Sake brewers turn their hand to beer

Taro Ishikawa, president of Ishikawa Shuzo in Fussa City, Tokyo, knows a thing or two about brewing beer. This comes as no surprise: In addition to producing Tamajiman sake, his company has been making Japanese jibīru (craft beer) for 14 years. The Ishikawa family’s history of beer brewing, however, goes back to 1887, when the brewery created a German-style pilsner called Nihon Bakushu (Japan Beer). It was a short-lived venture; production ceased in 1890.

But in 1998, he decided that it was time to try again. The mid-’90s saw a craft-beer boom in Japan, thanks to a change in tax laws that legalized small-scale brewing. Under the old regulations, only producers with an annual output of more than 2,000 kl could be granted licenses, but the minimum was lowered to 60 kl in 1994. Hundreds of microbreweries opened initially but many folded after a few years. Ishikawa Shuzo is one of over 200 producers still standing, and Ishikawa estimates that around 20 percent of those also make sake.

“We understand the technology of fermentation because we’re sake makers, so the quality of our beer is good,” he told me on a recent visit to the brewery.

Ishikawa Shuzo’s Tama no Megumi beer, made with North American malt and European hops, is mostly European in style, but lighter in body to suit the Japanese palate. It makes around 10 varieties. I tasted the Pale Ale, a citrusy-nosed brew with a hoppy kick, and the Bottle Condition, a version of the Pale Ale that undergoes natural fermentation in the bottle and is aged between three and five years. This was richer, with dried apricot aromas and yeasty lactic notes, but lively and light-textured.

Ishikawa Shuzo’s beer is available at major department stores and at the two restaurants within the brewery compound ( Ishikawa says that beer sales have bolstered on-site sake sales.

Ishikawa Shuzo employs two master brewers who oversee the sake and beer production separately. But at Kumazawa Shuzo in Kanagawa Prefecture, master brewer Tetsuro Igarashi is in charge of making both the brewery’s Tensei sake and its Shonan Beer. After first learning how to make sake, Igarashi and the rest of the staff studied beer making with a German brewer for two years.

“Making beer is easier because there are fewer processes,” he said. “The most important thing is cleanliness.”

Sixth-generation president Mokichi Kumazawa decided to go into the beer business after discovering craft beer in the U.S. and established Shonan Beer in 1996.

I tried four varieties of Shonan Beer at Kumazawa Shuzo’s brewpub, Trattoria Mokichi. Its three flagship brews are its Pilsner, a nicely balanced brew with mild bitter notes; Alt, a high-fermentation ale with a fruity nose and toasty, malty flavors on the palate; and Schwartz, a full-bodied dark beer with coffee notes and pronounced sweetness that has taken home medals twice in the World Beer Cup contest. Also on offer was the Weizen, a slightly cloudy wheat beer with fruity aromas of banana and orange and a surprisingly dry finish.

You can purchase Shonan Beer online or at the brewery, where it is also served on tap at two restaurants. At the brewery’s annual Oktoberfest event, during the weekend of Oct. 6-8, it will be pouring 10 kinds of Shonan Beer. For more information, visit

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.

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