Wherever you are and whatever kind of beer you’re drinking — a craft IPA, a mug of mass-produced Japanese lager or even a can of happoshu (a low-malt, beer-like alcoholic beverage), the beer you’re holding is a marvel of science and craftsmanship. In Japan, the art of brewing is restricted to licensed professionals, and while many of the larger breweries like Kirin and Sapporo offer tours of their massive production houses, there have been relatively few chances for the average beer drinker to learn about brewing, let alone get personally involved in the process.
For those interested in a hands-on experience, a small number of breweries have begun offering customers the chance to brew their own beer. One of those, Tokyo Aleworks in Tokyo’s Itabashi neighborhood, has been holding periodic one-day brewing classes since spring of 2018. Under the watchful eye of Bob Stockwell, Tokyo Aleworks’ head brewer, I spend a Saturday learning about the brewing process and trying my hand at making beer.
Starting at 9:30 a.m., Stockwell gives me a rundown of the day’s events along with a short lesson on safety and the importance of cleanliness. After all, Tokyo Aleworks isn’t just a learning space — it’s a full-production brewery, and the workshop shares space with an assistant brewer and trainee busy brewing beers for the adjacent Tokyo Aleworks Taproom.
After the safety talk, Stockwell goes over the beer recipe, an easy-drinking pale ale with a combination of nugget and mosaic hops — my favorite. Tokyo Aleworks has a wide variety of recipes available to choose from for its brew-on-premises program, though it can also accommodate customers who want to create something unique, provided, Stockwell says, “we (submit) any new recipe to the tax office 10 days in advance.”
Throughout the morning, Stockwell instructs me on the beginning steps of brewing: measuring out malts, milling them and then adding them to hot water along with minerals and other additives to condition the water in order to reach a target pH optimal for brewing. Throughout the process, Stockwell explains not only the traditional methods of brewing but also the detailed science behind it in a friendly, often funny way.
Having first come to Japan as an exchange student in high school, later spending another exchange year at the University of Tsukuba, Stockwell is at ease leading the course in either English or Japanese, though, he admits, some of his jokes work better in Japanese.
After adding the malt to the hot water and cleaning the equipment, there isn’t much to do during the mashing, where the milled grains are steeped in hot water to extract the sugars, vital for the production of alcohol. During the downtime, Stockwell takes me for beer and burgers at the Taproom, which is included in the fee for the brew day.
“One of our main reasons for opening Tokyo Aleworks is that we wanted interesting things to happen in the Japanese beer world,” Stockwell says. “When craft beer started (in Japan), it was very open, and there was a lot of communication. Unfortunately, it’s become a bit more closed off, and it’s more difficult to get help or advice, especially for younger brewers.” By being an open brewery, one that welcomes young brewers to come and get some experience, Stockwell says that the goal is “to be as open as possible, and help others get started.”
Stockwell admits that the original plan for Tokyo Aleworks was a little different. “We wanted to supply beer for local restaurants and cafes to sell under their own brands,” he says. However, potential clients were unfamiliar with the higher costs involved in brewing craft beer, prompting Tokyo Aleworks to pivot to selling its beer under its own name.
After lunch it was back to work, where Stockwell guides me through the steps of draining the wort, the sweet liquid that results from steeping the malts in hot water, adding the hops in predetermined intervals and, finally, chilling the beer before adding the yeast that will ultimately convert the sugar into alcohol and add carbonation to the beer. Moving from the “hot side” of brewing, where impurities can be boiled away, to the “cold side,” Stockwell emphasizes the importance of sterilizing everything that comes into contact with the beer. Even the slightest impurity, Stockwell says, can have a dramatic effect on the finished product.
And then, after about seven hours and a significant amount of cleaning, the brew day is done. In three or four weeks, I’ll hear back about how the final beer turned out. Usually, Tokyo Aleworks will bottle and label the beer before shipping it through cool delivery to your home or office. So far, Stockwell says, the majority of people taking part have been corporate groups, sales teams and even couples making beer to give to their wedding guests as a special present, as well as some repeat customers eager to become more familiar with the brewing process.
After years of drinking beer, finally taking part in the process provided me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the skill and effort that goes into a truly good brew. For anyone interested in giving it a try, brewing with Tokyo Aleworks is an experience worth seeking out.
Tokyo Aleworks has three or four brewing slots per month, made available every three months, and sell out quickly. The course is ¥49,800 for up to five people and produces around 48 bottles of beer. For more information, visit tokyoaleworks.com.