Introducing James, and the beginning of our next chapter

The Thankless Task of Replacing a Founder, Friend, and Special Head Brewer

It has been a little while since we last touched publicly on the topic of our head
. As is now well known within the all-too-small world of craft beer in Japan, our head brewer, and co-founder, Chris Hainge, left KBC in December of last year (see article).

Ever since Chris announced through a blog on our site in May of last year that he was going to leave at the end of 2023, we have had plenty of people ask us about the future of KBC. Will KBC be ok? And the obvious question: how will you replace a head brewer like Chris?

Since then, a lot more time has passed than we expected. This has no doubt made some people ponder the above even more. And with good reason.

Chris is one of the best brewers in the country. In terms of consistency, balance, and the ability to make a huge variety of styles at a repeatedly high level, we honestly don’t believe there is anyone better. As a company executive for us, he had a strong sense of personal responsibility, was balanced, and considered. Few people ever master Japanese to a level close to him, and he speaks publicly in Japanese better than the vast majority of native speakers. When you add to that the fact that he started the company together with us, and therefore understands the company and the concept better than anyone, it goes without saying that he was pretty important to us.

So how did we go about replacing him? We didn’t.

Or, at least, we didn’t attempt to find another Japan-based hot-shot brewer. Even if there is anyone who possesses most of the qualities that Chris has, the chances of that person being available is slim-to-none. So we instead decided to take a step back, look at where KBC is now, look at where we want it to be in the future, and go out on the search for what the future of KBC calls for.

In all honesty, if our goal was just to continue making beers like those we had done to date, we could just give that opportunity to our existing brew team. Chris handed over much of what was needed to keep making high quality KBC-esque beers to lead brewer Ayumu and the team well, and there is plenty of creativity within the team, along with the all-important love of beer.

But what is the point in trying to continue imitating what you have already done before? An imitation, at its very greatest, can be nothing but the best replica in existence, and the last thing we wanted to be was a replica of ourselves.

So what is it that we are trying to be, and what is KBC 2.0 aiming to do?

We are fundamentally aiming to achieve two major things over the coming year.

  1. Raising the bar in consistency and quality

The first one comes down to something we have been working towards for a while: making our beer as consistent, reliable, and close to bullet proof as possible, while not compromising on our determination to make the best quality products that we can.

As shared before, this includes some of our products being refermented in package, exactly how it’s done in bottle in Belgium for most traditional beer, allowing the beers to not only last longer, but evolve over time. To do this most consistently, safely, and to allow the best results, we have implemented a lot of lab equipment for testing, as well as building out infrastructure for the refermentation itself as well.

What we have also decided to do, however, was ensure that all of our beers, and especially our hoppier ones, maintain their character as much as possible. This has involved investing heavily in, and implementing equipment that very few breweries in Japan have.

We see this as key for a number of reasons. One is simply to make sure the beer we put out tastes as fresh as possible when it reaches the hands of the drinker. While it would be amazing if that happened within a week of packaging, but the truth is it won’t. So we want to make sure that our beer tastes amazing 3 months in, and great at the 6 month mark, which for hoppy beers is rarely achieved by many breweries.

The second reason why we think quality and consistency is key, is that we want to see our beer, and craft beer in general, reach a wider audience. Craft beer is expensive. It is now, and it will be in the future. You can’t simply make higher quality products with lower quality ingredients. And quality ingredients cost more money. It’s that simple

What lets craft beer down, however, is when those new to craft beer give up a lot of money for something that is simply not up to where it should be. Most people would rather get 6/10 every time for a reasonable price than sometimes 9/10 and other times 3/10 while feeling their wallet get considerably lighter. So we want to get our beer out in the best condition possible to make sure that beer lovers can feel confident in ordering a KBC brew, and so that people who are newer to craft beer want to keep heading on down the same rabbit hole that brought us all to where we are now.

  1. Moving ourselves to the forefront of the industry in Japan

When we started this company, the first core value we put pen to paper on was Exploration, and the meaning behind this was to constantly explore new ideas and experiences in order to keep growing and developing. We feel we have always been open to learning, and many elements of our ability to make quality beer have kept improving over the years.

One thing hardships, such as facing the challenge of the departure of your head brewer, can provide is an opportunity to take a step back and reflect internally.

When we did so, it made us realised what we have achieved and where we have in some ways been trailblazers, and also realise ways in which we have let the industry move forward whilst not staying on the forefront. To put it more bluntly, we became more conservative as time went on. While balance and consistency are hugely important, we don’t want to be known only for that. At the end of the day, it was craft beer fanatics that gave us the big start that we could hardly have dreamed of in our first year or two, and we want to bring back that relevance that we felt back then.

What did all this mean?

We made the choice, therefore, that in order to really grow, we needed to find someone from outside of Japan that had a depth of knowledge that either doesn’t exist within Japan, or at least is very limited.

Aside from searching domestically, we cast our net far and wide globally. We were really surprised at just how much of a response we had and, after interviewing a huge number of applicants, we found someone who exceeded our already highly set expectations. More importantly, we really felt that he was just what we needed culturally, and was passionate to take on the challenges that we had set for our next steps as a company.

So who is this guy?

Meet James Fox. Proudly an engineer first-and-foremost, James fell in love with the craft beer scene when it was probably in its fastest growth period in the US, and started off at Stone Brewing 12 years ago, before spending 4 years at Ballast Point when they were at the peak at their expansion. While being central to the opening of their second huge facility that they started on the East Coast, he then became the Director of Brewing Operations there. Most recently, he helped Cape May, a brewery in New Jersey, grow from 3.6 to 8.7 million litres per year.

Big name giants like Stone and Ballast Point aside, what really impressed us about James was his range of knowledge, not just of the classic beers that took craft beer from a niche industry to a major part of the world of alcoholic beverages, but what is happening in the world of beer now, and the technology, techniques and latest hop and yeast developments that are being worked on to take the industry forward.

So What Next?

We are of course excited to share what this all means for the next steps of KBC, which we are dubbing “KBC 2.0”, and of course introduce people to James in person as well. Some may have already picked up on the beginnings of a shift in few of our more recent releases, such as the keg edition of Aratamemashite, and the direction of our recent collaborations. We’ll share more of our plans going forward in the near future, as well as introducing James properly, both through our blog and SNS, as well as in person at some events.

For now, we’re happy to announce the release of the can edition of Aratamemashite. The first beer we ever released was Hajimemashite. A pale ale announcing ourselves onto the local beer scene. A much longer than expected wait for a visa for James delayed our announcement of our next step further, but we are now pleased to be able to push forward, with Aratamemashite (Hazy Pale Ale edition) now ready for release as the introduction of James, and KBC 2.0. We hope you’re as pleased with the results as we are!

Nice to meet you all again.