When Japan legalized microbrewing in 1994 there was an explosion of new breweries. While plenty of these brewers brought passion and a sense of craft to their wares, a great many companies and communities banded together to create something a little more local and a little less special. Ji-biiru (地ビール), which translates as “local beer” is beer that is created more as a tourist draw for rural communities than as something meant to be widely sold and enjoyed. This beer is often hard to find outside of a tight geographical area, and often leaves something to be desired in terms of flavor and quality.
That is not to say that ji-biiru is horrible. Rather that the price for most ji-biiru and the amount of effort that must go into finding and drinking these local beers often does not match the quality. Sometimes the quality issues come down to a lack of brewing experience and sometimes it is simply a a lack of passion. In the mid to late 90s a lot of people got this image of tourist oriented beer in their heads so lately there has been a change in the way the Japanese microbrewing scene is talked about. There are the ji-biiru producers, for whom the purpose of their brewing is tourism and development, and who rely on the Japanese love of local produce and hard to find local “specialties” to drive sales. Then you have the “craft” (クラフト) brewers like Hitachino Nest and Baird who brew a diverse line up with lots of seasonal beers and a wider distribution. Like anything though, there is overlap between “ji-biiru” and “craft”, with plenty of producers that do not easily slip into one of those labels. One of those is Nihonkai Club in Ishikawa Prefecture. It is very remote and the beer rarely makes it out of the prefecture, but their Czech style Pilsner is one of the best in Japan.
So where does Kawaba Brewing come into all of this? Kawaba is located in a touristy road stop near the city of Numata, high in the hills and mountains of Gunma Prefecture. The area is rural, agricultural, and a little depressed and the whole complex is heavily “local” themed. Luckily, Kawaba is better than a lot of more obscure ji-biiru that I have tried. The brewery itself is located in a complex of local produce, craft shops and restaurants. The food at their German themed restaurant is good, if a shade pricy. And the area surrounding the complex it absolutely gorgeous, with fields and rice paddies giving way to some impressive mountains. If you are in the area, it is certainly worth a stop. It is a bit difficult to reach without a car though, requiring a train to Numata station and a long bus ride through the hinterlands.
So that is the brewery, what about the beer? Kawaba produces two basic styles that I have been able to drink, a Red Ale and a Weizen. They seem to also brew a Pilsner, a Stout, and a Bock but these are all seasonal or limited in their production and distribution and I have yet to sample any of them. Both of the standards are fine, if a bit unexciting. The red ale has a nice pour, with heavy malt caramel on the nose. The flavor is an improvement on the basic mass produced beer you get in Japan but there are some off notes. There are definite hints of a metallic nature, and the mouth feel is a bit on the light and watery side. It is the sort of thing that is drinkable, but that you wouldn’t necessarily write home about.
The Weizen is better than the Red Ale. It is reasonably crisp, with a nice refreshing flavor and some banana hints. It is actually rather nice to drink on a warm summer evening. But again, there seems to be very little pizazz here. Drinkable but boring is hardly a quote to put on the bottle. A hint to the brewery’s guiding directive comes when reading the blurbs on their website product page. A lot of fuss is made about being “good for those new to craft beer.” To a hardened craft veteran, this is code for “boooooooring.” But it is good to remember that even with the current boom in Japanese craft beer the vast majority of the population is far more familiar with the flavor profile of mass market lager than anything more complex. It is a very big jump from Asahi Super Dry to Stone Arrogant Bastard. A nice easy introductory beer is certainly something with a valuable niche in the ecosystem.
If you want to try Kawaba beers, you can find them with a bit of diligence. I have seen them on sale at a few Gunma area grocery stores and in the gift shop at Takasaki station. Interestingly enough, it seems Kawaba also has export versions of the two flagships available in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Portland. So if you happen to be on the West Coast, perhaps you can give Gunma beer a try. If you happen across it, Kawaba beer is fine and drinkable, but I do not think the quality is really high enough to make it worth seeking out. If fate allows you the chance then say thank you and drink up. Otherwise there are plenty of other beers out there.