In recent years, Japanese craft beer has been all about growth.
New bars, brewpubs and breweries open constantly, and long-standing breweries are busy expanding capacity or building entirely new facilities. Breweries from rural areas are opening taprooms in Tokyo, or exploring options to do so. Some companies are even looking into exporting their beer overseas. Down in southern Kanagawa Prefecture, however, Shonan Beer is taking a more localized track.
A short walk from Kagawa Station, the Shonan Beer brewery is located on the grounds of its parent company, Kumazawa Brewing, a sake company that’s been in business since 1872. It’s difficult to talk about one without the other, something that suits Mokichi Kumazawa, the sixth president of the family business, just fine.
Along with the two breweries, the site houses two restaurants, a bakery, a cafe, a vegetable stand and a small store selling local art and the company’s merchandise, all situated around an open space filled with picnic tables and shade-giving trees. While common in America, Kumazawa has created one of Japan’s few “destination breweries.”
In the early ’90s, Kumazawa wasn’t particularly eager to take over the family business and decided to head overseas — a rarity at the time. Traveling through the U.S. at the beginning of the American craft beer boom, Kumazawa encountered a wide variety of beer styles, many of which he’d never tried before. After returning to Japan, he decided Kumazawa Brewing should focus on its local market, rather than grapple with national competition. With this change in focus came a greater commitment to quality, and Kumazawa positioned his sake toward the premium end of the market.
When beer laws relaxed in 1994, Kumazawa saw another opportunity. Traditionally, sake is brewed in the winter, with little work for the brewers in the summer. By opening a beer brewery, the company would be able to avoid unprofitable downtime. Not familiar with brewing beer, Kumazawa hired a German head brewer, and Shonan Beer began production in September 1996, at the height of the ji-bīru (local beer) boom. Shonan Beer was a hit and sales surpassed expectations, at least until 1998, when the boom ended just as suddenly as it began, a victim to a market flooded with subpar products.
During the post-boom years, when the ji-bīru label carried negative connotations, Kumazawa focused on the company’s restaurants, aiming to create high-end dining experiences that would complement its sake and beer. By serving only quality beverages, the company’s reputation spread through word of mouth.
Kumazawa’s focus on the local area becomes clear when you look at where its beer is sold. Takashi Tsutsui, head brewer since 2006, says that two-thirds of the brewery’s 250-kiloliter annual output is split evenly between the Kumazawa-owned Mokichi bars and restaurants, and various bars and shops in the Shonan area, while the final third is set aside for sales to bars nationwide. For many years, only visitors to Mokichi establishments could sample Shonan’s wide catalog of seasonal beers, while bars further afield were supplied only with the brewery’s initial flagship beers — a pilsner, an alt and a schwarz. Now, that is slowly changing as Shonan releases more of its seasonal offerings across a wider area, while maintaining a local focus.
After taking over as head brewer, Tsutsui convinced Kumazawa to let him expand the standard lineup, adding a golden ale and a well-received IPA. Tsutsui says he was initially nervous, but Kumazawa has given him free rein to experiment, which is relatively rare within Japanese craft beer companies.
Kumazawa, having weathered the lean years between 1998 and 2010, has no plans to expand.
“It’s important to focus on quality in order to impress the people drinking our beer,” he says. Regardless of what the future holds, Kumazawa and Tsutsui know they have their customer base to rely on.
For more information about Shonan Beer, visit www.kumazawa.jp. This is the tenth installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.