Momoyo Kagitani, the sole full-time employee at Locobeer, probably doesn’t fit most people’s image of a head brewer. Then again, compared to the breweries Cultivating Craft has profiled so far, Locobeer, located in a neighborhood liquor shop in suburban Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, might come as a shock, too.
Launched in 1998 by Chiba-based alcohol retailer ShimoR to take advantage of the changes in beer production laws, Locobeer was initially seen as a way to save money, bring in customers and boost sales. Having chosen a course, the next step was to find a brewer.
“I was working at the cosmetics counter of one of the shops when the company president asked me to become his head brewer,” Kagitani says. “I was 21 years old, and I didn’t really like or dislike beer, though I wasn’t fond of bitter beers. I wasn’t sure what to think. I had always wanted to try something new,” she continues, “and I knew I might never get another chance like this.”
After accepting the position, Kagitani embarked on a crash course with short internships at local breweries, though she says the first year was a struggle.
“I was always unsure, and everything was always too heavy for me,” Kagitani continues. “But I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to make things, not work at a desk.” Often, Kazuya Shimono, the son of ShimoR’s chairman, would assist Kagitani in the brewery.
Like many of Japan’s first microbreweries, Locobeer initially brewed with malt extracts, a much simpler method but one with a limited range of recipes. Customer reactions were overwhelming negative, and Locobeer regrouped and retooled its brewery to brew using all grain, hoping to improve its product.
Luckily, an influential American brewer, Mark Hammond, was visiting Hitachino Nest’s brewery in neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture and made time to help out. Hammond spent a week at Locobeer, arriving early in the morning and not leaving until after midnight each day, giving Kagitani advice. Acquaintances at Suntory were also invaluable, inviting Kagitani to study at their Musashino brewery.
Kagitani’s efforts paid off and, at the 2000 Japan Beer Cup, Locobeer took home a gold medal for its flagship beer, Kaori no Nama and bronze for its Sakura Steam beer. “Our friends at Suntory were shocked, saying we were too successful too fast,” Kagitani says.
Around this time, Koichi Nittoh, a researcher at a nearby university, began to visit the brewery, helping out on his days off. Nittoh had some experience and interest in beer, and helped Kagitani develop new recipes. The two got married in 2002, about a year after they met.
In 2011, the chairman of ShimoR passed away and was succeeded by his son, who suggested Kagitani and Nittoh work together. The couple bought Locobeer off ShimoR, and Nittoh officially came aboard as a corporate officer, handling office work so Kagitani could focus on brewing.
When asked about her approach to beer, Kagitani mentions a common misconception: that the “loco” in Locobeer stands for “crazy.” Instead, the brewery’s name means local beer, reflecting its commitment to community, prioritizing local events over larger, more Tokyo-based functions. But looking at its lineup, Kagitani understands the confusion. She enjoys making rare styles of beer, and wants to introduce people to new beer experiences.
Although Locobeer’s yearly output of 15 to 18 kiloliters places it firmly on the micro side of brewing, last year it celebrated its 20th anniversary. Recently, Kagitani has begun working on barrel-aged beers and taking part in the global Pink Boots Society program, which seeks to make careers in beer more accessible to women through mentoring, networking and scholarships for studying brewing and judging courses. Well-aware of those who helped her to get to where she is, Kagitani is now eager to help others.
For more information about Locobeer, visit locobeer.jp. This is the eighth installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.