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Cheers to beers connecting northern Europe and Japan

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

Last year, serial entrepreneur Soji Nagano began contemplating ideas for a new business. Nagano, an energetic polyglot who runs two consulting companies, “wanted to do something new, something tangible” that would provide an antidote to the big data and IT-focused work he was used to. He found the answer at the bottom of a glass of Lithuanian craft beer that his Swedish colleague, Jokke Nurminen, brought back from Europe.

Before going into the IT industry, Nurminen had owned a bar and liquor shop in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and brewed his own beer at home. He had wanted to open a bar in Tokyo where he could serve his favorite craft beers from Scandinavia and the Baltics and approached Nagano about starting an import company that would specialize in products from the region. Together with another partner, Lauri Lofveblad, they founded J.L.S. Trading and began bringing in unique brews from Lithuania, Estonia and Denmark this spring. In the coming year, the company plans to expand its offerings to include beers from countries such as Finland.

“We want to establish a platform for importing craft beers from microbrewers who have never thought of exporting to Japan,” Nagano says, noting that most craft beer on the market is produced domestically or in the U.S., while few brands from the Nordic countries — and even fewer from the Baltics — are sold in Japan.

Last week, I had the chance to taste the company’s lineup of 13 brews. Tattoo Lager from Lithuania’s Genys Brewing Co. displays a nice balance of sweetness, bitterness and malty flavor, with a mildness that comes from the addition of rice flakes. Not usually a fan of fruit-flavored beers, I was impressed by the Tart Ale with Passion Fruit and Raspberry Gose, both sour beers made by experimental brewer Sakiskiu Alus in Lithuania.

The fresh passion fruit flavor in the Tart Ale is complemented by notes of sudachi citrus that derive from the addition of Citra hops, while the Raspberry Gose — which is made with 100 kilograms of berries per 1,000 liters of beer — has a gentle sweetness and a blushing pink tint. The most surprising brew was perhaps the Sakiskiu Alus Coconut Milk Stout, a rich and creamy dark beer flavored with toasted coconut flakes and vanilla pods. It tastes like the boozy equivalent of coconut macaroons and coffee.

The portfolio also includes three gluten-free beers. Yes IPA from Sori Brewing Company in Estonia has a slightly sweet attack balanced by a refreshing bitterness in the finish, with pineapple, grapefruit and mint flavors in the midpalate. Fenrir American Pale Ale from Denmark’s Munkebo Microbrewery is fermented with wild yeast isolated from honey. It is light, crisp and highly approachable, with a mildly hoppy aroma. Roskva Gin & Tonic IPA is technically classified as a liqueur in Japan (despite an alcohol by volume of just 6.5 percent), due to the addition of a small amount of gin after fermentation. The gin gives a herbal lift to the beer’s full body and bitter intensity.

The beers are currently sold through retailers such as Hasegawa Saketen and Tanakaya Brewing Company (as well as online via Amazon), and craft beer bars such as Haburashi Beer and Potato, but Nagano has big plans. Soon, the beers will be available at various locations in Hiratsuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture, which has been chosen as the host city to Lithuania for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Later, he intends to open a Nordic- and Baltic-themed bar and, in the future, he wants to work on beer collaborations between Baltic and Japanese craft brewers.

“It would be a real exchange connecting northern Europe and Japan,” he says.

For more information about the beers mentioned, visit jlstrading.jp/en.