Fussa, located in the western reaches of Tokyo city, is a city that is more well known to Westerners for the US air base situated in the Yokota area; however, Ishikawa Shuzo, makers of the Tama no Megumi range of beer, has a much longer history and connection with the Tama area. They have been craft beer since 1998, when the current head of the Ishikawa family, Yahachiro Ishikawa, decided to make the move into craft beer production after seeing sales of sake fall year upon year.
Ishikawa Shuzo, located a 15-minute walk from Haijima station, has been around for 18 generations, extending back into the 17th century, and has had close connections with the area ever since. The family business has changed throughout history from catching local ayu, or sweetfish, in the local tama river and then moving to lime production from the local area before moving on to sake in 1863, or nihonshu, which was the the mainstay of the family’s income until 1998, though that was not the first dalliance with beer making from Ishikawa Shuzo.
Along with other breweries, Ishikawa Shuzo first started making beer in 1888 using traditional German brewing techniques. Their first beer was called JAPAN Beer and was sold in the surrounding Tokyo and Yokohama area. At first, the company was about to produce 54kL of beer annually. Though encouraged, the beer industry struggled due to a lack of crowning, the process of placing the lids on bottles. As a result, Ishikawa Shuzo withdrew from beer manufacturing by selling all of their beer making equipment in 1890 and concentrated on sake distillation.
Sales of sake at Ishikawa Shuzo began to fall from 1970, from a peak level of 100kL a year to about 60kL annually around the early 90s. Yahachiro-san became head and then decided to move the company back into beer production and bought new equipment from Germany and installing it onsite. Ishikawa Shuzo continue to use much of that same equipment now and still uses locally sourced water and ingredient where possible.
The initial batches of beer were based around the usual German styles of pilsners, helles, and dunkel though in recent years, Ishikawa Shuzo has displayed an ability to move styles to current trends, such as IPAs and pale ales. When asked about the production, Yahachiro-san, mentioned that making a pilsner is not uncommon, but making a good pilsner takes time and effort. All of the big four breweries in Japan make their own take on a pilsner though the taste is bland compared to pilsners from Germany, Czech Republic, and other European styles.
With the recent shift towards using クラフトビール, craft beer, as the nomenclature for beer, rather than 地ビール, or local beer, beer fans began to turn their noses up at beers without this designation. Some breweries have embraced the change while others prefer the smaller idea that local beers produce. Yahachiro-san though isn’t bothered with either. “Over time, words and meaning change. 100 years ago, the word 控訴, kouso, was used to describe what I’m wearing (a suit), though nowadays, スーツ, or sutsu, is used instead. Who’s to say that in fifty years time, a different word or phrase will be used, such as マイクロビール, or micro beer?”.
The conversation moved on to what defines a craft beer? With Asahi, Kirin, and Suntory all trying to move into producing different styles of beers, such as porters, pale ales, and brown ales, does he feel threatened by the encroachment? A big resounding no. These companies produce large amounts of beer that can be tested and then passed off when they don’t sell well. Craft beer, to Yahachiro-san, contains feelings and care. It is easy to make a pale ale from a standard recipe, though making a pale ale that is made from scratch and has been made with care and a passion for it.
At the last count, the Tama no Megumi range stretches to 10 different styles, with the most recent one being the Tokyo Blues Session Ale, an American pale ale, first released in April 2015 to much fanfare. Moreover, Tama no Megumi JAPAN Beer was also re-released in February 2015 using the original label from the Meiji period but brewed to an English pale ale recipe.
With so many beers, you would think that the Tama no Megumi range would be east to find, especially with an annual production of 200kL+ a year; however, Ishikawa Shuzo, like Chateau Kamiya, want people to come and visit their site. Fussa no Birugoya, an Italian restaurant, and Zougoura, a traditional soba and tempura Japanese restaurant, both selling the range of Tama no Megumi beers fresh from the brewery, Yamachiro-san stated that this is the best place to try their beers the way they meant to be. On top of this, the site also include a museum that includes exhibits from the Ishikawa Shuzo and a sake cellar where samples can also be tried, and finally a shop where the range of Tama no Megumi beers can be bought.
Trying to find their beers outside of the brewery isn’t easy, but it is possible. Stores on Rakuten, such as LIQUOR BASE FUSSA and Johnny’s Sake, both stock their beers, as do some smaller, independent alcohol shops; however, the main sticking point is the shelf life of their beers, with the average length being around two months. Supermarkets are loathed to stock beers that have such a short life in the fear of being left with stocks going out of date. While it is disappointing, Yahachiro’s attitude to this was nonplussed, they can’t force the stores to stock the beers and are not actively looking for chain stores to supply their beers. However, with Ishikawa Tokyo Blues proving to be successful, maybe it won’t be too long until the Tama no Megumi range will be seen more often across Kanto.