Atsugi Beer has been operating since 1997, and has been at the same location for the whole time. Quite rare for a Japanese brewery to have been in the same place for so long, but when the local politician not only asks you to make a beer for the area but also provides you with the building, then why move?
Located in the foothills of the Tanzawa mountain range in Kanagawa, Hideki Mochizuki has been running the brewery by himself (besides some occasional part-time help during the week) since its establishment, and could be considered one of the first brewers in Japan to focus on yeast as well as the lambic style of beers.
Mochizuki-san was working for a medical instrument company when he spent his honeymoon in Germany, where he discovered traditional German style beers – and not just the regular pilsners that were as prevalent then as they are now. After that awakening, he moved to Kai Draft Beer in Yamanashi, where he learnt the basics of brewing from the German head brewer there. The styles of beers at the time were helles, weizens, and of course pilsners. It was only when he studied under the tutelage of Bawa Demuryakor from Ghana, at the time head brewer at Echigo Beer from Yuzawa, Niigata, that he discovered his passion for yeast and the work it does on beer.
If you’ve had the chance to talk to Mochizuki-san at any of the craft beer festivals, then you know he is an effervescent speaker, pausing only momentarily to catch a breath before carrying on. This was no more evident than when the topic of yeast came up. Meeting Demuryakor at Echigo Beer was an eye-opener for him, and he came to realise the importance of it. Dotted around the brewery were test tubes used to create “slants”, a small tube containing agar or similar growth media and a small number of yeast cells. When asked, Mochizuki-san mentioned he had 50 different strains of yeast in slants, a method of storing yeast for future breeding, that he had access to.
Atsugi Beer has an 8,000L capacity, and has been so for a while. The brewery is a bit of a tight squeeze – Mochizuki-san even apologised for the brewery being untidy. But in all honesty, it was great to see the brewing process and his mini-lab at work. The majority of the beers made at Atsugi Beer have stayed the same except in one area: yeast. In the past, Mochizuki-san was forced to use dry yeast due to the major liquid yeast manufactures such as White Labs and Wyeast having a limited amount for domestic sales in Japan. However, with his yeast bank he is able to make his own starters, which can be upwards of 19L for a 1000L batch, though the usual batch is about 40L. And it’s all made from those tiny slants of original yeast.
It was in the mid-2000’s that Katsuki-san, owner and head brewer of Thrash Zone (insert link) approached Mochizuki-san about producing an in-house beer for the fledgling bar at the time. Katsuki-san had recently come back from the States from a trip, where the hop revolution had begun, with the notorious Russian River Pliny the Elder being a revelation for Katsuki-san. Mochizuki-san and Katsuki-san both worked on making a beer in a similar style, though Mochizuki-san was very clear on saying that it wasn’t a copy, but their own attempt at a double-IPA style beer. It quickly became popular and is still brewed at Atsugi Beer for both Thrash Zone and Atsugi Beer’s taproom, Lambic. Other bars in Tokyo have approached Atsugi Beer to make in-house beers for them,, with Beer Pub Camden having the Camden IPA and Good Beer Faucets having the Nide Beer Yuzu Dream.
However, and by Mochizuki-san’s own admission, he isn’t a fan of hoppy IPAs – something I found hard to believe as we sipped on the Camden IPA. It was back in Germany where he discovered his love of German style beers and also found lambic style beers to be the most interesting. With the bar being called Lambic, of course, it would have been unusual not to have some lambics on tap and the current one of the Raspberry Framboise brought a tart berry sourness punctuated with a crisp, dry texture.
When it comes to using local produce, Atsugi Beer have been producing local flavoured beers since the brewery first opened. While some have survived, as the Atsugi Shiso, or Japanese Basil as Mochizuki-san calls it, or the Atsugi Hachey, others have floundered. The Atsugi Stout, one of my personal favourites in Japan, was once made with sea-water from the Miura peninsula area before costs became too prohibitive. Even Atsugi Beer’s two honey ales, Atsugi Hachey and Atsugi Honey Ale, both use different kinds of honey from Kanagawa – the first from Yokohama and the second from the local Atsugi area. The most complex to make, though, is the Atsugi Bakuzen, which combines persimmon leaves, turmeric, kumasasa (a kind of bamboo herb), coix seed, and ginger. Obtaining the right balance of these adjuncts is difficult to do in a 1000L batch though- it did seem a tad like drinking some Chinese medicine.
In a city with over 200,000 people and an American Naval Air Base, it’s genuinely surprising that Atsugi Beer is the only brewery operating in Atusgi city. Even so, it hasn’t been easy. When asked about finding the location for a beer, Mochizuki-san laments that he isn’t closer to the station. The current location is about a 20 minute walk from Hon-Atsugi station, but admittedly it is a straight-forward walk. Drink-driving laws are notoriously strict in Japan and as such, the people that come to Lambic end up not drinking.
While Atsugi Beer isn’t as large as the main craft beer brewery in the area, Sankt Gallen, he is happy with the current setup. By the time you’ve read this article, some of you may have been to the Keyaki Festival and wondered why Atsugi Beer, among other breweries such as Outsider Brewing, were not in attendance. According to sources, this year’s event only includes the breweries that sold the most beers at last year’s event, thus forcing out the small breweries that should be in attendance of the event. Mochizuki-san was disappointed at the fact that the larger breweries can afford the large PR setups and push their beers out, and the smaller local breweries are getting left by the wayside.
For those living in the major cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, there has been a second boom of craft beer bars over the last five years and it doesn’t appear to have reached saturation point. One bone of contention for many Japanese craft beer fans is prices – with beer prices going up and up. Mochizuki-san wasn’t afraid to voice his concerns or doubts about the challenge of pricing his beers now, mentioning that prices at bars are often at 1,000yen for a large size. He doesn’t think that this price is coming down soon. People can’t afford to pay that kind of price, which is why at Lambic, beers vary between 600 ~ 800 yen a glass and have stayed that way for a while. With the younger generation coming through now, there is a generation gap occurring with a lack of knowledge being passed along – perhaps the burst of the second craft beer bubble is coming soon?
When it comes to talking about the future of Lambic and Atsugi Beer, Mochizuki-san joked that he wouldn’t be around in 10 years time. There are no plans for expansion of either the bottled range or the location of a new branch of Lambic – he likes the flexibility he has now of a small scale operation. He is able to brew what he wants, when he wants, without having to worry about backers. One major problem he has, and it’s one that has been voiced by other smaller breweries, is trying to sell the beers. With the bigger craft beer breweries expanding and able to spend more on their marketing departments, there is a fear that the smaller craft beer breweries will slowly be overlooked by bars and restaurants.
It’s a sombre thought for someone who has seen the industry change so much. If you’re in a craft beer bar, make sure you do ask for some other beers to come in – and not just the well-known ones.
English by Rob