Two of the bigger booms of the last few years in Japan seem like they would be a great match. But nobody thought to merge the worlds of craft beer and music festivals until Eigo Sato did so in 2012.
“I went to a lot of craft beer festivals and started talking with other brewers,” says Sato, the head brewer at Nagano-based Shiga Kogen Beer.
“Usually, we get busy from the spring to the fall, so we wanted to do something fun before the busy season.”
Snow Monkey Beer Live emerged from this idea. A two-night event held in Nagano’s Shiga Kogen region, it features live music and speciality Japanese brews (and foods) in the same spot.
It has been growing in popularity since it started three years ago, and the 2015 edition scheduled for March 13 and 14 looks set to attract the most punters, brewers and bands yet.
“All the staff and artists involved had beer connections,” Sato says. “We never had a live event like Snow Monkey before, and we had lots of worries how we would run it.”
Getting Japanese brewers on board, however, wasn’t a challenge, with 14 attending the first edition, including craft scene mainstays Baird Beer and Swan Lake Beer.
This year, attendees will be able to drink more than 100 varieties of beer from 17 brewers, including the festival’s first non-Japanese brewery, San Diego’s Pizza Port Brewing. Other participants include Mie Prefecture’s Ise Kadoya Brewery, Akita Prefecture’s Aqula Brauhaus and Mugi Zakkoku Kobo, which is based in Saitama Prefecture.
To complement the drinks, Sato says Snow Monkey Beer Live will offer an assortment of food from craft brew pubs across the Kanto and Kansai regions. The highlight, however, might be the inclusion of Tokyo’s popular Taishoken ramen shop.
The attraction for brewers is easy to understand. Business Media Makoto reported last month that production of craft beer has been increasing in recent years, with supermarket chain Aeon and convenience store Lawson embracing drinks created by smaller breweries.
Craft beers also popped up at summer music festivals such as Fuji Rock and Rock in Japan, but always tucked away among a sea of green and red tents pumping out Heineken and Budweiser.
Snow Monkey Beer Live, though, has put the drinks on equal footing with the sounds since its beginning.
It also started a new trend, with last year’s Craftrock Festival in Tokyo featuring a handful of bands and brewers. But heavy involvement from corporations such as Kirin, Asahi and the Molson Coors-owned Blue Moon Brewing Company, places Craftrock in stark contrast with the smaller Nagano event.
Back to 2012, and since Shiga Kogen Beer — which is an offshoot of 210-year-old local sake maker Tamamura Honten — was at the helm of the new festival, holding it in the brewer’s hometown made sense, albeit with some problems.
“It falls in winter, so it is cold and the mountains are still covered in snow,” Sato says. “We were anxious . . . would people even come?”
However, Snow Monkey Beer Live received support from the nearby town of Yamanouchi’s tourism committee, while travel companies such as Tokyo Snow Club and Tokyo Gaijins organized trips around the event.
“We saw a poster for it at a local bar in Nagano in late 2011,” says Hanae Shiga, event organizer at Tokyo Gaijins. “We brought about 70 people and everyone liked it a lot.”
The 2012 debut drew a little more than 1,000 attendees, many of whom told Sato they would be back the following year.
Overall attendance has since continued to grow, with more than 2,000 people attending 2014 Snow Monkey Beer Live (and drinking 4,000 liters of beer).
“They’ve started making special beers just for Snow Monkey Beer Live, or bringing ultra-limited creations with them,” Sato says of the brewers’ response.
On the music side, the event features some notable newcomers — Zainichi Funk, Tensai Band — but also includes acts such as Nabowa and Gebo, who have appeared multiple times.
Meanwhile, the area’s tourism industry has also benefited from the event.
Sato says many people take time to also enjoy other things that Shiga Kogen has to offer, such as the nearby Shibu Onsen or the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, which is famous for its hot spring-loving primates.
Shiga says Tokyo Gaijins are expecting about 120 people to join this year’s trip to Nagano, which will include one day devoted to hitting the nearby slopes.
“People I know go skiing, sometimes for the first time in a long while, because of the event,” Sato says.
Considering Tamamura Honten started brewing beer in response to the dwindling numbers of skiers, it’s a nice outcome.
“It is just like our business — Snow Monkey isn’t a commercial, it is more like friends coming together and sharing and having fun together,” Sato says.
For more information, visit www.snowmonkey.jp.
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