Maintaining a Future and an Identity in Japan's Craft Beer Landscape

Recently we wrote the first in a series of blogs about the dilemma we feel craft beer in Japan is facing, and what we are planning to do about it.(Former Post: THE DILEMMAS FOR CRAFT BEER IN JAPAN, AND KYOTO BREWING)

To start, we’d like to get a bit more again into the challenge that we see that the industry faces here, and it starts with the definition of “craft beer”. While it could be argued that the phrase is somewhat subjective wherever you look, Japan feels especially that it doesn't have a clear definition of the term. Creating a clear definition is very difficult, and it has become more difficult as time has gone on. This is not to say that in America, where the modern movement largely sprang from, there isn’t a lot of mass-produced “crafty” beer, or that big beer hasn’t tried to take over as much of the craft beer market as possible. However, because in America the craft beer movement got large before large scale manufacturers really got involved, things like end-to-end refrigeration and a general recognition that true "craft" required a certain amount of cost, meant there was a significant market for growth of fresh, unfiltered, and unpasteurised products. Small and growing makers set the tone for what was expected for handling craft beer, and as a result you can go into a supermarket there, or a liquor store, and face a large number of small scale, and locally produced products.

This is protected by the Brewers Association in America, that continues to work to have a definition, and value placed on small independent craft, for which they created a logo to put onto cans and bottles, and which is now widespread in use. Consumers can decide whether they care about “drinking local”, or whether they mind that their beer is under the umbrella of a major world conglomerate. That isn’t to say it’s the perfect market. Far from it, America faces its own crisis now, which is that the growth has stopped, tripping up a number of major players in the industry. Where it goes from now will have a ripple effect across the craft beer world.

Back in Japan, we are stuck at under 2%, and the big supermarkets, liquor store chains, and distributors, have not set themselves up to handle end-to-end refrigeration. As a result, most places with a "craft beer" selection are only able to stock room temperature-ready products that have been filtered and/or pasteurised. This means that they can only stock mass produced beer, craft beer owned by mass-producers, or craft breweries that have chosen to go down the filtering/pasteurising route.

This subsequently means that small craft beer makers either have to focus on a relatively small number of ready outlets for selling their beer, or find some kind of compromise and sell to a wider audience (compromises being filtering, pasteurising, etc.). At least, this is our perspective on the market, and where it is right now.

So, recap now done, what do we, Kyoto Brewing, want to do? One option is simply to do what we have been doing up to now. We believe we have created a reputation as a maker of high quality and consistent beers, and would argue that we were the first brewery in Japan to focus on using Belgian yeast to produce our year-round beers. Our sales have grown, and we are on a positive trajectory, even if we are still at a scale that makes making craft beer far from lucrative.

Doing this isn’t going to help get more people to try our beer, however, and therefore we don’t get more people onto trying craft beer. We love craft beer fans, and between them and the camaraderie of the industry itself are a huge part of what made us fall in love with beer and decide to get into the craft beer industry in the first place. Just focusing on servicing those who are already familiar to craft beer, however, is not going to help take the market up to 2% and beyond. To do that, we need to help increase the accessibility of craft beer, and to do that we need to expand our footprint.

All this means that the reality is that we need to make our beer more accessible, and to make it more accessible we need to cater to retailers that can’t handle especially short best before dates. Whether we are looking at making our beer suited to room-temperature storage, or trying to make it last longer, the point is that we need products that are more durable.

When we came to this realisation, our own personal dilemma, was that depending on how we did so, could cause us to compromise on one of our four core values, Craftsmanship.

We should at this point be clear, however, in saying that we are not saying that you can’t have good beer that has been filtered or pasteurised. We just believe that doing so works well with certain styles, such as lagers, and works less well with others. And for styles that tend to work well in being filtered and pasteurised, there is also merit in having unfiltered and unpasteurised products. Pretty much everyone at KBC will pick up and drink an Ichiban Shibori, or a Sapporo Classic, but we will happily pay more and enjoy a lager made by Fujizakura or Kobo Brewing, for example, which has been neither filtered or pasteurised. We also think Baeren Classic is a quality value product, and that beer is pasteurised. Baeren also love, and are loved by, their local community in Iwate, where they sell a huge proportion of their beer. Pasteurisation/filtration is not a clear line to define craft vs non-craft.It’s not a cut-and-dry topic we are dealing with here.

We are less confident in most of our own products being filtered and pasteurised, however. The saisons we love and respect have not undergone pasteurisation, and we don’t believe that filtering Ichii Senshin or 6 Day Weekend is going to make it a better product. We think it will make it worse.

One way of making our product more durable and potentially benefitting it, however, is refermenting the product in package. For those less familiar with beer production, this involves packaging the product with a little added sugar and some yeast (or leaving some of the yeast already in the beer to do its magic) and then leaving it at a good temperature for fermentation to kickstart again. In doing this, residual oxygen in the beer and airspace is consumed by the yeast, meaning there is less oxygen left to spoil the beer.

And why do we think this might work better for us? Well, our year round beers, as well as a portion of or limited release series, use Belgian yeast. In Belgium, beers traditionally go through refermentation in package, and are typically stored at room or cellar temperature. Our favourite, Saison Dupont, is another example of this and, dare we say it, tastes better for being allowed to mature in cool (but not cold) temperatures. We felt this so much, in fact, that we were almost disappointed, somewhat, to find that we thought the fresh Saison Dupont we tried at their brewery was notably inferior to the bottles that had made their way over to Japan! Some regular customers may even be quick to point out that we do actually release one mini-series, in the form of Pilgrim’s Respite, that already is refermented in package (both bottle and keg).

So if secondary fermentation in package is so great, why doesn’t everyone do it?
There are lots of advantages and lots of disadvantages to refermentation in package, and it is definitely not something we believe will benefit all of our products by any stretch. In our next post on May 17th, we will share more about the pluses and minuses of this production step, the impact we think it will have on the products we treat in this way, what products we will include in the program, and the timelines for its implementation.