A newspaper and a pub chain walk into a brewery…
It has all the makings of a joke, but this is no wisecrack —it’s the story of how The Japan Times, Kyoto Brewing and the Brussels bar chain came together to make a truly newsworthy brew.
The day’s batch is already underway as the collaboration team starts a tour of the Kyoto Brewing facilities in a quiet neighborhood a short cab ride from Kyoto Station.
Chris Hainge, Kyoto Brewing’s co-founder and brewmaster, details the recipe starting with the malts — a Belgian pilsner base with the addition of German Vienna — and explains how each brew begins.
Representing the collaborators are members of The Japan Times’ in-house beer club, joined by staff from Brussels.
The project got off the ground when members of the beer club had the idea to do a collaboration brew as part of The Japan Times’ 120th anniversary celebrations. Brussels, which serves Kyoto Brewing’s beers in its locations on dedicated taps, put the two sides together and joined in as a collaborator.
The three have more in common than it may seem, Hainge says. The brewery was started by Hainge and two friends from their days working in Aomori Prefecture on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. Hainge sees a connection between the brewery, founded by a group of foreign residents, the newspaper, which has a team of foreign editors and writers on staff, and Brussels, with its lineup of imported beers. Both the brewery and the newspaper, he added, have a mission of sharing an understanding of Japan, be it through the daily news or a craft beer.
The beer itself also draws heavily on the foreign element. Hainge narrowed recipe ideas to a fruit saison — incorporating influence from the India Pale Ale scene in the United States — using ponkan, an orange-like citrus fruit that came to Japan through India around the same time The Japan Times was founded in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
After the tour, the team gathers to help measure out the hops to be added later in the brewing process. The hop varieties — Millennium, Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria — are passed around for a chance to take in the aromas.
Hainge, along with co-founders Paul Speed and Benjamin Falck, draw in close to get a whiff of Mandarina Bavaria, which they are using for the first time.
“We’ve never smelled it before,” Falck says of the relatively new German hop, said to carry a fruity, citrus aroma with flavors of tangerine.
Then comes the ponkan: Peels for aroma, to be added during the aging process as close to packaging as possible, and juice for flavor, to be added to the brew kettle later in the day just before transfer to the fermentation tank.
Near the brew system, 25 kilograms of ponkan, sourced from Ehime Prefecture, sit in two boxes, with knives, peelers and a juicer set up on a small table.
At last the team members have a chance to get their hands dirty: Each ponkan must be inspected, rinsed, sanitized, peeled and juiced. Later, the juice will be pressed through strainer bags — again, by hand — before being added to the wort, the liquid that becomes beer through the magic of fermentation.
Hainge tells the collaborators that for the best aroma, only the outermost, orange-colored part of the peel is ideal. He demonstrates the technique, slowly peeling off a long, thin strip.
“I’m not a big fruit beer guy,” Hainge says later. But the added element makes for a good collaboration, as a lot of preparation work is required on the brew day.
Collaborations in the craft beer industry take various forms. Breweries work with one another as well as beer bars, restaurants and occasionally other entities totally unrelated to beer.
While the scene in Japan is still developing compared to the U.S., Japanese breweries have tried various collaborations, some teaming up with overseas breweries and releasing the beer in both countries. Some tie-ups are business-focused, becoming more of a contract brew, but craft brewers tend to celebrate collaborations that are built on the larger community.
In the U.S., craft breweries have an ” ‘in-it-together’ collective approach,” Mark Snyder, export development program manager for the U.S.-based Brewers Association, said in an email.
Snyder, who took part in a Tokyo beer festival last year highlighting U.S. imports, said collaborations are part of the craft beer culture.
“Craft brewers are part of the community and use collaborations with other businesses in the same way brewers would collaborate with brewers,” he said.
In Japan, Hainge says community collaborations are becoming more common. The brewery is working with a Kyoto cake shop, which will use Kyoto Brewing beer in a cake product. Later, the brewery will make a “cake beer.”
The Japan Times beer — given the name Haru no Ibuki (a breath of spring) through an online poll — marks the brewery’s first collaboration with an entity outside the food and drink industry.
The beer, set for an initial release on March 22 at Brussels group bars, was fermented with Belle Saison yeast, which is of Belgian origin. Kyoto Brewing’s beers generally take inspiration from two sources: the craft beer scene in the U.S. and the traditional beers of Belgium.
Koichi Fujita, who acts as a beer manager for Brussels, was happily surprised that his love for beer resulted in a collaboration.
“We are really connected by beer,” he says, recalling a trip to Belgium he took with Hainge. “We went to Belgium together, now we’re making Belgian beer together.”