Juicebox Tour in Japan
Juicebox tour in Japan
Fourpure founders Dan and Tom recently followed their beer to Japan for a 7-day adventure covering Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The aim of the trip was to get a better understanding of the beer scene in Japan and of course pour some pints of the beloved Juicebox whilst in town.
A bit of a scene setter by Tom (the ex-geographer!):
Japan is a fascinating country of business prowess, rich culture, technical wizardry and spatial conundrums. More than 75% of Japan’s 127 million-strong population live in sprawling cities on the coastal fringes of its Islands. Tokyo its capital is the world’s largest metropolitan area, with a population of over 32 million people. From a geographical standpoint, Japan is made up of an archipelago of over 6,000 islands and it sits in a volcanic zone called the Pacific Ring of Fire. So that means active volcanoes and earthquakes! – thankfully neither occurred when we were in town though we came in off the back of a Typhoon! Japan’s four main islands, Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, make up 97 percent of the country’s total land area. Honshu is home to Tokyo and many of Japan’s other largest cities, including Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, Kyoto, Kawasaki, and Hiroshima.
[Some reflective words from Dan]
Japan has always fascinated me, but unlike Tom (co-founder and my brother) I’ve never had the chance to visit. My usual approach to travel involves plenty of research, especially on the food and beer, a healthy amount of reading on history and culture and some basic language in an attempt to get maximum value from the very small amount of time modern life allows you to take truly on holiday. For this rapidly arranged trip, the prep was limited to skimming the plan our local distributor (Jute) provided, grabbing flights and searching for affordable hotels – especially in Shinjuku, a very expensive place to stay.
After a long flight from Singapore, Yen in hand, I landed into Narita airport east of Tokyo, made my way into the city and my hotel. The first thing that struck me, after the eerily empty huge airport (I was the guy who’d just woken up in one of those post-apocalyptic films, just immaculately clean) was how little of the signage was in Roman typography let alone English. It seemed it was even too much to trust google-maps off-line mode, which refused to cache the city, so first stop was for a local pre-paid data only sim – indispensable, and very easy to buy, once you get the hang of pointing and gesturing at your iPhone. For the first night there was only one thing to do – grab sushi, a beer and wait for the sun to rise to find out what the darkness was hiding.
This trip was my first experience of Japanese trains and subway. There’s plenty of anecdotes about punctuality (and crowding, and men in white gloves pushing every last person into the carriages - all true.) But what struck me from a process perspective was how the Japanese approach problems differently. London Underground works hard to speed up the open/close of the ticket barriers to get the maximum people to flow through at enormous mechanical stress and maintenance overheads, despite the vast majority of tickets being accepted. In Japan, those barriers remain open unless there’s an issue with a ticket, or if someone tailgates, in which case they close just as quickly as they do at home if someone tailgates with you. Despite the huge volumes of people ticket halls are somehow less frantic, quieter and calmer. I wonder why we manage the normal, not manage the exceptions? Imagine being in the next meeting about how to speed up the open/close operation on the barriers and saying “hey folks, what about…”. I also learned it was the law to drink a can of beer on train services, but optional on the subway.
Travelling down to Osaka on the Shinkansen (also known as the bullet train) I came across another example of how things are different in Japan. If you want to get on a specific train and have a guaranteed seat, then you pay extra for a reservation. If you want to take your chances then you buy a walk on without a reservation, which saves you around 1/3. Contrasting to our rail system where you can easily pay 10x more on a long-distance train for the privilege of not having a guaranteed seat.
[Beer & Japan from Tom]
Not too dissimilar to the UK, a small number of larger brewers dominate the Japanese beer market. Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo make up over 97%. Like the UK that leaves the independent brewers significantly outnumbered in terms of volume, but of course not in brand, growth and relevance. We were fortunate to visit a couple of breweries whilst we were in town; one of the oldest was the 200-year-old Kuichi Brewery (home of the famous Hitochino Nest Beer), and one of the youngest was Kyoto Brewing.
On day 1 in Tokyo, we met at 10 am in the lobby of the hotel, as instructed by our hosts (the very hospitable staff from Jute our representatives in Japan). Japan has a reputation for punctuality. As the hotel wasn’t especially western, Maya from Jute had no problem making contact – and to considerable relief announced she was our translator for the whole week, where we would go, she would go. The first thing issued was sharpie style pens, Maya explained we’d be doing a lot of signing (though it wasn’t clear what we’d be signing!). Formalities aside, Makoto, the sales rep for Fourpure in Japan, arrived and with Maya’s help explained the plan for our day trip to Hitachino Nest. They are rightly proud of everything they do here, every detail matters - the buckwheat soba noodles served from their onsite soba restaurant are made fresh, daily, onsite as they always have been. The Kiuchi Brewery was established in 1823 by the Kiuchi family as a sake brewery. In 1996, Kiuchi started a beer brewing business and named the brand "HITACHINO NEST BEER" with unique owl character logo. This distinctive logo originates from the Japanese village of Kounosu where the beers are brewed. In a literal translation, Kounosu means "nest".
After 1.5 hrs on the train (beer and bento box in hand) we were collected from the station by Kiuchi San and his daughter. Starting with an excellent lunch in their Soba restaurant adjacent to the Sake brewery in Konosu and finishing with an excellent dinner & drinks at their true brew Hitachino bar at Mito Station on our way home. We of course got the chance to go behind the scenes and see their production facility and naturally taste some sake and super fresh beer. If you are in the Tokyo area and can spare a day for the trip north it is well worth the visit! Otherwise, check out the Hitachino Brewing Lab at Tokyo station.
One of the more interesting legislative rules we learned was relating to alcohol taxation. Beer is taxed based on malt content rather than ABV. This has driven a rise of alternative low or no malt beer products which are produced at a lower price point. So it seems the Japanese beer market has 3 types of ‘beer’. 1/ regular beer brewed mainly with malt that we all know and love, 2/ “happoshu” and 3/ “new genre.” Happoshu is low-malt beer and is popular because of its lighter taste and lower calorie count. It’s also cheaper. New genre drinks, also known as “third beer,” are brewed from other crops like peas or corn to avoid taxes on malt and example of this would be Clear Asahi and is carbohydrate free. There is also a growing trend for the lower priced Chu-Hi which is alcoholic liquor flavoured with fruit (traditionally lemon) – We kind of stumbled across Chu-Hi whilst rushing to buy some train beers on the way to Osaka. Alcoholic Green Tea @5% what could go wrong! Once settled I cracked it open and was confronted with watered down flat green tea with vodka. Mmm… I'll put that down to experience, oh and the ‘proper beer’ Hitachino Lager chaser helped cleanse the pallet.
After spending the preceding week in Singapore, we were a well-oiled Juicebox 500 machine and set about spreading the Juicebox love in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I can confirm that we have never played so much paper, scissors, stone in our lives! – we used this trusty game to administer our tour merch – what a stroke of genius – nice one Makoto. One to bring back for the Fourpure events team - You heard it here 1st! The sharpie pens came in very useful here – we managed to sign an assortment of items: cans, t-shirts, walls, frisbees, stickers, posters and flyers. We are super happy that our brand has been in Japan for about 18 months now and is growing. It was great to speak to bar and liquor shop owners about our beer as well as the scene in general - craft beer is definitely alive and growing in Japan and in an exciting way. We were particularly taken with the exceptional food offerings in the bars we visited from traditional Japanese sharing food through to a take on fish and chips cooked with Tempura batter. It reminded us of how important it is to share food with friends and colleagues whilst having a beer. A sentiment we will build upon with our new taproom concept back in London.
The venues we ran events at all had impressive selections of modern craft beer on keg (both local and imported). We saw a fair amount of US imports (Bear Republic, Ballast Point) alongside a smattering of UK brands, and a variety of local breweries. One of which was Kyoto Brewing Co. We had the privilege of visiting those guys when we headed down to Kyoto. We were welcomed with open arms by Ben & Chris and consumed a load of beer to boot. Incidentally, Ben visited Fourpure back in 2014 and it was amazing to see how far they have come in that time. Currently keg only (but debating cans and bottles) their beers have a great reputation and were tasting great both in their tap room and also around town. What an awesome visit. Kyoto Brewing Co has a Belgian house yeast strain and is heavily influenced by American hops. Their Belgian Stout Kuroshio no Gotoku ('like the Black Tide') was a favourite as was their Belgian IPA Ichii Senshin.
Japan was amazingly quirky as ever, the food was divine as was the service and hospitality. 7 days, 12 events, multiple account visits, sushi, Tempura, Okonomiyaki, Izakaya, yakitori, great beers, bullet trains. What’s not to like!
Check out our Fourpure at 4 which we did live from Osaka for more on our trip!
More great photos from the trip that we just had to share;