For those knowledgeable about the Japanese craft beer scene, Niwa-san from Outsider Brewing could be revered with a quasi-deity like status among brewers in Japan. For those new to the scene or without much interest, you may have already tried some of his beers without realizing, with Iwate Kura being a good showcase to start from. Niwa-san was modest to say the least when we harped on about some of Iwate’s beers but the smile on his face when mentioned that he created that beer was immense.
Niwa-san’s journey through the Japanese craft beer scene started long before Iwate Kura, at Hakusekikan Beer where he worked for thirteen years. Hakusekikan Beer is a tiny brewery that is known for strong beers; American style barley wines being a prime example. When questioned about how he got his start there, Niwa-san laughed and said that he was working as a construction worker one day and then the next day he was told he was making beer. An auspicious start to a lengthy career.
Hakusekikan Beer let Niwa-san create some distinctive and, at times, crazy beers. Eisbocks weighing at 25% and upwards at times were not unheard of, with other beers, such as the Crystal Ale and Hurricane were relatively milder at 12% and 15% respectively. Niwa-san had a cheeky smile on his face when he began to talk about those days; Hakusekikan Beer no longer exists, having closed down in 2012. Unlike other tourist breweries, Hakusekikan Beer was well-respected throughout the craft beer industry in Japan; but, like other tourist breweries, it just was not deemed to be making enough money.
Moving on to Iwate Kura, Niwa-san again was given free reign to make the beers and he was the first Japanese brewery to make an oyster stout, a traditional beer brewed using fresh oysters to produce a silky, verging on velvet- like texture. His ideas came thick and fast during his time at Iwate Kura, with barley wines being a perennial stalwart of brewing. Yet, during his time there, he was already being head hunted without knowing.
Mark Major, owner of Outsider Brewing, had put feelers out for a brewer to help him open up a brewery in Kōfu, Yamanashi and Niwa-san picked up on the email on the Japan Brewer’s Association site. While it was hush-hush at the time, Mark did mention a short tale later on that during one night out at Popeye’s in Ryogoku, Tokyo, he was talking with a friend who had heard Niwa-san was moving on to another brewery- that brewery, of course, being Outsider.
Outsider Brewing has a wide array of beers in their range; however, some of the more unusual beers are the most interesting. Niwa-san became much quieter when questioned about where he gets his ideas and who he looks up to. Surprisingly, he said he was more of a leader rather than a follower in making beer in Japan. Over the past year, Niwa-san has brewed a mushroom porter, without the knowledge of Mark, which proved to be a hit. Filled with dried mushrooms, Niwa-san brewed this and put it on sale, surprising Mark, yet customers kept on asking for it. A chocolate Belgian white (let that sink in for a bit) also was popular among customers. In the future, Niwa-san is planning a salmon-infused beer, among others.
Outsider Brewing is a brewery with a true innovator at its helm. With the Japanese craft beer boom in full swing, people like Niwa-san are vital for striving to raise the bar in terms of creativity and maverick spirit. Never let it be said that he is willing to compromise his vision for a greater market share. That being said, go and buy his damn beer.