If you’ve been to a Japanese beer festival at all in the last 20 years, then you’ve more than likely seen Sankt Gallen there. That person serving the beer, who could pass for a Japanese rockstar, is the brewer and owner of Sankt Gallen, Iwamoto-san. You’ve also probably met Nakagawa-san, more commonly known as Miki, the hard-working person behind Sankt Gallen’s PR effort across SNS. She often posts updates about new bars, new beers, and also videos from inside the brewery itself.
While the current brewery has been in operation since 2003, Sankt Gallen’s roots are much older. The Japanese government didn’t relax the beer licensing laws until 1994, Iwamoto-san was brewing in San Francisco for his father’s dumpling (gyoza) restaurant. Wanting to move back to Japan and open his own brewery, Iwamoto-san took the first step by opening a pub in Roppongi which sold Sankt Gallen beer imported from the US. The selling of homebrew was as illegal then as it is now, but Iwamoto-san managed to make his own non-alcoholic beer for sale at the bar.
The pub is no longer there. However, it is an important part of brewing history. It was where Bryan Baird and his wife Sayuri would meet when they lived in Tokyo before the days of Baird Beer. Most of the stories remain secret from those days but the memories brought an even larger smile than usual to Iwamoto-san’s face. BeerTengoku commented that he was the “otosan”, or father figure, of Japanese craft beer seeing as he has been around for so long, to which a wry smile creeped across his face.
Iwamoto-san is a Fukuoka native but there was never any thought of opening a brewery in that part of Japan. Tokyo was too great a pull on him and remains one still. The area of Atsugi at the time had nothing in the area in terms of craft beer. What it did have was cheap land, easy access to Tokyo, and also the offices of Iwamoto-san’s father’s chain of dumpling stores. The Tanzawa ridge looms over the Sankt Gallen brewery, and the water from the mountains also supplies the brewery with its water
Iwamoto-san’s passion for brewing beer comes through whenever he’s given the chance to speak about it, and if you give him the chance then prepare to learn …. a lot! Having started out as a homebrewer in the States, he jokes he’s earnt his brewer’s license enough times to start at least four breweries. He estimated that he’s brewed about 6000 batches of beer, and only had to dump less than 10 in that whole time which were down to problems with the yeast.
When asked about the change in becoming a homebrewer to a professional brewer and what is needed, without missing a beat in the conversation he said “passion”. You can have all the money in the world but if you don’t have passion for the brewing process then you can’t make beer people want to drink. Some of the tasks are cumbersome and tiring but he learnt that during his dumpling-making days that these tasks help you to improve upon your techniques. Of course, brewing courses help but they can’t replicate the ins and outs of what is needed.
The first building, which was built in 1993, stands behind the current brewery, though it’s no longer owned by Sankt Gallen. The move to the current building occurred in 2003 to cope with the larger demand for the beers. If you’ve seen the UK TV show Doctor Who, then Sankt Gallen’s brewery is very much like the TARDIS. It looks tiny from outside, yet walk inside and you’re greeted by a small pilot system, where contract brews are first tested out and then scaled up. Then the wall of brite tanks, fermenters, and the brewing system greets you in its shining stainless steel splendour. Each of the brite tanks hold 2kL of beer (2,000L) while the fermenters hold 4kL (4,000L), with the brewing system being the original one installed back in 2003.
Sankt Gallen brew three to four times a week, though more often than not, they brew double batches to ensure supply can keep up with demand. On top of that, Sankt Gallen also contract brew for bars and restaurants in the Kanto area, with The Aldgate in Shibuya and 800 Degrees in Shinjuku being repeat customers. While Miki tweets away about places to drink Sankt Gallen, it’s surprising that there are only five full time workers at Sankt Gallen, with no one in charge of sales themselves.
From the beginning, Sankt Gallen have never been about pushing their beer on bars or shops. When Sankt Gallen first started, there were only three dedicated craft beer bars in Tokyo compared to 250+ at the time of writing, Iwamoto-san knew that a bottling line was important for the growth of the brewery. At 1,000 bottles an hour, or 330L, it would take almost the whole day to bottle up one whole fermenter. But along with the keg filling station in the brewery, all five staff are busy with getting beer out before thinking about sales. The most surprising thing about their sales ethos is that they don’t do follow-up visits to push sales. With this in mind, the ethos behind the beer is that if people want to drink it, then they will order it.
The astute reader may have noticed how there are no weizens, saisons, or Belgian style beers in the Sankt Gallen lineup. Pretty much every single Japanese craft brewery has at least one, if not more, of those styles as part of their regular lineup. The simple reason is Iwamoto-san suffers a similar condition as to famed BeerTengoku writer, Joe, in that the yeast traditionally used in those beers causes intestinal issues. Moreover, he finds the distinctive aroma from weizens – the banana and clove – is also off-putting. Iwamoto-san’s dedication to producing beer that he is happy for others to drink means he cannot guarantee that the beer produced is up to his high standard. This dedication also means the only fruit beers from Sankt Gallen are their orange gold and pineapple sweet – other fruits just don’t bring enough to be added to their beers.
That’s not to say that the offerings at Sankt Gallen are your standard ones – Sankt Gallen were one of the first Japanese breweries to offer up an IPA – their Yokohama XPA brewed with water sourced from Yokohama – before many other breweries knew the style would take off so well. Their sense of humour is not lost either with annual productions for April Fool’s being sold out as soon as they are announced. Their most famous limited edition beer is the うん, この黒 (Un kono kuro) which translate to “poo black”. The reaction to this beer was hilarious – numerous drinkers thought that, somehow, poo had made its way into the beer. In fact the real story is far less twisted. Black Ivory coffee, a Thai strain of coffee that is produced by salvaging the beans from the poo of elephants that have digested the bean, was used in the fermenter. 5kgs were used during the process due to the prohibitive costs and also Amazon being the only supplier of the coffee in Japan.
Sankt Gallen have also earnt themselves an enviable reputation for their annual stout releases – which should have been on sale and probably sold out way before this interview is up. Each year, the base stout recipe is infused with a variety of flavours, and each one also brings a new flavour to the batch as well. In the past, Iwamoto-san has experimented with mint, sesame seeds, strawberries, a smoked version, and oranges. The 2018 version was based around the Chinese dessert – an homage to the dumpling restaurant days – annin tofu, or almond tofu. Having tried some, the nuttiness complimented the base stout well though but it’s unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.
When it comes to the future of Sankt Gallen the need to expand looms over the brewery. They are already at capacity in terms of the amount of beers that can be brewed and space for fermenters so it’s hard to see how the space can be utilised any more efficiently than it is now. Wanting to stay in the area, Iwamoto-san is looking at purchasing land nearby, in the hope of both expanding the brewery and offering a taproom on-site. Beers can already be purchased directly at the brewery now so what better way to try the beers fresh than on tap? This has also led to the idea of re-opening a bar in the nearby area as well. Sankt Gallen used to have a bar in the local area, before the current craft beer boom, but it was sold and is now a coffee shop. Iwamoto-san was coy about giving up the location of the bar – Yokohama is one train journey area but is already dense in craft beer bars, Atsugi and Ebina are also possible locations – though he did say it would be in the Kanto area.
Wherever they end up, as one of Kanagawa’s biggest and best known breweries, they are going to become easier and easier to find. If you’re not too sure where, then check out their SNS feeds – one of the best up-to-date resources to find their beers across Japan.