In the Spirit of Spirits

Regional Japanese beer (ji-biiru) has been around for a long time, but many say it has actually only begun to taste good in the last decade or so. Before, it seemed that beer companies were simply appealing to that strong Japanese penchant for local products by slapping a special label with the area’s name on a bottle of cheaply made beer. Brewers, however—more specifically, micro-brewers—began to pay more attention to the actual taste and quality of the beer. A small industry was born of pride and genuine initiative, and it has been growing ever since. But if the taste makes the beer, then brewers must focus carefully not only on their recipes and brewing processes, but also on their actual ingredients. Baird Beer in Numazu, for example, uses fresh strawberries from Shizuoka for one of its seasonal beers. This of course ensures fresh ingredients with better taste. It also helps local economies and is good for the environment because ingredients are not transported over long distances. Hops are an essential part of a good beer, so we sat down with Jason Koehler who hopes to enhance the taste of beer through the careful cultivation of hops.

Q: What made you decide to get into the beer industry?

A: My wife and I were living in the US and she proposed we move to Japan. My career path in sales was pretty much useless in Japan and I knew I’d essentially be starting over. I started thinking about what I could do in Japan and kept coming back to beer. I’d been home-brewing at that point for awhile and had been inspired by all of the success stories of the US craft brewing industry. I thought if they could do it, then I could, too. I started studying intensely and attended some courses at the Siebel Institute to learn more about the craft. Once I arrived in Japan though, I soon figured out that the market wasn’t at all what I expected. I had to spend some time learning about it.

Q: How did you learn about the market?

A: I’m not sure I have yet! I took a job as an assistant brewer and account manager with the now defunct Aizu Beer in Fukushima, traveled a lot, and drank a lot of craft beer. When I first arrived just a few years ago, there were a lot of sub-standard beers around, but there has been some amazing developments since then and some breweries are making some really inspired beer. It’s an exciting time right now, lots of good things developing.

Q: Tell us about your hop farm?

A: It’s what I’d call a ‘pilot farm’ at this point. In researching the local market, I found that the only commercially grown hops in Japan are contract grown for one of the big breweries. I thought this was something of a travesty because Japanese hold local products in high regard and there are so many craft-breweries now operating in Japan that I think would love to have a domestically grown product. Beer takes some flak for not being eco-friendly, but being able to grow hops locally would only require Japanese brewers to import malt. Yeast can be sourced locally and there’s plenty of fantastic water here. I ordered multiples of ten hop varieties to test which ones like the local climate and latitude the best. Some were US West Coast varieties, some were classic English hops, the others were from Germany. The surprising thing is that ALL of them grew, some better than others for sure, but it was still a shock! This year I will test out a few more varieties and try to pin down which ones have the highest yields and flavor profiles that would be popular among local breweries. Much like grapes, there are an infinite number of factors that impact hop flavor characteristics. While there may be some similarities between locations, each growing region will have its own signature traits.

Q: What kind of traits do you look for?

A: Oddly enough, aroma is incredibly important. Most people think of bitterness in terms of taste only, but a great deal of how we taste things is influenced by our nose. Some noted aromas which can be derived from different hop varieties can be called pine-like, spicy, pungent, fruity, lemony, earthy, grassy, and even floral.










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