The perspective gained this year encouraged us to take stock of where we are, look back at ourselves and the beers we make. One of the big questions we had to ask ourselves is "Are we still making the beers we want to drink?"
“Brew the beers you want to drink?”
The formation of this brewery came from 3 friends coming from different backgrounds who met in Aomori and subsequently went on different paths. Chris wanted to take his passion for home brewing to becoming a profession and Paul and Ben had an excitement for starting up a passion project and had become increasingly interested in the craft beer scene in Tokyo.The more people we met in the industry, the more we loved its camaraderie and the rarity of an industry where people genuinely see the goal as being to expand craft beer rather than compete with one another. The support was amazing, we loved craft beer, and we wanted to come in and have an impact.
We of course had lots of conversations about what beers we liked and what we wanted to make but there was very little difference in opinion on this topic. We liked dry beers. We thought Belgian beers had an incredible added complexity thanks to their yeast strains that had a personality unto itself, making it the beer’s special “secret ingredient” rather than simply an agent for producing alcohol.
The simple philosophy that we wanted to take to heart came from Eigo-san from Shiga Kogen, where Chris had spent some time working under his wing, who once said to us “brew the beers you want to drink”.
That’s all well and good but, in a market that was, and still is, heavily dominated by American IPAs, could we make the beers we wanted to drink and survive? We were ready to give it a go. While Shiga Kogen and some other breweries were making some Belgian style beers, there was no one really out there who had it as their core.
We knew what we wanted to do. This could either go very well, or very badly. And the first beer we were going to put into our year-round lineup?
- A saison. No doubt. Dry but characterful, and a beer that, when made well, you could drink all day and never tire of it. What next? We loved variety and, in particular, loved hoppy beers and dark beers as well. While many Belgian yeast strains can be hard to blend with large quantities of modern new world hops, ours was a yeast strain that often tended to complement them.
- Second beer: Belgian IPA. Since we tend to prefer drier beers, it was great that, even in a stout, our yeast wouldn’t leave it cloying.
- Third beer: Belgian Stout.
To this day, these three beers form our core series lineup in the form of Ichigo Ichie, Ichii Senshin, and Kuroshio no Gotoku. We took a Belgian base and married it with a modern twist. And these beers have done us well. We were very apprehensive about our first batches of beer but our audience’s reaction was pleasantly surprising. Not only were we able to make a core lineup of these 3 styles but, after a year or so of sales, we were pleasantly surprised to see our best selling beer was a saison.
5 years on and we face a dilemma
While we are still very proud of these beers, this year gave us the opportunity to take a look at ourselves and reflect. Are these three beers, in their current form, “the beers we want to drink”? We asked ourselves this question and realised that, if we were honest, we didn’t choose to drink these beers at our taproom half as often as we used to. This isn’t a simple matter of getting sick of the beers. In many ways, we had matured. We looked at our one-off beers and realised they have become more varied and, more importantly, better made and more consistent.
So what was it that we needed to do? Did we need to go back to the drawing board and start again? Are we going to make our core a range of lagers and American IPAs?
No, it wasn’t that. We thought it over and talked over our beer series numerous times. What would we make if we were going to start this brewery over again from scratch?
- A saison
- A Belgian IPA
- A Belgian stout
The same line-up, same yeast, but we would make them all a little differently. We love Ichigo Ichie but what do we love about a saison? We love that it is dry, crisp, can be drunk all day, and is amazing in terms of food pairing. We felt that Ichigo Ichie was a bit heavy-handed for a saison in terms of it’s strong ester character, and the bittering was a bit on the strong side for pairing with food or just throwing back pint after pint on a hot day.
How about Ichii Senshin? We like it but we have had comments that it is somewhat close to Ichigo Ichie. The yeast is the same, the malt backbone is only slightly different, and so it is mainly the hops that sets them apart. If this is our year-round IPA, we decided we wanted to update it, give it some more punch and bring it in line with the kinds of IPAs we enjoy nowadays.
As for Kuroshio no Gotoku, we are aware that its dryness is its defining character as a stout but at the same time the body can come across a little too much on the thin side and that it could do with a bit more punch, a little more like our one-off collaboration brew, Sousetsuryu, which Kuroshio no Gotoku was loosely based on.
The decision to make some of these changes was a hard one.
It is often said “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and there are many who warn against the dangers of changing your flagship. We know that many people like the beers just the way they are and rarely are given feedback suggesting they ought to be changed. So the decision was a tough one. Play it safe and heed the advice of many who perhaps know better than we do or stick to our beliefs and look to brew the beers we want to drink? We’d rather do the latter.
In our next blog post we will talk about access to our beer, the dilemmas we faced in deciding who we want distribute to, as well as why we have chosen the sales channels that we have going forward.