Not many people will be aware that Shonan Beer, brewed by Kumazawa Brewing, is actually an offshoot of a sake brewery located in the middle of nowhere. Found in Kagawa, about ten minutes north of Chigasaki on the Sagami Line, Kumazawa Brewing has been around for over 140 years, though it’s only since 1996 that they have been brewing Shonan Beer in a tiny warehouse located next door to their sake distillery. The whole “village” (for want of a better word) at Kagawa also has a restaurant, art gallery, and a bakery located on site.
It all started when current president and sixth scion of the Kumazawa family Kumazawa Mokichi went on a trip to America for a year, which was something unheard of at a time when students were expected to enter university immediately after graduation or carry on the family business.
While there, Kumazawa-san said that he tried some weizenbock, an unknown style in Japan at the time, and was immediately impressed with the aromas and flavours from it. He came back to Japan, intent on making beer during the months when the Kumazawa distillery needed work. Sake is only produced in the winter, so during the warmer months, the workers would be unoccupied . Kumazawa Brewing hired a German braumeister to come over and, purchasing equipment at the same time, started brewing.
With no interest in personally brewing the beer, Kumazawa-san was on the lookout for someone to head the brewery. No sooner as he had found someone, however, they abruptly quit. The race was on to find a replacement as fast as possible. A new employee who had been helping out at the brewery for less than a month, Tsutsui-san, was made head brewer. Tsutsui-san told us that those first few months were the hardest, as he had to learn the ropes quickly without someone guiding him along the way.
Tsutsui-san is a constant user of Twitter, updating his followers on a daily basis of the goings-on at the brewery. A month before our visit, he excitedly posted about a new tank being delivered to the brewery and when we arrived, he asked us if it looked familiar. The tank was still outside the brewery awaiting installation- the brewery is still expanding to this day. While Kumazawa-san’s main concern is the sake distillery, it is telling that the business at Kumazawa Brewing is half beer and half sake, with the beer side increasing year upon year.
For a brand that is so well known across Japan, Shonan Beer is a hard beer to find. People have heard of the name and know where it’s from (obviously), but ask anyone where to buy it in bottles, and people come up stumped. Kumazawa-san was in the brewing business during the first craft beer boom back in the mid 90’s and saw the aftereffects of what happened to places which tried to cash in on it. Too much investment and not enough quality. Since then, his idea has been that local beer should be served locally, hence the large amount of Kumazawa Brewing restaurants. They are able to sell the beer fresh from the brewery, how it should be served.
Though their three main beers (the alt, the pilsner, and the schwarz) can be found in bottles across Japan, or online, the rest of their beers can only be bought at the restaurants or bars owned by Kumazawa Brewing. And even then, not all of them are sold at all locations. S-46 Beer Market (reviewed here), although not owned by Kumazawa Brewing, sells the majority of the range, while also bringing in some guest beers from around Japan. Mokichi Craft Beer in Fujisawa sells the whole range, and also has the Belgian Stout in bottles that other places don’t.
Tsutsui-san is one of the exciting breed of brewers who are willing try to new beers and new styles without the permission of someone else first. In the past, he has produced a range of IPAs that have included a variety of hops, or used different techniques such as dry hopping. These specials are produced in small quantities, with most being around the 2,000L mark, so once they’re gone, there’s no guarantee he’ll make it again. Some beers, such as the 古代米 (Kodai-mai, wild rice) IPA, have been produced more than once, though the flavour changes. When asked what his inspiration was, Tsutsui-san told us “everything and anything”, and that he makes what he feels like making. His Belgian Stout was a combination of wanting to make a Belgian ale (being such a big fan of those beers), but keeping it within the range of what people like.
Collaborations are proving to be popular in Japan, with Coedo and Ballast Point, along with Baird and Stone proving to be successful and popular in the past. Kumazawa-san has nothing planned in the future in regards to this, however. Either that, or he was keeping his cards close to his chest when we pressed him on it. His idea of keeping everything local also extends to sourcing all the ingredients to the food in the restaurants to where the restaurants and bars are located. While Shonan Beer is shipped across Japan, we’ve seen it in Kyoto, Osaka, and also as far north as Hokkaido, he mentioned that it’s best tasted locally.
The bottled range is narrow because of exactly that reason. The three main beers from Shonan Beer are able to handle the long time on the shelf that Japanese craft beers often face (either due to lack of consumer knowledge or their high prices) because unlike their special range of beers, they undergo a series of pasteurization techniques to keep them fresh. These processes also alter the taste- a shame, really, but understandable as they have a reputation to uphold.
With someone so knowledgeable about the industry in the form of Kumazawa-san, and a brewer with such passion for his job as Tsutsui-san has, the Shonan Beer brand can only get bigger; though for those living outside of Chigasaki or the Shonan area, it will be hard to really appreciate what they are doing. Next time you are sipping a beer on the beaches at Enoshima, take the train up to either Mokichi Craft Beer in Fujisawa or Mokichi Foods Garden in Chigasaki (or S-46 Beer Market in Tsujido, for that matter) and try some of the Shonan Beers. You’ll enjoy them and also wonder where to buy them as you sit on that train back up to Tokyo.