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The Beer Hunter Draws A Bead On Japan
By Bryan Harrell

Author Michael Jackson, Brewmaster Toshi Ishii and CBN writer Bryan Harrell in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of the Yoho Brewing Company

I happened to be in California when e-mail arrived from Owen Barstow, Michael Jackson’s assistant in London, asking if I would assist the Beer Hunter himself in touring small breweries near Tokyo for three days in February.

“Tell Michael I’ll meet him in Tokyo,” I replied. For that, I would make a quick return to Japan. After booking the flight, my head was swimming with the names of places I wanted to take him to. But with only three days and nights, we could handle at best three microbreweries (in different directions out of Tokyo) plus a few beer spots in Tokyo.

On our first day together, Mr. Jackson was kind enough to make time to give a talk to the Good Beer Club, held at Beer Club Popeye, Japan’s craft-beer mecca with the country’s largest selection of local brews. At this SRO event, Mr. Jackson talked about various topics related to beer and beer organizations while I interpreted his comments into Japanese. Half of the event’s proceeds went to charities for the recent tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia.

Finishing in mid-afternoon, we headed straight for Baird Beer in the town of Numazu, a small fishing port on the Pacific in Shizuoka prefecture. Quite a number of beer enthusiasts in Japan, myself included, agree that Baird currently brews the best beer in Japan. Fortunately, we arrived on Sunday, February 13, the final day of Baird’s Winter Beer Festival.

Toshi Ishii of Yoho Brewing crafts a mind-bogglingly good barley wine that Michael Jackson is considering adding to his “beer of the month” selection.

Mr. Jackson was given tasters of all of Baird’s regular beers and specialties. What impressed me most about him was the remarkable detail of his questions on each of the beers, quizzing Baird on types of malt, mashing techniques, hopping and a whole lot more. Mr. Jackson showed his remarkable journalistic instincts, acquired over some 30 years of writing on beer. What I thought would take 30 minutes continued nonstop for nearly two hours as Bryan Baird searched his memory to remember the smallest details about the batch of beer at hand. At close to 10:00 p.m. we finally left, barely catching the last train back to Tokyo.

Since I’d hoped to introduce Mr. Jackson to some of Japan’s best craft-brewed saké, my choice for the second day came easily. Kiuchi Shuzo is a saké brewer of several centuries’ standing, and for nearly 10 years it has also brewed the Hitachino Nest beers, which are now being exported to the U.S. Despite its long traditions, Kiuchi Shuzo is a very enterprising company, also producing wine and even distilled sho-chu spirits. On Monday morning, we took the train from Tokyo north to Ibaraki Prefecture to Kiuchi’s elegantly restored 18th-century brewery compound. After a tour of the beer brewery, we were given samples of all their brews. Again, Mr. Jackson inquired into great detail about each, keeping copious notes for some future book.

The choice for our third day was Yoho Brewing of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, where Brewmaster Toshi Ishii (formerly of Stone Brewing in San Diego, Calif.) crafts the remarkably good Yona Yona Pale Ale in the West Coast style, but also a mind-bogglingly good wood-aged barley wine that Michael Jackson is now considering adding to his “beer of the month” selection. Mr. Ishii has put a great deal of time and effort into popularizing cask-conditioned real ale in Japan and has been of tremendous help in the last three annual Real Ale Festivals held by the Good Beer Club, Japan’s version of CAMRA.

Our first stop was a restaurant owned by the parent company of the brewery, where Mr. Jackson tasted Yoho Brewing’s line of beers and we were treated to a lunch of local cuisine. Afterwards, we toured the brewery and were given a vertical tasting of Mr. Ishii’s wood-aged barley wines. Brewery staffers kindly drove us back to Tokyo, where we paid a visit to Bois Cereste, Tokyo’s famous Belgian beer specialty bar. Ahhh, too many good beer places, not enough time.

Everywhere Michael Jackson visits, he spreads not only the message of high-quality traditional beer, but also a strong sense of goodwill and camaraderie among the peoples of the world. His recent Japan visit was no exception, and we hope he will return again in the near future.

Bryan Harrell is a professional writer who has lived in Tokyo since 1977. He can be reached at bryanharrell@yahoo.com.


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