Craft beer has exploded in popularity in Japan in the last few years and continues to grow as an industry, with new breweries, bars and bottle shops popping up seemingly at every corner. Following my last beery exploration, which took place in the central Tokyo district of Kanda, this time I took a slightly different approach to craft beer, exploring the thriving scene from a brewing standpoint.
A favorite of craft beer connoisseurs in Japan and worldwide is Hitachino Nest Beer, which hails from the rural town of Konosu in Ibaraki Prefecture. Aside from brewing top-quality beer for markets around the globe, Nest also offers the rare chance to produce beer at their revered Kiuchi Brewery. Labeled as "Brew on Premises", this initiative allows those with a passion for beer to brew their own custom beer using Hitachino Nest's celebrated techniques, equipment and ingredients. The fruits of the brewer's labor are afterward shipped to anywhere in Japan, and participants can even design their own bottle label!
Whilst reservations can be made in English via Hitachino Nest's website, the session itself is carried out in Japanese. Fear not however as the steps are easy to follow and the price is based solely on the volume of beer brewed; meaning there is no limit on the number of participants in a group, which could include a Japanese-speaking friend or two. The price ranges from around 25,000 yen for 15 liters (about 45 bottles) to around 97,000 yen for 60 liters (about 180 bottles) with an approximately 15 percent price increase on weekends.
Situated in central Ibaraki, Hitachino Nest's Kiuchi Brewery is reachable by train from Tokyo in about two hours, with the nearest station, Hitachino-Konosu, around ten minutes' walk away. The brewery has been producing the company's respected brand of sake since the Edo Period, for almost two centuries before diversifying into beer brewing in 1996. Although Hitachino Nest Beer is now largely produced in the Nukada Brewery a few miles away, the Brew on Premises sessions still take place in the old buildings of the Kiuchi Brewery, allowing participants to feel the history and tradition of the company as they brew.
I arrived at Hitachino-Konusu Station mid-morning and peered along the vast expanse of rice fields that the unmanned cabin that houses the station lies on the edge of. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining and the air noticeably cooler than in Tokyo, where I'd come from. I had around 20 minutes until the start of my 10 am appointment, so I strolled over to the brewery, where my beery adventure began immediately.
Upon arrival in the complex's brewing area, I was put through a round of taste testing. In front of me were presented four small beer samples; a white, pale and amber ale and a dark stout. This process is intended to give the brewer-to-be a chance to hone their ideas and to ultimately decide what kind of beer they want to produce through the course of the session. I dutifully sipped down each sample, taking care to appreciate the wealth of aromas and subtle flavors whilst enjoying the rare legitimate reason to drink so early in the day.
Following my decision on the broad beer type (I chose to brew my long-favorite white ale style), the brewing guide lugged over a box of different hops appropriate for brewing such a style. After a bit of scouring and sniffing, I decided to compose my beer with Saaz, Amarillo and Orange Peel for a touch of zest.
Now it was time for the all-important building blocks of any beer; the malt. Again going off appropriateness for the style of beer I'd chosen, the guide served me with a piece of paper with names of malts and weight values jotted on it. I was then handed a scoop and an empty bucket and ushered to the back room, where bins of the different malts were labelled and stacked on shelves. With a scale at the back of the room it was now my task to gather the assigned weight of the correct varieties of malt and combine them together in a larger bucket, ready for milling.
Following the milling of the malt, which is poured through a milling machine by the brew guide, I lumbered with the now heavy bucket over to the gleaming copper vats that dominate the room. It was now the mashing stage, which is performed by adding the milled malt into the mash tank with hot water. After stirring well and following a very particular technique, the temperature was raised and the concoction left for 40 minutes in a process known as saccharification, which simply put, is the breaking down of the complex starches by enzymes into simple sugars that are easily fermented by yeast.
After a quality control test using iodine, the malt water, or wort, was heated a little further to kill enzymes, and filtered; whereby the wort is slowly drained through the tap at the bottom of the vat, and then is poured back in very slowly to separate the liquid from the malt. Following this, it was time for what I found to be the most physically and mentally demanding stage of the brewing process; sparging.
The sparging process involves sprinkling the wort with hot water from a watering can whilst simultaneously draining it through the bottom tap into a jug, which is then poured into another vat ready for boiling. The process needs to be repeated many times, which is relatively physical work, but in the end I was left with one vat full of soggy grains, and an adjacent vat containing the precious wort ready to be boiled. At this point, back out came the hops that I had selected earlier in the process, and at the brewing guide's instruction, I threw in the different hops at different stages during the boiling.
After around 30 minutes of boiling, the concoction was quickly cooled to around 20 degrees, and at this point my work was done. It was now time for me to hand off my brew to the professionals to add yeast and work their magic to make it into beer. I was homeward bound, but not before making a stop to Hitachino Nest's brew and bottle bar in the nearby city of Mito. I supped down a couple of their different brews and excitedly contemplated tasting the beer I had just brewed.
Two weeks of anticipation later, my beer arrived, delivered by courier, and chilled. The bottles even came with the labels that I had designed and emailed to Hitachino Nest following my Brew on Premises experience. Now the moment of truth... delicious! The orange peel hops really added zest to the wonderfully light and crisp texture of the beer.