Kyoto is more famous for its temples, shrines, and of course geisha than for craft beer. Kyoto has a handful of craft beer breweries, with the majority of them taking the once-typical route of being a side-company to a sake brewery. However, Kyoto Brewing Company have taken a vastly different route – one we haven’t seen before at BeerTengoku.
An American, a Canadian, and a Welshman are sitting at a bar …. It’s not the start of a joke. Founded in 2015, Kyoto Brewing Company has been a story of continued success ever since. The three people behind KBC (as they’re often called) are Chris Hainge, Paul Speed, and Benjamin Falck. All three of them shared a love of winter sports but not in Kyoto. Up in the cold climes of Aomori prefecture. Aomori isn’t known as a hotbed of craft beer activity – Be Easy Brewing being a notable standout. However, the three shared a love of beer, in particular Belgian style beers, but the brewery was still a long way off.
After Aomori, Chris studied in the USA to improve upon his brewing skill, with experience at the American Brewers’ Guild and also Port Brewing / Lost Abbey (available in Japan from Nagano Trading). Paul moved down to Tokyo and became involved in finance while discovering Tokyo’s burgeoning craft beer scene. Benjamin also followed the move to Tokyo and got involved with the craft beer scene too.
With all three in different places how did KBC come about? Chris had been living in Kyoto for several years before floating the initial idea that got passed onto Paul and Benjamin. Kyoto, at the time, had a comparatively smaller i.e. miniscule craft beer scene compared to Osaka, less than 30 minutes away to the west, and it took the trio’s fancy. Kyoto has strong connections with the past, tradition, and also artisanal crafts. Yet Kyoto, also like Osaka and Tokyo, is trying to push itself forward with new cuisine, designs, and drinks. That’s where KBC came in.
In Japan, breweries are seldom named after the region or city they are brewed in – notable exceptions being Shiga Kogen Beer, Shonan Beer, and Minoh Beer. However, in the USA, it’s fairly common to have a brewery named after the region – call it a sense of loyalty and pride coming through. Kyoto already had sake and craft beer breweries in the area and the guys thought it didn’t make sense to not have the city be a part of the company name. The first option was to try in Japanese (京都醸造 – Kyoto Jyozo) and as luck would have it, it was available and the name was chosen.
The luck wasn’t to last though and it was down to the bane of many in Japan – bureaucracy. Importing equipment from overseas is never easy, but importing brewery equipment takes on a whole new level of gritting your teeth and sucking through them. Anything that involves the production of food or drink has to follow strict Japanese import guidelines. If you order something that doesn’t, then cue waiting for customs to check. each. piece.
Yet the problem that caused the biggest delay was the West Coast port strike back in 2015. At that time, 29 ports, which handle about 70% of the Asian traffic, closed down and left the KBC brewing equipment stuck in limbo. Brewing was simply not possible and money was going out with very little coming back in return. The brewery’s shape – a converted wood works factory – has also caused a few problems for the company. With the main access through one door at the front for the large tanks, KBC’s initial expansion had to be much larger than they had originally planned for. It’s not tight by any means to walk around in however, it’s hard to see how the 4kl tanks could have been installed with everything else in the brewery.
The industry has also helped out KBC – with plenty of support from the local brewing industry. Minoh Beer encouraged them to brew and get their beers out. The KBC guys were in a bar in Shimokitazawa and they noticed Kaori Oshita from Minoh Beer was there. They were initially hesitant to approach her. Instead, she approached them and encouraged them to make great craft beer in Kyoto. Minoh Beer have also helped them out by setting up KBC with the same accountant to help with the finer details of Japanese bureaucracy.
Further afield Devilcraft also helped out in terms of how to import equipment, as well as help with Japanese bureaucracy in the form of the paperwork. KBC have paid it forward with Kyoto Beer Lab and also Woodmill Brewery too, which opened in 2018.
With Chris’ past experience providing a strong building block, the three of them began to work on recipes for their beer. Without a prescribed philosophy, the three of them decided to make beers that people, and the city, of Kyoto would be proud of. Belgian beers have been a strong part of their drinking education, with Saison DuPont being a group favourite, and that style of beer has shone through in the beers that they make.
The beers from KBC have a strong Belgian influence, from the yeast used, to the style of beer. One of the main yeasts used is Belgian Ardennes, known for its spicy and fruit notes it imparts into beers. It also works well to produce bright beers that look good, no matter the light. The hops used at KBC also show a global connection as imported hops from the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Slovenia, and the UK are all used in some of their beers. Belgian beers have also heavily influenced the styles of beers made too, with Belgian saisons, stouts, and blonde ales being part of the core line up.
Ichigo Ichie and Ichii Senshin were two of the first KBC beers we tried at BeerTengoku, and they are part of the Teiban (year round) series from KBC. These beers can be found across Japan, and are a great representation of the saison and Belgian IPA styles. At last count, KBC have produced 100+ different beers, either as their own or as collaboration with other breweries. Notable collaborations have been with Heretic Brewing (USA), Tiny Rebel (Wales), and also Y Market (Japan).
Looking to the future, KBC have begun to bottle their beers, with Ichigo Ichie, Ichii Senshin, and Kuroshio no Gotoku being the first three beers to be available. The bottles can be bought at the brewery, with some plans to sell them at other places in the Kyoto area in the future. The taproom on site has proven to be so popular that a second floor was opened in March 2018 to give them more space for drinkers.
There is also a barrel aging project in the pipeline too. Across from the brewery is a multi level building where KBC is renting out some space. Like any barrel aging project, the two most difficult things to manage are time and cost. Setting up requires space, space costs money, and with land prices in Kyoto increasing due to foreigners buying land, it could take some time. Time is as important as barrel aging can take anywhere from six months to five years. The idea of cool ships (open fermentation chambers in flat metal trays) was also asked about in the interview; however, the local climate isn’t conducive to this style of fermentation.
Kyoto Brewing Company is leading the way for craft beer in Kyoto and also Belgian beers in Japan. If you’re in Kyoto, stop in for a few beers at the weekend and get some beers to takeaway. If you can’t get to the brewery, check out some of the local craft beer bars in Kyoto that always have at least one tap of KBC beer on. If you’re in a different part of Japan, find some of their beers (if Kyotoites let the beers ever come out in large enough supplies!)