the ‘craft’ of brewing, and by the early 2010s, bars with multiple taps of craft were opening throughout the city. A local company had a tight lock on distribution to these bars, though – if you wanted to sell craft beer in Kyoto, you had to go through its owner.
The KBC founders recognized that their city was grossly underserved. As they socialized with regional brewers and word of their plans spread, many were skeptical. One respected brewer in nearby Osaka told me that she hadn’t been able to crack the Kyoto market despite her company’s strong brand (and a few World Beer Cup medals). She was concerned for them. They were good people, but could they pull it off? Not only were they not from Kyoto, they weren’t even Japanese!
When KBC launched, they did not go through that local distributor. I can’t imagine what the conversation with him was like. I did join them for documentary purposes on their first day of self-distribution, however, and that was revealing. They had spent much of the preceding years building relationships with retailers and other key people in Kyoto. They had approached Kyoto with humility and a willingness to listen, not a desire to disprove naysayers. When they brought kegs, people welcomed them like old friends.
Through their interactions, they also understood what the market wanted. In Japan, craft beer has had trouble getting onto the menus of fine restaurants, many chefs being loathe to serve anything that might compete with their food. Japanese food is generally more subtle than rich, and Kyoto cuisine in particular tends toward the delicate. Enter Hainge’s preferred style of brewing.
Hainge started as a college homebrewer in the U.S. While teaching in Japan post-graduation, he spent two years in the distance-learning program with the American Brewers Guild, followed by an apprenticeship at The Lost Abbey in San Diego before working for several months at Shiga Kogen, one of Japan’s best breweries. He describes his beers as Belgian because they are yeast driven, but also favors the characteristics of American hops. Hence, “Belgian-American” beers.
That Japanese twist? They sometimes use local ingredients, but it more refers to a philosophy of subtlety and balance so that they will complement Japanese cuisine.
Ichigo Ichie exemplifies this. It’s a Belgian saison with hints of spice and hop-forward (but not hop-obtrusive) character, a medium, hazy body and 5.9% abv. Beer geeks may not celebrate it, but Kyoto has embraced it. Hainge tells me privately that it’s their de facto Flagship.
You’re likely to find KBC beers at Crafthouse Kyoto, owned by Takumi Shiraishi, one of Kyoto’s more colorful characters. In conversation with Shiraishi, whether that be English or Japanese, you need to be on your toes, since his deadpan jokes fly unprompted and if you’re not paying attention he’ll troll you savagely. International patrons are often surprised by this wit and playfulness, certainly a contrast to Kyoto’s typically cool, almost aloof, demeanor (I endlessly wonder how he has managed to dance through Kyoto’s nebulous protocol). His establishment occupies a restored machiya, or traditional folk house. Old beams in the arched ceiling are left beautifully exposed and drinking on the second floor can momentarily feel like a time warp. It’s within easy walking distance of Kyoto’s main station and has introduced thousands of overseas visitors to the riches of Japanese craft beer.
Thanks in large part to KBC and Shiraishi, Kyoto now has a respectable craft beer scene. Jordan Smith, a brewer at Yamorido, one of the city’s new brewpubs, even admits that Hainge’s example inspired him to dive into the industry. I’ve heard others around Japan admit as much. For some, his beer was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter indeed.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.