This is our 4th and final blog in the series marking out the craft beer industry's challenges in Japan, what we believe needs to happen for the small market to grow, and what we are planning on doing as a business to create a bigger footprint ourselves.
Section 1: A Recap on What We Are Doing, and Why
“Craft” has become a funny word, really, with its becoming a buzzword with increased commercial value in recent times. It was a word most heavily used in artisanal fields, but the explosion of the modern beer scene that came out of America really changed this. Off the back of the “craft beer” boom we then had craft spirits, and you can now buy a wide variety of “craft cola” and other popular soft drinks. Most of these, including beer, no longer refer so much to making things by hand, given that they are done on a larger scale, requiring lots of big equipment, and are often instead it seems, more making a point that they use natural or carefully selected ingredients, rather than mass produced syrups, or industrial-scale farming. Because there are no rules as to what makes something “craft”, it really is open to interpretation.
Putting aside semantics and definitions, however, we do believe that high quality and varied beer is at a crossroads, and that in order for it to stay relevant, creative, and a force for good, small-mid size craft beer enterprises that are independent of large scale listed companies must have a place on shelves, and these cannot be limited to small and niche bars, restaurants and bottle shops, but at a very minimum in a locality’s more mainstream stores. In order to cement small and independent craft’s place within this, we will need to see more breweries catering to the needs of distributors and establishments focused on a wide range of food and drink. In order to cater to these needs, we now believe that we in part need to be able to meet their needs of more shelf-stable beer. For more in depth conversation on the challenges of the industry, and maintaining a future and identity in this new landscape, please see our first two posts (The Dilemmas for Craft Beer in Japan, and Kyoto Brewing , and MAINTAINING A FUTURE AND AN IDENTITY IN JAPAN'S CRAFT BEER LANDSCAPE).
Our path within this is to focus on secondary fermentation in package. Why? We believe that some of our more traditional products, specifically Belgian styles, can become shelf-stable this way, and could even potentially become better products for it. We only plan to do this for a certain range within our lineup, but hope that in offering these products we can not only get a broader footprint (especially within Kyoto), but could also convince more retailers of the value of small and independent craft enough to move them on to refrigerated products as well. Read more about this topic in our third blog (OUR NEXT CHAPTER, AND OUR NEXT EXPLORATORY STEPS).
Section 2: How Do We Go About Doing This?
Well, let’s first of all go about sharing the process. The normal way we go about producing beer, as with many craft beer breweries is as follows.
On brew days, we mill the grain, and then make the mash, which is mixing hot water with the grain. The hot water, with the help of enzymes in the grain, turns the starch into sugar. We then extract the grain, boil the wort (mash minus the grain) with hops, cool the liquid down, move it to the fermentation vessel, ferment it for 7-10 days, then mature it for 2-3 weeks before moving it to a BBT (Brite Beer Tank) where we force CO2 into the beer over a couple of days to get it to the appropriate level of carbonation for the beer. We then package in kegs and cans or bottles, and we’re done!
The process for secondary fermentation is similar, except that instead of forcing CO2 into the beer, we instead add a little sugar, and get the beer to referment in the cans/bottles/kegs over a couple of weeks. The result is that the yeast consumes the sugar, and creates CO2 naturally within the package. In doing so, it also consumes oxygen, meaning that there is less oxygen left in the package. This is important, because oxygen is the primary spoiler of beer.
So, geek stuff aside, what do we need to get this done? Well, first and foremost, we need a facility where secondary fermentation can take place. To make this possible, we have taken over more space across the road from our brewery, where we have laid down a couple of insulated containers which can be temperature controlled (crucial, since secondary fermentation will only take place at the right temperature). These containers are now down and already starting to be put to use! To make secondary fermentation happen, this is all we need. Done!
However, there are risks involved. Keeping beer at a higher temperature means that fermentation can take place, but it also means that other bacteria or yeast strains can also thrive, should there be any contamination. The beer can also end up under or over-carbonated if there is not enough yeast (or the yeast isn’t healthy enough) or if there are yeast strains present that are a little too good at converting those starches to sugars. To make sure that we are able to scale up this project safely and in a way that produces consistent beer, we are going to implement a new QA/QC lab this Autumn.
We are also going to try to further lower O2 pickup through implementation of an deaerated water system, also later this year, and will be bringing a centrifuge on board next Spring, which can help us to control leftover yeast in our beer better, as well as remove certain matter, notably from hop and yeast, that can negatively impact the shelf-life of some of our other beers.
While not specifically quality-related, we are also looking forward to bringing on a couple of extra tanks that will allow us to scale up to service more of our new customer base, and a grain press that will ensure that we can also scale up our spent grain disposal through providing it to farmers and gardens (we will soon share more on this initiative and how we have yet to waste a single bag of spent grain to date!).
So there we have it. We are not sure yet how the project will finally play out, or the reaction we will get. We know that there are things we could do to our beer to make a wider range of our products shelf-stable. Doing so, especially with hoppy beers, would probably be a more obvious way to sell our beer to an even wider audience. We don’t think it would be right for us, however, and so are going back to our roots in our love of Belgian beers for an answer to how we can service a market that we believe we need to look towards. Hopefully doing so will introduce more people to what craft beer has to offer, and encourage retailers to give up some of their refrigerated storage to quality beer.