My friend Jonathan Lovin, a former Memphian who lives with his wife and kids in Akita, Japan, wrote this guest post about his visit last month to the Tohoku Craft Beer Festival.
As I walk out the door, I see the tail end of the bus heading away. There’s no way I’ll make it to the bus stop on time. It’s Sunday and the buses only run about once every hour today. If this were a larger city like Tokyo or even Sendai, I’d have no problem catching another one in a few minutes. But this Akita, home to roughly 300,000, and it’s quite spread out compared to most cities here. This prefecture is actually noted as being the most rural area in Japan.
We get something like 250 overcast days a year. But today the weather is unusually warm and clear for our cloudy city. So I decide to walk to the venue, which is close to the bus station in the “center” of the city. Hey, it’s a good excuse to listen to an album a good friend gave me, The Head and the Heart, which has really grown on me. Just under an hour later (and long enough to listen to the whole album and have caught the next bus), I arrive.
Welcome to the Tohoku Craft Beer Festival Festival. There are tents creating three sides of a square with tables located in the middle. Luckily the tables are covered, because the sun is beating down. I grab a Weizen from Lake Tazawako Brewery, cordon off a few seats at a table and jump on my iPhone to post on Facebook. I boast that I made it before any of my friends and tempt them with a photo of my first brew of the day. The Dutch-style Weizen is quite refreshing and absolutely delicious. Of course after an hour-long walk…
I see a character straight out of The Hobbit, long hair, awesome beard, elvish-made heat reducing leather hat… No wait, it’s just my friend Kelly. After getting settled, we use our bags as markers and go for a beer. I get the Berry Blend and Kelly gets the Dunkel from Kohan no Mori Brewery (Forest near the lake). We get back to the table and some older women have practically thrown our bags into a bin to gain our seats. This is a very common occurrence here. For some reason grandmas in Japan are like bikers or something; they break in line, steal seats and generally show little respect for the rules they demand everyone else rigorously obey. After a quick fist fight in which we won, but just barely, we reclaim our seats.* Luckily, it’s not to the death because women here live forever. I just hope they don’t come back with their friends.
Kelly obviously made the wiser choice. My (blue)Berry Blend tastes like fruit juice while his Dunkel has a malty kick with a slight hop afterburn. Good thing this is only my second beer. It’s fruity enough to cause adverse reactions. At this point I get permission to post to Kelly’s beer blog, Beverages Abroad. His blog has many interesting facts, mostly about Asian beers, but he’s moving to California soon and I seriously doubt he’ll stop writing about beer (much less drinking it).
Our friend Misa shows up, but she’s not drinking. We need more beer and she wants food, so it’s time for another walk. We decide someone needs to stay with the seats. Misa and I get pork on a stick, french fries (which are called fried potatoes here), an IPA and a Red Ale from Iwate Kura Brewery. The Red Ale is better. Now Dave, Tom and his expecting wife Mizuho show up. We have gained a posse. Just let those old ladies come back now.
I decide to get adventurous and try the Oyster Stout from Iwate Kura. Since this beer seems a little strange, I only get the small cup, which is ¥300. The larger sizes are going for about ¥500. The size basically reflects the price, with the small at about 300ml and the medium at about 500ml. The Oyster Stout is bitter with a fishy aftertaste.
I need another beer. This time it’s another Red Ale. I also try the Peach Ale, Extra Pilsner and the Pilsner from Fukushima. Tom’s Peach Ale has just a hint of fruitiness and is overall very light and refreshing. The Extra Pilsner is probably my favorite. Everyone jokes about the beers being from the same place as the nuclear power plant disaster but, honestly, I don’t even taste a hint of Cesium.**
Next, from a brewery in Miyagi, Kelly and I share a sampler including Champagne Beer, Pineapple Beer, Grape Beer and Rice Beer. I do love a good champagne beer, and it’s a little better than the rice beer (though rice beer is quite refreshing). After that, I have a dark lager from Oirase Brewery. Honestly, the Dark Lager is just too heavy, especially for a hot day like today.
By this time Martin, Yuki and Go have shown up, as well. They are good people. Go makes music and seems to know everybody. Yuki is an inventor and has been developing a hydro-electric battery. He tells me it’s finished, shows me some pictures and says he’s simply waiting for the patent. Good luck, Yuki! Yuki is also well-known at the local brewery, Aqula (among other places). I ask him for some help with an interview I want to do with a local brewmaster, and he agrees wholeheartedly.
Now it’s time for the Aqula sampler. I get all four on tap. The Sakura Wheat is quite bitter. Next, the American Pale Ale is citrusy and sour. One of the special beers is the Akita Beauty Beer (Akita is renowned for its beautiful women, no joke). I pass it around to get opinions from as many people as possible. “It’s not sweet.” “It has a malty backbone.” “It’s light but not watery.” Tom says it’s like experiencing an existential drift. Ok, now to do the same for the other special brew, the American Amber Ale. I hear that it’s smooth, woodsy, moldy and reddish sweet. I also hear it’s malty, has a grapefruit kick and it’s an all-around happy beer. Yay! America.
I get a Caramel beer from Kohan no Mori right before Yuki and I catch the local brewmaster. Time for the interview. My first question is about the local brewing community, but he gets standoff-ish almost immediately. I’m thinking I must be slurring or something. So I ask him if there are any contests for local homebrewers and he says, “no,” and they are not in contact with him nor would he want them to be. So I tell him that these contests are very popular in the states, and it’s like a renaissance of sorts nowadays. He seems fully aware of this, so I ask why isn’t there any support here. Then he explains, “It’s illegal.” Now I get it. The laws have changed here enough for small companies to try their hand at brewing. However, for personal consumption, it’s still illegal. It seems there may be an underground movement but most likely homebrewing will stay this way as people here tend to avoid battling the status quo.
I explain that I wasn’t trying to frame him and that I honestly didn’t know that. He seems to lighten up and even start to smile a bit. People are putting the chairs and tables up now. I decide to help since the group that put this whole thing on, Aqula, has been so helpful for my story. We get all the chairs and tables put up and my friends start to go their separate ways. My friend Ben G. has been here for a little over an hour and seems to want another beer. So Yuki, Ben, my good buddy Martin (who has twins on the way!) and I head to Aqula for one more round. It’s like a 10-minute walk so I buy an Akita Komachi (rice beer) for the walk. This rice beer is brilliant!
*No old women were actually hurt in the making of this article.
**Several foreigners and hundreds (if not thousands) of Japanese most likely had their DNA mutated during the course of making this article.