2 weeks ago, we shared the second blog in our series outlining Japan’s challenges in getting the general public aware of craft beer, and ensuring its future (see the last blog post here:#1 - THE DILEMMAS FOR CRAFT BEER IN JAPAN, AND KYOTO BREWING, #2 - MAINTAINING A FUTURE AND AN IDENTITY IN JAPAN'S CRAFT BEER LANDSCAPE).
We continued off the previous blog to share how, in our opinion, it is vital for craft beer to get an audience beyond just the specialist and niche establishments, and that it is important that this isn’t limited to the mass produced “craft” options. For craft beer to truly break into the mainstream, small and mid sized craft enterprises must sit on the shelves alongside the low price point and mass produced products. If they do not, the name “craft” will have been largely consumed by large companies, and the casual drinker will never have the chance to understand or been able to recognise the value in small scale crafted products that require a higher price point to be able to survive.
Price is of course one challenge in gaining a broader footprint, but another major challenge is the need for end-to-end refrigeration. While in Kanto, there are more and more supermarkets, and even the odd rogue convenience store, that recognises the value in craft beer, and therefore is willing to go to the trouble to bring in unfiltered and unpasteurised beer that needs to be kept cold, it is still in the minority. Go further out to our city of Kyoto, and the market is far more conservative again.
This is a major point of frustration for us, as a brewery who started as keg only and has now expanded to bottle and then can. We took pride in the fact that in our first year less than 10% of our beer was consumed in our home city, but 3-4 years later it had almost gone up to 40%. That has sadly dropped off considerably as we have expanded into can but faced repeated rejection in our attempts to expand our cans into own backyard.
With not believing that cutting corners is the right way to make it into wider distribution, we decided that secondary fermentation in package is a potential solution to the problem for us. Doing so reduces the amount of oxygen within the beer (a prime cause of spoilage), making it far more shelf stable for a much longer period of time.
So what is the caveat, and why isn’t this standard across all craft beer breweries?
Well, there are a couple of disadvantages to this technique.
Firstly, it adds a couple of weeks onto the production cycle, and requires space, so it is an added cost in production.
Furthermore, the yeast in the beer tends to settle to the bottom after it finishes its work, which some customers unfamiliar with the reasoning can find off-putting. There is also, it has to be said, risk of over-carbonation and, if the beer has any kind of infection, this risk can be made exponentially worse, meaning that an effective QA/QC program needs to be implemented as well, which is another significant investment.
Finally, while the technique tends to work well with traditional Belgian styles, the jury is out as to whether it works so well with hoppy beers, for example.
On the plus side, in addition to logistical benefits related to longer BBDs and the potential to keep at room temperature, secondary fermentation in package can have benefits in terms of how flavours develop over time, lending some styles to even get better with age. One may go as far as to argue that it is also the more traditional authentic way to brew certain styles, especially many Belgian beer varieties. As a brewery whose house yeast is Belgian, and who loves making Belgian-inspired beers, this feels like two positive potential outcomes in one decision.
So is KBC going to shift everything to refermenting in package?
As we shared, we aren’t sure it will work well with our hoppier beers, or at least aren’t confident that it will mean they can hold up well at room temperature. And we feel this for beers using our Belgian yeast, like Ichii Senshin and our Mari Family series, as well. We do think it will benefit some of our more traditional style beers and so, for now, we are going to start here, and on a one-off basis.
So what does this include? Well, within one product range, we have already started! Our Pilgrim’s Respite beers are refermented in champagne bottle and in keg format, as we have believed for a long time (distribution aside) that traditional saisons are just better when refermented this way. We will, from our next release, also do a limited number of cans also refermented in package.
Our next series is our Rediscovery Series, which focuses on our going back to our Belgian roots and making the best versions of traditional styles that we can, albeit with our own twist, of course. As a result, our next release in this series, Brewers’ Reserve, will be refermented in can and keg, along with subsequent products in this series.
In addition to the above, we are planning on doing 3 single batch one-off releases available only in Kyoto, with the first being released at the end of August/start of September.
While we believe that this will lead us on the path to being able to offer products at room/cellar temperature, we want to make sure that we are getting it right, and so are only going to release these beers as refrigeration-only products for now, although we hope to be able to extend the best before dates in the not too distant future, once we have done some due diligence through testing.
We are really excited about this new chapter, and sincerely hope that we can become one of a number of small-mid size breweries helping to make craft beer a part of the greater public’s imagination. Hopefully, in seeing craft beer grow, we will also see more retailers willing to expand into the refrigerated sections as well.
We will create one more post in this series, where we talk a little more about the infrastructure that we are bringing in to make all of this happen, and where we hope that this journey will take us in the longer term.