After we dropped off Martin and Marie, we headed to Azumino Brewery, which is kind of just outside of Matsumoto and right at the base of the central Alps. This place is friggin impossible to find. It was my third visit and I knew we would get lost, as it is literally amongst a bunch of farms on roads that go anything but straight and are forbidden from having any signs (unless you are a 100 feet away and can already see the place). Previous visits were in the fall and since the brewery also makes wine and fruit, the place had been packed. In June however, it was dead. Not only was it dead, but without the people, it looked more drab (and cheesy 1970s/80s) than ever and the interior reeked cheap. This place needs an overhaul. We asked if we could sit outside on cheap lawn chairs under trees decorated with Christmas lights, but we were told they were repairing tables and chairs out there and it was off limit at the moment. I remembered the beer being just average when I was last there, but that was only when I started becoming a geek. Either I hadn’t developed a good palate at the time or the quality had sunk, because now the beers are hardly distinguishable from each other save the seasonal Amber Ale, which was OK. The Pils, Dunkel and Wheat were lame at best. Too bad because the 1500 yen ($12) all you could drink, plus a food special, made for a great deal. We decided to give the food a shot after seeing the table next to us order and it smelled great and it certainly was. Too bad someone doesn’t put as much effort into the beer and interior design as they do the food.
After this we made our way to Omachi, which is at the foot of the Northern Alps, to rest our heads. We stayed at Canadian Village Montreal, which is a small village comprised of about 40 or 50 log cabins that can each sleep up to eight people. At about $30 (4000 yen)/person it is a great value and each cabin is quite spacious, which allowed for a small sampling session as the nightcap.
The next day, after a brief stop at Hakuba where we watched some summer ski jump training, we headed up to the Northern part of Nagano to Shinano-machi, which is mostly known for Nojiriko Lake, but also for Shinano Brewery. The brewery, although remote, is well marked along the main roads and easy enough to find. Oddly, the pub is only open from 11am – 4pm and only from May – Oct, but perhaps this makes sense given that this area is known for 10 feet plus snow accumulation in the winter. The brewer, Mr. Kawashima, trained at Ipswich years ago and reminisced about those days. He gave us a tour of the brewery, where to many peoples’ surprise he had attached speakers to the kettles. The reason for this he said was that beer reacted well to classical music. With the exception of the stout, I thought a bit of hard rock would have helped the hop profile on the beers. Speaking of stout, Mr. Kawashima said he wanted to recreate the Oatmeal Stout at Ispwich with his stout, but he couldn’t because if he added oatmeal it would become a happoshu (less than 66% fermentable malt as part of the entire fermentable grain profile) and the brewery would need to get another license. Again, the food here was outstanding. I had a chicken curry sandwich that not only went well with the beer, but was one of the best pub sandwiches I have ever had.
After this we made our way to Japan’s newest craft brewery, Shiga Kogen. Although it may be new to beer, the company has been around making sake for over 200 years. Back in the 90s when craft-brewing took off/was legalized in Japan, many sake breweries got into the beer business hoping to make a quick buck as cheap raw materials and high beer prices = big profit, or so many thought. To this day many beer breweries in Japan are actually primarily sake breweries, including Hitachino Nest. However, many have stopped producing beer as it wasn’t the get-rich-quick scheme they were hoping for on the back of declining sake consumption. Perhaps this is why when Shiga Kogen went to apply for a license to brew beer in 2003, the tax office told them not to get into the beer business as they won’t make any money. However, luckily for consumers, these pleas were ignored and in November 2004 Shiga Kogen started brewing – the first new brewery in Japan in about FIVE YEARS!!! (according to them).
After driving for what seemed forever through suburbs, we finally found the brewery on a nondescript street. The owner’s house, just as it is for many sake breweries, was across the street from the brewery and was large, traditional and had lots of land. There was no restaurant, but a tasting room. Mr. Todoroki, one of two brewers, came across as being very passionate about craft beer, and a very interesting guy. He took us upstairs of the tasting room, where they have a beautiful display area featuring Japanese traditional arts and crafts. There we tried five beers including a Pale Ale, IPA, Porter, IIPA and a “Japanese Saison” called Miyama Blonde. The first three were part of a regular line up, plus the Draft Pale Ale (draft only). Although good, the standouts were their House IPA – named because this is the type of beer they like drinking. With 94 IBUs and 8.2% ABV, this still manages to be well balanced and top-notch IIPA. The most interesting was the Miyama Blonde. Mr. Todoroki explained to us that the brewery believes that raw materials used for their products (or sake and beer in general) should be sourced from the local area as much as possible. So they started growing their own hops, which is a Saaz and White Vine hybrid called Shinshu (the old name for Nagano) Wase. In addition to this, they used their own sake rice called Miyama. Unlike rice used in many mass produced beers, sake rice is of much higher quality and is not intended to be a cheap substitute, but actually to impart its own flavors. The beer itself is not like a traditional saison, but there is good argument for a Japanese Saison. Mr. Todoroki was extremely passionate about the beer he made and, like a true artist, said he creates what he likes and he is making for people who understand his art - not for the masses. Thank you Shiga Kogen for not listening to the bureaucrats.
The final stop of the journey was Oh La Ho Brewery, which is located on top of a hill in Eastern Nagano with a beautiful view of Ueda city and mountains in the background – truly a magnificent sight from the restaurant. Upon arrival at the brewery we were immediately guided into the brewing room, where the brewers explained their beers to us and let us try various types of barley. They also had vanilla ice cream samples and fermented wort to pour on top and mix together. This was wonderful. The wort was very sweet and mixed well with the ice cream. After this we sat down for dinner, where again the food was a huge hit and the beer was also very good, in particular the seasonal wiezen, amber and golden ales. Oh La Ho shares a parking lot with a wonderful onsen (hot spring) that is well worth the visit if time permits.
A survey at the end of the trip suggested the top beers were: Shiga Kogen House IIPA, Minami Shinshu Dunkel Weizen, Amber and Golden Ale, and Oh La Ho Golden Ale.