This is probably the smallest beer brewery in Japan and it was founded by a man, Baba-san (pictured above left), who has been very inventive and audacious in the pursuit of beer making using crops he mostly grows himself. I found out the existence of this artisanal brewery thanks to Romain whom I visited a year ago in the Coco Farm Winery in the Toshigi Prefecture north of Tokyo. He had told me then that there was a small brewery making possibly the best craft beer of Japan using only organic products it grew in the vicinity. Back in Tokyo for a short stay, I saw that the Zakkoku brewery was one hour by train from Tokyo and I thought a visit would be nice.
Craft beer is said to be expanding in Japan, with about 200 artisanal breweries operating today, from a subjective point of view it's still very marginal compared to North America where it really took off and where you can notice the weird-labelled bottles in places like Walmart and Safeway. If you read the Japan Beer Times there are a few worries here like the soon-to-be-implemented new 8 % VAT on consumer products this april, a big jump from the current 5 % (would they aim to reach the French 20 % VAT one day ?); plus the Yen has been diving steadily these last months, which is pretty good news for foreign visitors in Japan but a hard one for brewers who import most of the ingredients used for craft beer. Whatever, things move in that field and given the big success of natural wine in this country I wouldn't be surprised that artisanal beer follows suit at whatever end price.
The small brewery is located in the small town of Ogawa (Saitama prefecture), an hour or so from Ikebukuro (Tokyo) on the Tobu Tojo line, a swift trip across the endless suburbs of Tokyo ending on the foothills of the Saitama region. The weather was colder than usual in early march in Japan and there were still patches of snow here and there in the fields around Ogawamachi.
The place is immaculate, which is important as they don't protect their beers.
I guess this part of the facility is where they check the process and analyze the data.
There was no batch underway when we visited because they were closing the next day for 10 days vacation, and by the way Hitoshi and his wife Yumiko were heading for a trip in the Northwestern United States including San Francisco where they'd scout the vibrant craft-beer scene there.
Asked if growing vegetables and this wheat through organic agriculture is difficult, Baba-san says no, it's pretty simple as the philosophy is basically don't intervene, don't spray, don't add anything, the down side he says, is that the yields are low. Speaking of this wheat, it was planted last november and it will be harvested in may and june. During the week it slowly grows roots underneath which is good. He had to uproot this parcel himself as it was completly overgrown by bushes and other plants. Here he grows wheat that will reach one meter at maturation, and also rye that will reach 2 meters when ripe.
There was a time when while teaching electronics at the university of Tokai and Daito Bunka, he would have his students occasionally come here to learn natural agriculture (a non compulsory training of course) and he had built this small thatched building so that they could have tea under the roof in the shadow. He now retired from his job and works full time on the agriculture thing and also on the brewery.
While driving to his fields in the vicinity of Ogawa, Mr Baba Isamu told us how he came to know the people of Coco Farm winery, it's when he began to experiment with beermaking that Nishi-san from Coco Farm heard about his experiments and visited him, paying regular visits to the brewery to see how things evolved. Baba-san began to work on beermaking 11 years ago, getting his official brewing license in 2004. You can learn some details of his early work on this Japan Beer Times page (mid-scroll, both in English & Japanese).
Asked why he came to be interested in beermaking, Baba-san says that while working as engineer, he kepts this passion for gardening, first with vegetables, then wheat, and he was thinking about how to use efficiently this production, and beer appeared to be a good option for that, because you use all the parts of the wheat, you don't throw anything away in the process, so it convinced him to try beer because he liked the idea to use the whole thing, not just a part of it.
You can easily
conceive that on the side from his day job teaching electronics, Mr Baba Isamu had always this love for nature
and his products and that because he was living in the midst of nature he was naturally bent to cultivate crops and vegetables. He invited us for tea at his home with his wife, and I was impressed by the Canadian cast-iron stove in their living room, a rare thing (it seems to me) in Japan, and something I can so easily connect with, being myself a passionate wood-stove user in the Loire.
When Baba-san he looked deeper for practical informations about beermaking, he read lots of books about the subject, and I guess that his engineer skills helped him make the best use of his readings and quest. And when you see his equipment you feel that he manage to use tools that were not always thought for their present use.
Under this outbuilding along the wooded slope and the mountain, Baba-san has set up a system to prepare the malt : he uses a small stream of mountain water that flows along this barn to soak the wheat and after then he will let the wheat dry 50 % of its humidity, waiting that the roots come out of the wheat, and using temperature control in this custom cabinet (pic on left) for that purpose. You can see the trays where he puts the wheat for this stage. Like often in artisan breweries or operations, the place seems messy but you feel that beyond the appearances there's a focus on the goal, and no compromise for that.
On this other custom cabinet on the right (initially a drying machine foe shitake), he will heat the malt (after having first dried it in large trays in the open, on the ground along his house) up to 90 ° C until he gets a pleasant smell. In a year, he will process 400 kg of malt and make 2000 liters of beer with that.
The farm is headed by Yoshinori Kaneko who is an elder stateman of the organic farming growing scene in Japan like you can read on this article about organic farms in this country.
The farm organizes regularly lectures and tours for the Japanese public eager to learn the skills of natural growing. Kaneko-san is a pioneer of organic agriculture in Japan and he also gives lectures abroad about the subject.
Hitoshi Suzuki who now runs the small brewery with his wife Yumiko poured us the only two draft beers that were available that day (as they were closed for 10 days this same evening, they hadn't more draft ready).
The brewery enjoys a good help from its consumers, some of them being fans of the brewery from the early start. While on the fields, Baba-san had told us that the brewery has a lot of support through its more than 100-strong mailing list, people who not only buy the beers but also give advice and technical support when they need it here. They just ask for a solution regarding a particular problem they may face, and someone bouces back with an answer, a backup tool or other help. This seems very similar a support from the one I witnessed among natural-wine growers in France who support each other in many ways including by sharing tools.
The brewery sells 70 % of its beer in the brewery and its bar/shop, and 30 % through delivery to customers and beer bars throughout Japan. Some bars carry their beer occasionally and there's a beer pub near Tokyo that have their beer all the time : Riverside in the Itazbashi district.
Hitoshi-san says that the beer tastes slightly different every day, one of the reasons being that the upper part of the vat evolves differently than the lower part, and it translates into variations in te draft. Asked about the way they keep the beer stable or if they use preservatives, Mr Suzuki says that they don't pasteurize their beers, which means that the beer must be consumed in the following 2 months. When he wants a longer shelf time, he adds sugar in order to have a second fermentation which will protect the beer and keep it safe.
__ I chose the Millet Hefe Weizen beer, which was so onctuous and smooth, the light alcohol level adding to the easy-drinking feel. There was a light bitterness underlying the general smoothness of the beer. Very nice beer, I understand why the brewery is among Japan's up-and-coming artisan breweries. I can't but appreciate the long way that led Baba-san to make these beers after starting with a simple passion for natural agriculture. Here is a man who did all this not with short-term business in mind but just to use his wheat and rye wholly, and he ended up being in the spotlight of demanding Japanese beer lovers.
This Hefe Weizen costs 500 Yen a glass, which makes 3,5 € or 4,9 USD.
__ My friend chose the Ogawa Porter, a dark beer which had a gentle bitterness with toasted notes of mokka. This beer which elsewhere could have been heavy with high alcohol was also a good thirst quencher.