If we were to give out awards for the nicest people in brewing in Japan, then husband and wife team Kyohei and Monami Nakajima of Songbird Brewery would be contenders for the gold prize. BeerTengoku was thirty minutes late for a three o’clock interview due to some confusion with the express bus out from Tokyo and a thirty minute walk from the bus stop. This meant an interruption of their brew day, but they were both incredibly genial, welcoming and also apologetic.
Both of them have a long experience in craft beer, in particular the Japanese craft beer scene, with both of them working at Popeye’s in Tokyo. Having seen the bar grow from around 20 taps to over 50, they took the plunge and decided to open their own craft beer brewery in Kisarazu, Chiba, in 2012. Why Chiba (not exactly a craft beer mecca), and why Kisarazu, which is mainly known for its outlet mall? Like many other brewers, they wanted somewhere close to their home, and with a newborn baby born in June 2016, the brewery is also close for the family members, one of who turned up towards the end of the interview to look after the baby.
If you’ve ever seen a large scale brewery, then stepping into the brewing area at Brewery Songbird is akin to going back a few hundred years into the early industrial age. Some brewers use high-tech homebrewing equipment that can automate the process, while larger breweries use specially designed state-of-the-art equipment worth millions of dollars. At Songbird, there is no high-tech equipment emblazoned with LEDs and computer panels, besides a couple of pumps used to make moving 100 litres of boiling wort easier. The whole brewery is simple and functional, how both Kyohei and Monami like it. The hot liquor tank, mash tun and boil kettle are 100L stainless steel drums with a simple tap installed at the bottom, and all three are perched on some bricks with a roaring gas burner underneath. Kyohei-san was also proud to show off his homemade sparge arm, a device made from a coil of copper with holes drilled in it. It’s used to trickle water from the hot liquor tank over the mash, thus maximising the amount of sugars drawn out from the crushed malts.
The fermentation room, while small, has plenty of space for different techniques, something Kyohei was effervescent about to explain. Yeast is one of the driving forces behind the flavours of beer, with the conversion of sugar to alcohol well understood by drinkers, but few understand the importance of different kinds of yeast and the impact they have on the flavours of the beers produced. You can have two beers made with exactly the same base ingredients but different yeast, and the flavours can vary greatly. For this reason, Kyohei-san is trying to use a minimum of different yeasts to ensure that the flavour profiles stay the same throughout brewing. Moreover, the water used in brewing does not contain any chemical additives such as brewing salts, and nor is it filtered through any charcoal or other kinds of filters, something Monami was very proud of saying.
Another interesting technique, and not often found in Japan, is using open “ships” to ferment the beer using “coolships”. Coolships are wide, shallow open fermentation vessels that allow the wort to cool quicker and also be imparted with wild yeasts and bacteria in the area. You wouldn’t want to do this in a city or suburban area though. It also depends on the weather – if it’s raining or snowing, then you could get additional chemicals that have been brought over from the industrial or busy city areas.
The area around Songbird Brewery could be considered the countryside of Kisarazu. With the nearest industrial area more than a 30-minute drive away, the area is full of open spaces that have plenty fresh air and lots of wind. After walking for 40 minutes between the bus stop and the brewery, I can easily confirm that too. On the day we visited, Kyohei was brewing a 20L starter of a weizen to take home and put into a coolship near their house; however, he was unsure of when to use his coolship. January and February tend to bring the coldest weather, with temperatures varying from 1c to about 6c during the daytime, and also the lowest amount of monthly rainfall to Chiba, but December was relatively warm for the time of year. The plan is to take the wild fermented starter and then produce a sour beer later on in the year. Kyohei also showed us some of the previous samples Songbird Brewery had made and stored in the fermentation room.
If you’ve seen the list of beers Songbird Brewery have made [add link to list] then you could argue they’re one of the more ambitious breweries in Japan. Traditional beer styles such as blondes, wheat ales, and pale ales line up alongside brett table sours, smoked milds, peated IPAs, bier de garde (beers for keeping such as strong pale ales), franconia weisse, and bruins. At last count, they had upwards of 20 different styles of beers in their lineup with more planned. Both Kyohei and Monami are interested in different beer styles and the book has been one of founding resources they’ve used, and found many of the new styles. Moreover, their ideas come from everyday situations – with food pairings being the driving force behind new styles and combinations of adjuncts.
Their beer lineup, with it being so varied, has produced some interesting and unique beers such as an orange and ginger beer, yuzu and vanilla, and perhaps the most unusual, a lavender beer. The last one has provoked perhaps the most diverse reactions to it. Monami laughed at my response on asking for my opinion of the beer (I said it reminded me of the air freshener my wife uses in the toilet). Monami said that overall, female drinkers had a positive response to the beer, while male drinkers have generally had a negative response to it. While the beer will appear in their 2016 winter lineup, Kyohei did say that less lavender would be used in this years’ edition.
Most of their beers do not take so long to make, with most of them bottled and kegged by hand; however, 2016 saw Brewery Songbird take on their first collaborative beer with one of our favourite beer shops, Liquors Hasegawa in Tokyo. The peated black IPA was a limited edition collaboration that almost never saw the light of day. While brewing the beer, the pump broke down and started pouring out hot fresh wort across the floor. Quick thinking meant a quick break down of the piping and pouring it back into the kettle, saving what was left. Speaking of problems Songbird has had, high alcohol beers and those with large grain bills also cause difficulties due to the much longer time needed, and the lack of guarantee of quality beer coming out as well.
Though Songbird Brewery is very much a husband-and-wife environment, there’s one thing that they didn’t do- design the labels. Their friend, who specialises in fashion and designs from the 30’s, had the task of designing the logo and the labels for the regular range of beers. Each label contains some reference to the name (Songbird), the area (Kisarazu), the beer, and sometimes a small location in the local area. Monami challenged us to find the little details in the blonde label, and while we’re not going to give you the answers, it was great to finally realise the meanings of the subtle hints. (OK, we’ll tell you one – take a look at the front wall of the temple on the Songbird Blonde and you’ll see the katakana character for so ソ).
At the moment, Songbird Brewery supply 20 bars that regularly get their kegs on tap, and their bottles can be found in Tokyo and on their online store with shipping across Japan. If you do find them on tap, try some.