Kesennuma, Miyagi Pref. – Almost a decade after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, an American brewer who moved to a city hit hard by the disaster is aiming to spread the message of its reconstruction through craft beer.
James Watney, originally from Seattle, serves as co-representative and head brewer of Black Tide Brewing (BTB), located in the Naiwan Bay area of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, which sustained heavy damage from the tsunami. BTB derives its name from the Kuroshio current, which flows off the coast of the region. The brewery is marking its one-year anniversary this month.
Watney, 43, has an unusual background for a brewer, holding a doctoral degree in theoretical chemistry and having previously worked as a senior principal scientist for a major chemical software company.
He first came to Kesennuma in November 2018, after learning about a plan to establish a new brewery from a Japanese person with whom he became acquainted at a brewery in Portland, Oregon. Seeing Kesennuma residents working hard to rebuild and revitalize their city, he strongly felt that he wanted to join the reconstruction efforts.
“When I came to Kesennuma” and learned that the city was trying to create “a new future” for itself, “I found that very exciting, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.
Watney, a craft beer fan, quit his job as a scientist two months after he returned home, and moved to Kesennuma with his wife in August 2019 after studying beer-making in the United States.
“It was a little bit strange to want to quit a job and move to another country and start a brand-new career,” Watney said.
But he also said that it was “a good time” for him and his wife to do that. “I just found what was happening in this city to be very attractive and very interesting,” Watney said, adding that it was “a perfect opportunity” and that the city was “a good place” to start the new business.
He said he was shocked that online searches for “Kesennuma” only returned images of tsunami damage, and that there was no information showing the current state of the city.
This finding led him to work on strengthening the BTB brand’s ties with the local community and spreading information about Kesennuma after its recovery through BTB beer.
The disaster is “something that we do not ever want people to forget, but I do not want that to be the lasting image of Kesennuma,” Watney said. “I want people to know about all the wonderful things here,” including beautiful nature, a fishing industry and nice people, he said.
“My hope is BTB could be a part of bringing and showing the wonderful parts of this city to the rest of Japan and the rest of the world,” he added.
Touching on his “primary goal,” Watney said that he wants people from other parts of Japan and the world not just to think “this is really good beer” but to “associate this beer with Kesennuma” and say “that’s the beer from Kesennuma … I know that city because of that!”
“I want the BTB brand to carry the name of Kesennuma wherever it goes,” Watney said.
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