What comes first – the brewery or the beer? In this day and age, with contract breweries making beer for others, and phantom breweries popping up at different breweries to make a beer before going elsewhere, it’s not a straightforward question. Moreover, if you’ve dealt with any Japanese official then you’ll have been met with bureaucracy galore.
Far Yeast Brewing may seem like a relatively new brewery compared to others in Japan; however, their Kagua range of beers gave them a good head start in the craft beer industry in Japan. And also an unusual route into getting their beers sold around the world too. However, their beer came before a brewery was established and it’s interesting to see how Yamada-san, owner of Far Yeast Brewing Company, started his long and storied road into making craft beer, owning a company that exports craft beer from Japan and also overseas, as well as a bar in Shibuya.
Yamada-san had worked as a venture capitalist, and had been involved in internet start-up companies in Japan. He was studying for an MBA in 2005 at Cambridge when Baron Bilimoria, himself a Cambridge graduate, came to deliver a presentation to students at Judge College on the Cobra Beer operation. Yamada was already knowledgeable about beer in Europe after having visited Belgium and Munich – two European powerhouses of beer. Listening to Bilimoria talk Cobra Beer and how it is suited to Indian cuisine (its low carbonation and soft flavours pair nicely with a spicy curry), Yamada-san had an idea – how about a beer brewed to pair with Japanese food? While Asahi Super Dry may be well known outside of Japan for its clean (or some might say bland) taste, it does not pair with the often delicate flavours found in Japanese food.
After numerous attempts, making adjustments along the way, Yamada-san chose two adjuncts to be used: sanshō, (Japanese pepper), and yuzu (Japanese citron). Both of these ingredients are often used in Japanese cooking, with sansho used as a sprinkling on kabayaki-unagi (broiled eel) and sometimes yakitori (grilled chicken). It is also one of the seven ingredients of shichimi, Japanese seven spice. Yuzu peel is often used as a garnish for dishes, while its flesh is used in ponzu sauce.
Starting out as Nippon Craft Beer Company in 2011, and with these two flavours, the Kagua range was born. However, working from his apartment meant that a brewery was needed to make these beers. For this he contacted De Graal brewery in East Flanders, on the edge of the Flemish Ardennes. As sansho and yuzu are indigenous to Japan, these are picked and then flown over to Belgium. Once the Kagua beers are made, they are then exported to Japan and other countries.
Yet, this wasn’t enough for Yamada-san. The Kagua (馨和, which translates to “Japanese aroma”) range of beers are often viewed as being Belgian and not Japanese – simply because they are brewed in Belgium. Therefore, Yamada-san began looking for a brewery in Japan to make a range of craft beer for the Japanese market, brewed in Japan.
In 2015, the Nippon Craft Beer Company decided to change their name. The name “Far Yeast” originates from the craft beer brand the company launched in April 2013, which served as the follow-up to its first brand, Kagua. The thinking was that, as Japan is often referred to as being in the “Far East” by those in Europe (the birthplace of beer), the company aimed to deliver great beers from this “far east” place. This explains not only why the company named one of its beers Far Yeast, but it also describes the overall philosophy of the company.
Sonata village, located in Yamanashi, is probably a new name to all but the most knowledgeable of Japanese villages. On the day of our interview, it also proved to be one of the most inaccessible too – with power lines down, and fallen trees lining the roads after a massive typhoon hit Kanto. Yet, this village was home to one of Japan’s largest car navigation manufacturers too. The building was lying empty when Yamada-san came across it. it filled both criteria for a brewery – it was close to Tokyo, and also cheap.
With the license obtained in 2017, Far Yeast Brewing named the brewery Genryu Brewery (The Headwaters Brewery) and started off with a simple line of a Belgian style IPA, Tokyo Blonde and Tokyo White. All of the beers produced use local groundwater from the River Tama. These beers come in a variety of labels too, with the beers sold in the local area branded with a label found only in the area, while those sold outside of the village having a different labels.
Stepping inside the brewery was an unusual experience. There main office seemed like a community centre, with some long fold-out tables and chairs being used for desks, while inside the brewery itself, the layout of the brewery itself is a remnant of the car navigation factory. With ceiling height restricting placement of the mash and hot liquor tuns, as well as the fermenters, everything is at the front of the building. The back and sides of the brewery are more interesting, as Yamada-san explained the future of the brewery. With the barrel aging program and also sours deemed a success both commercially and with feedback from customers, some of the brewery has been set aside to allow an expansion, with the potential for more barrels. The bottling system has also increased in size, with an eye for a canning line too.
Far Yeast Brewing Company are also working hard to get their beers into smaller places that might not be your first choice to drink craft beer. Kirin approached them to make beers for their Tap Marche system, and the 4L PET Bottles used for the system can also be spotted around the brewery, with chilled filled ones wrapped up in black cellophane wrap to stop skunking from light. While craft beer lovers may not be fans of the system, it’s going to certainly challenge the method of how beers are delivered and sold.
The staff at Far Yeast Brewing also have an equal say into the recipes of the beers made too. A democratic process that allows everyone to come up with an idea, and also helps out during the brewing process too. All of the staff take turns in the various stages of brewing beer – from mashing to bottling, measuring to cleaning, and PR too.
Far Yeast Brewing Company are ubiquitous at beer festivals across Japan, and all the members on the team go to as many festivals and events as their schedules allow. There is a two-fold reason for this: getting the Far Yeast Brewing brand out as much as possible but also trying to get as much feedback from drinkers as possible. While the brewing process is democratic, getting feedback is vital to improving their beers according to Yamada-san. There have also been numerous collaborations with breweries and communities, both domestically and overseas. These beers have also been used to test out new techniques, such as barrel aging using red and white wine barrel, kettle sours using cherries, and peaches, gose, and also pine needles.
The final piece in the Far Yeast Brewing Company lineup is the taproom located in Shibuya called Far Yeast Tokyo Craft Beer & Bao. The bar opened in 2017 and specialises in bao, a steamed soft bun with a variety of fillings inside, with the full Far Yeast Brewing lineup on tap., has grown to host a variety of events, from special magazine events to music nights. Due to licensing laws, though, it’s not possible to buy bottles to take home. While Yamada-san didn’t give anything away with regards to expansion of the chain, there was a wry smile on his face as talked about the possibility of it.
With plans for collaboration beers and also further expansion into different brewing styles, Far Yeast Brewing’s change from a phantom brewery to one with a physical location and firm plans for the future goes at odds with how many breweries in Japan started. The evolving lineup and collaboration is going to be exciting to see.