Chateau Kamiya, located in Ushiku, Ibaraki is a brewery so steeped in the history of western alcohol in Japan, that it’s hard to understand why it isn’t bigger than it is. They’ve been making wine here since the Meiji era and were, along with the original Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama, one of the first to be making beers brewed to a German standard. Even with the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 that damaged the facade to the chateau, the brewery is still going strong. They have resisted the urge to take the commercial brewing route, however; they are big enough to expand yet are not willing to as they want people to come and visit the grounds.
If you’re unfamiliar with Chateau Kamiya, then a history lesson is required. Heisuke Kamiya, for whom the estate is named, was born back in 1856 in Aichi prefecture, and learnt how to make sake barrels when he was eight years old. When he was 22, he moved onto winemaking, and in 1880 opened up a sake shop in what was then known as Edo (modern Tokyo). In 1894, he moved to France to study winemaking before returning to Japan and expanding the vineyard in Shinjuku in 1897 (Edo was still surrounded by countryside at the time, having only being made the capital of Japan in 1868), before moving to Ushiku in 1898 and expanding the winery there. During this time, the brewery experimented with making some beer using German techniques, though beer was not as popular in Japan then as it is now. Chateau Kamiya finally moved into making beer in 1996 when the Japanese government relaxed the beer license requirements, and immediately moved into producing German style beers such as dunkels, helles, and German-style pilsners.
Since then, though, beer tastes have changed and pilsners aren’t seen as being as exciting as they once were. Barley wines, IPAs, and chocolate stouts, along with barrel-aged beers, are the norm now with the traditional German styles being thrust aside. Chateau Kamiya has adapted, though, as is evident from the variety of beers that the brewery is able to produce, and produce well. India Pale Lagers, Chocolate Stouts and Barley Wines are among their seasonal list of beers that changes monthly; it shows how quickly Chateau Kamiya are able to shift their production around. All of these are produced using imported malts from either Germany or the UK and are mixed to the brewery’s own requirements.
Our host at the brewery is Kakui-san, who joined in 2011, and mentioned that the recipes have barely changed and pointed to the medals they have won for these beers – a rare sense of bravado in a culture that is high on modesty and low on showing off. Kakui-san started at Chateau Kamiya in 2004 and was welcomed in quickly, with his ideas producing some new German styles, such as the bock, maibock, christmas bock…well he’s a bit of a bock fiend but he knows his beer making. The beer industry has changed a lot since then but his ideas are forever flowing, and his phone continuously ringing as we walk and talk around the grounds for an hour or so.
Kakui-san, one of four brewers that work between the brewery and the winery, was eager to explain that breweries that are unable to move and change with the times are the ones that get left behind. In the past, pilsners were often mistaken as being represented by the big four breweries: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Yebisu and when customers tried the Chateau Kamiya range of beers, they were quickly converted and this is what spurs him, and the others, on. Even though the regular range of beers still includes the pilsner, dunkel, and helles, their range of seasonal beers is much broader than other breweries. A Belgian white is between an IPA that is tucked between a barley wine alongside with a Sakura kobo wheat beer and there is room for more.
When the brewers talk about new beers, all four of them are on level footing. Japanese culture expects, or demands, a level of sempai-kohai, or senior-junior, where the juniors are expected to listen to their seniors and respect their decisions; even if they are wrong. At Chateau Kamiya though, there is none of that. All brewers are equal and all opinions are of valid standing. Kakui-san reiterated that for a new beer style to be introduced, all brewers must agree or at least must be in majority when it comes to the decision.
During the discussion of brewing techniques, Kakui-san asked me for my opinion of barrel-aged beers and what I thought of them. For those new to barrel-aging, it involves taking a beer and storing it in some casks of another product; such as whisky or wine, and letting the flavours from the wood in the cask impart the previous occupant into the beer. Chateau Kamiya could do this with their wine casks though Kakui-san mentioned that it is difficult to do well, something he prides himself on. “It’s easy to put a beer into a cask, but how do you know that the flavour will work? There needs to be a balance between the flavours of the whisky and the beer” was what it came down to.
Even with an 80kL annual production, it’s impossible to find the Chateau Kamiya range of beers outside of the brewery, besides at beer festival and on their Rakuten online store page. Kakui-san wants people to come to the ground to experience the history and also the relaxed nature of where they are located. At about 45 minutes from Ueno on the Joban Line, it’s an easy place to get to for Tokyoites, and even those with access to the new Ueno-Tokyo line extension and also fun with the annual Hanami and Golden Week festivals that go on. “If people can buy our beers elsewhere, why would they need to come here?” Kakui-san mentioned. “They miss out on the stroll around the gardens, the chance to sit on grass and leisurely drink beer without a care in the world”.
It’s hard to argue with him as I sit on the grass, drinking a chocolate stout that is velvety and smooth while writing this story. Admittedly, it’s a frustration that I can’t get their beers besides at the brewery or online but Kakui-san’s thinking is right; sometimes all you need to do is sit down with a beer, relax in nature and enjoy the surroundings. As the beers take hold, and the warm sun beats on my arms and neck, I’m relaxed and dreading the journey home. It seems long, though it isn’t; however, that could be the misty haze from the alcohol talking.