In late August, BeerTengoku ventured out to the Kiuchi Brewery in Hitachi-konosu, Ibaragi. When we saw on the map that it was in the countryside, we didn’t realise it would be the proper actual countryside where trains are one-man cars. The driver drives the train, collects tickets, and so on; the trains run on single tracks, and the biggest shock, you can not use your PASMO and there are no English announcements. So after a four-hour trip, being stuck in the middle of nowhere without a clue where to go didn’t bode too well. Luckily we bumped into one of the workers who just happened to be meeting some friends, who took BeerTengoku to the Kiuchi Brewery in the sweltering sun.
Whilst Kiuchi Brewery may be better known overseas for their range of Hitachino Nest beers, it is worth remembering that first and foremost, Kiuchi Brewery is a nihonshu, or sake, brewery, which are known as shuzo (酒造), which means sake brewery. If you search for those kanji, Kiuchi Brewery is the first listing. It was only when Toshiyuki Kiuchi took over that the company moved towards brewing beer in the mid-nineties. Since then, they have branched out to making wine as well, but today was about the beer. And the occasional sake.
Haruna Katsuyama was our tour guide for the both the sake brewery and also the beer brewery as well. Throughout the tour, Haruna displayed an impeccable amount of knowledge and thorough understanding of the beer process. Not to disparage other places, but when you have someone who loves drinking the product as well as making it, the passion shines through. Each step of the way, Haruna described what was going on, why it was happening, and what the end result was.
Starting at the front gate, the Kiuchi Brewery for Hitachino Nest looks tiny compared to other major craft beer breweries in Japan, such as Baird Beer Shuzenji, but it’s important to remember that over 60% of the Hitachino Nest range is sold overseas, which explains why it can be difficult to find some of their products domestically. This place is like the TARDIS for you Doctor Who fans. It is much much much larger on the inside than on the outside. This was no more evident than in the milling room, where two 10-ton giant malt hoppers were three-quarters filled a piece, ready for the next milling and mashing. Haruna had some of the malts on hand that Kiuchi Brewery use and handed them out for tasting; a very pleasureable experience that was akin to Jelly Belly beans, where you can mix and match flavours and tastes.
On the day BeerTengoku went, Kiuchi Brewery were making up a fresh batch up of their award-winning Hitachino Nest White Ale, and it was like a sauna inside. Now, this was the peak summer time in Japan but it was cooler outside than in; however, the smell of the ingredients for the Hitachino Nest White Ale permeated across the building. It reminded us of Christmas and the puddings and cakes being warmed up. It was interesting to see that all natural ingredients were going in, and not 200g or 300g but more like 2 or 3kgs of them.
Moving on from here, Haruna took us around the storage and fermentation tanks. While not the the most exciting of places, it was incredible to see how well the space is used. Wall to wall, ceiling to floor, everything is rammed in there. Hearing that the Kiuchi Brewery has over thirty tanks in one place, with a storage capacity of over 180,000L at any given time was mindblowing. This is supposed to be a “small” brewery. Well, compared to the big four it is but against other craft beer breweries, it looks like a steam roller. My first though was “why can’t I find your beers then?”. Apparently, over 60% of the beer produced here gets exported, which would become more evident later on in the tour.
Whilst we were dawdling around the Kiuchi Brewery, Haruna was pointing out little points here and there. “Those tanks were from xxx brewery”, ” These tanks hold 12kL of beer”, or my personal favourite: “Don’t stand there as some water might come shooting out during cleaning”. Going on a beer tour should be an experience where you learn new things, but this was something different.
The final area of the tour was the bottling and packing area. Nothing special you may say but this was special. Everything was automated except moving the finished beers into storage. Kiuchi Brewery is able to fill and package around 5,000 bottles an hour, and with a minimum of a six-hour shift, Kiuchi Brewery can fill and package around 30,000 bottles in that time. This includes packing the beers into cases, loading them onto pallets and then putting them into the cold room.
Of course, some human interaction is needed, such as loading the labels into the machine and moving the finished pallets of beers into storage. Going back to the “60% of the beer produced gets exported” comment, all of the export beers, be it bottled or kegged, are brewed and bottled here in the Kiuchi Brewery. BeerTengoku noted labels for various markets, such as Scotland, Ireland, Thailand, and the special Ginger Beer label for The USA.
Of course, no tour would be complete with the obligatory beer tasting and BeerTengoku were extremely lucky to be able to sample some of their beers. Whilst fans of Kiuchi Brewery may know their regular line such as the White Ale and the Amber Ale, they also produce some keg only beers, like a lager and a saison. These were both a welcome addition to the range and we look forward to seeing them on the shelves soon.
After the tasting, Haruna very kindly drove us back to the main sake brewery area and suggested we stick around and have some more beers. By this time, BeerTengoku were suitably chilled out and relaxed and ready to go home. The trouble was, the next train was in ten minutes or one hour. What to do?