There is a lot to talk about today, so lets get to it! As always there was plenty of great beer and good food at the Fall Keyaki Hiroba Beer Festival. This year there were a couple of things that negatively impacted the enjoyment of the biggest collection of craft beer in the North Kanto.
One new thing that I really liked was a bottle shop that near the main entrance. Being able to bring home a bottle or two of your favorite new find was a very nice option, though there seemed to be a bit of a premium tacked on to the already high prices you see here in Japan. I spent more than I would have preferred, but I do have some interesting bottles to drink over the next few weeks.
In a change for the worse, the seating situation this fall was horrible. The Spring festival is held outside, so there are tons of places to drop a tarp and camp out with your friends. The Fall festival is held indoors in the Saitama Super Arena. Last fall we were able to set up a tarp and do our usual thing, but this year the old tarp area had been taken over by pay tables. In fact, half of the overall space was for the pay tables, with hotly contested free tables and some standing room only tables taking the rest of the arena. Our group was in line well before the doors opened and had no luck in grabbing a place to sit. That initial frustration was compounded by the groups who did manage to snag a table spot that proceeded so sit there all day surrounded by the outside beer and food they brought in. With the high prices I can understand wanting to be frugal but bringing cheap beer and happoshu into a craft beer festival seems less like bringing coal to Newcastle and more like a crime against good beer. The fact that a big group who spent a lot of money at the various food stalls, beer stalls, and bottle shop had to stand all day while people who were not spending any money did not rankled some of us. I really hope that the seating situation can be modified for the better next year.
While the seating (or lack thereof) was a real low point, the beer shined even brighter in contrast. I made sure to try a nice diverse selection of beers from all over the world. I started my trip at BrewDog, as I was worried the Paradox Heaven Hill would sell out. 500 yen only got me 200 ml, less than half a glass of beer. But since it weighs in at a hefty 15%, that was a perfectly adequate amount. I was not a huge fan of the Paradox, it was a very strongly flavored beer, and the bourbon notes were very aggressive and clangorous. As it warmed up and my palate became more used to the cacophony I enjoyed it more. I think a big problem was it was served cold, and a beer this dense needs to be warmer to allow all the flavors to come out.
I followed that explosive brew with something a bit more calming, the Avatar Jasmine IPA from Elysian Brewing. I really liked the Jasmine IPA. The brewers use actual Jasmine flowers in the boil, and so the beer has a lot of tea qualities. It had an amazing jasmine smell, and a nice flowery, spicy taste. The hopping was present, but subdued. It seemed like you felt the sticky hops more than really tasted them. This was a nice palate cleanser, and a fun alternate take on the India Pale Ale.
Also from Elysian was the Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, which I also really enjoyed. We do not get many pumpkin beers here in Japan. The rare Japanese brewery that dabbles in such things is likely to use the native kabocha rather than North American pumpkins. Kabocha are very closely related, but are not quite the same thing, especially as the pumpkin spices are not very popular here. So a nice well flavored well spiced beer like the Night Owl was a real treat. There was plenty of pumpkin flavors backed up with the spices my North American palate expected all on top of a nice mellow malt base.
Departing the Pacific Northwest I went with a nice standard German Weissbeer from Schofferhofer. Refreshing, bready, and gentle on my abused taste buds, it was a perfect breather beer. Eating some curry wurst also helped. Though paying 600 yen ($6) for a small sausage and some curry powder felt excessive. I suppose you shouldn’t come to a festival like this and hope for good deals!
I dove back in to the beer with a Hitachino Nest sampler, with their Lager, Saison, Daidai IPA and Nipponia beers. All four of them were excellent. The Nipponia was really interesting, using a Japanese barley strain and Japanese Sorachi Ace hops to create something unique to this country. It was fruity and spicy and just plain delicious. It seems to be available in both the United States and in Japan, so if you see a bottle I recommend giving it a try. The Daidai IPA was good, but I the fruit flavor was not as forward as I hoped.
I also had a few sips of Yo-Ho Brewing’s seasonals at the festival, but the real reason to talk about Yo-Ho showed up in the news today. Kirin is buying a 30% stake in the company. The current administration will retain control over the brewing, but going forward 40% of the production will be be going to Kirin to distribute. I think this is huge on a lot of levels. Yo-Ho has been a solid success story for a while, with their beers being relatively easy to find in liquor stores and convenience stores. But I can see a future where Yona Yona Ale and Tokyo Black Porter start showing up in Kirin affiliated restaurants, izakaya, and beer gardens. That has the possibility of helping to solve one of the big problems of the craft beer market outside of Tokyo. Out here there seems to be a chicken and the egg problem of “nobody is selling craft beer because nobody is buying craft beer.” Right now craft beer is for the aficionado, it is expensive and hard to find. If Yo-Ho beers start to show up in more mainstream drinking establishments around the country then it could stimulate an interest in craft beer outside of the big cities, and unlock a huge new market. I hope that Yo-Ho can keep the quality up, and I look forward to seeing where things go from here.
What do you think about this news? Is this a fresh wind in the Japanese beer industry, or is it the death of craft as we know it? Did you go to the Fall Keyaki Festival? How was it? Let me know in the comments!