After the tour of both the sake distillery and the Hitachino Nest brewery, BeerTengoku sat down with Haruna Katsuyama and Toshiyuki Kiuchi for a quick interview. Once we had finally decided on what beer to drink (which is no easy task at Kiuchi), the questions and answers flowed thick and fast. With so much history and information behind the Kiuchi brand, trying to stay on topic about Hitachino Nest was always going to be a problem. Kiuchi brewery makes not only beer but also sake, wine, shochu, and umeshu (a lethally strong plum wine), and the conversation covered all the topics.
Kiuchi Brewery’s Move to Making Beer
It’s important to remember that Kiuchi Brewery, first and foremost, is known across Japan for producing some extremely high quality varieties of sake. However, nihonshu (the Japanese word for what Westerners commonly refer to as “sake”) is usually made in the cold winter months in Japan once the rice has been harvested. During the summer months though, sake production is reduced to a bare minimum, besides maintaining the nihonshu casks that are stored to produce vintage editions. Katsuyama mentioned that there were some casks and bottles from the mid-eighties. Once the Japanese government loosened the licensing laws for production of beer, Kiuchi-san came up with the idea to produce beer during the summer months to ensure that his employees had jobs. Beer can be produced all year round, including the nihonshu period as well, and the pair could coexist.
During the initial transition to making beer, times were tough. Mark Hammon was hired to help set up the brewery; however, the craft beer crash occurred soon after, something that still sits badly with most of the older craft beer breweries in Japan. Kiuchi had just started to make a name for themselves with their highly-respected quality beer, but were tarnished by the idea that because it was craft beer, then it wasn’t very good. Sleepless nights were had. The company pulled through however, and in 1998, they took home the gold medal at the World Beer Cup for their Hitachino Nest White Ale. The recipe has generally stayed the same, according to Katsuyama, although there have been some changes here and there, with tweaks to the amount of fresh ingredients. When Kiuchi Brewery moved to producing it on a larger scale, there were some gremlins in the works which led to some batches being dumped, such is the brewery’s attention to quality.
Of course, if we’re talking about Hitachino Nest and Kiuchi Brewery, then how can we ignore the iconic owl that adorns their packaging. Initially, as Kiuchi Brewery is based is Kounosu, and the Japanese word for stork is Kouno-tori, a stork image was used. After numerous redesigns, neither the stork nor the goosefish, a famous fish from Ibaraki, worked out. One night later, an owl was seen flying around. The word for owl in Japanese is fukurou, which is a symbol of happiness. Kiuchi Brewery wants people to be happy when drinking their beer and the owl became their symbol.
Kiuchi Brewery and The Industry
Kiuchi Brewery are a stalwart at beer festivals across Japan, and this year they brought their special lager to the BeerFes in Yokohama. This reflects back to their ideas about the industry and microbreweries. Even though the 1997 Craft Beer Crash still linger in most beer drinkers’ memory, all at Kiuchi Brewery agree that more choices and more chances are needed to try Japanese craft beer.
On top of this, Kiuchi Brewery also have the first legal home brewing in Japan. The home brew system is a very popular idea and on the day we went Katsuyama was kind enough to let us watch another party brewing their own beer. This educational system of brewing beer helps people understand about the process and the ingredients that go into making beer. In addition, Kiuchi Brewery also learns from these people as they are able to see people who have more creative ideas. Katsuyama was very clear that people are allowed to brew whatever they want, as evidenced when one Italian member of the party had brought over some Italian coffee syrup to be used in their beer. In the past, brewers from Niseko Beer Brewery also learnt how to produce beer here ready for their opening.
Evolution of Kiuchi Brewery’s Lineup
In 2000, Tani-san was hired as the head brewer, a title that he attested to disliking when questioned during the brewery tour. He has seen the range increase from an initial seven beers to the current 14 regular beers found around Japan plus an extra 20 or so recipes that Kiuchi Brewery uses. The Hitachino Nest White Ale is apparently one of the most difficult to make, along with their Red Rice Ale. Katsuyama pointed out that rice cooker in the brewery tour and was quick to explain that even though the size was much bigger than your usual home rice cooker, the concept was the same.
Tani-san is known to be a humble person when it comes to discussing his role as the head brewer and quickly passed on the plaudits during a short Q & A we had. It’s difficult to take time out when you’re making a fresh batch of beer. Tani-san has been working at the brewery for 14 years, yet found the move to the new brewery in 2011 to be his most difficult period at Kiuchi Brewery. Recipes that once worked on 2000L tanks had to be changed to fit 6000L tanks. Colour and taste changes were the biggest problem, but after a few months, Tani-san and company had perfected their new recipes and were back to making their beers. The old system is now used for an on-site brew on the premises, the first in Japan. However, Kiuchi Brewery has the possibility of going bigger with an an additional factory being built next door to the current Hitachino Nest factory.
Kiuchi’s Brewery Future Plans
Like Baird Beer, Kiuchi Brewery also have a taproom located at Mito station where their beers are permanently on tap. Mito might seem a bit far to travel to for a tasting session; however, the company does have plans for more taprooms in the future. With a reputation to keep up though, it would not be a case of opening up taprooms for the sake of it.
When questioned about their future plans for new recipes, Kiuchi-san was open about the possibility with collaborating with other breweries. Kiuchi Brewery currently produce Brooklyn Lager under license at their Hitachi-kosuno brewery and also produce some other beers for other companies, such as DevilCraft and Tokyo Station. One interesting point about the beer range is a lack of beers that use their nihonshu distillation skills. Kiuchi-san was quick to point out that this is one of their plans to the future. The maturation of nihonshu and the process of production is very different to beer, something they would like to bring together in the near future.
With the Korean market opening up for the craft beer in recent years, Kiuchi Brewery are also making that market one of their priorities. In June 2014, Kiuchi Brewery opened up their first overseas brewery in Korea to help cope with the demand for their product. Around 60% of the Hitachino Nest is exported, with Thailand, South Korea, and The USA being their biggest markets. However, the company does not intend to ignore the Japanese market. Katsuyama gave out a nervous laugh when quizzed as to why it can be nigh on impossible to find some of their beers in Japan if they keep sending them overseas. The current capacity of the brewery is upwards of 150,000L but the new brewery should provide another 50% on top of that.
Kiuchi Brewery have pushed themselves into the big-leagues of craft beer in Japan through sheer effort and a constant production of quality beer. Their plans for expansion across Japan and Asia should prove successful if they continue with their dedication to producing quality craft beer. We wish them the best of luck in the future and hope they expand further into the Japanese market and continue educating the public about craft beer.