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Craft Beer in Japan: Shiokaze BrewLab

Chris Poel is the former lead brewer at Baird Brewing. He recently branched out on his own to open Shiokaze BrewLab and the Shiokaze BrewStand Soga in Chiba City. We caught up with Chris right after his opening to find out more.

Gardner Robinson: You recently had your grand opening of the Shiokaze BrewLab Taproom. How fulfilling was it to pour that first beer?

Chris Poel: The first beer pour was truly a triumph. After a year and a half of thinking, planning, raising money, struggling with decisions I never thought I’d have to make, it all came down to that initial pour. The first guy through the door at Shiokaze BrewStand Soga was my good friend, and the guy who got me started gypsy brewing, Davido of Yggdrasil Brewing in Hiratsuka. That first glass went to him. The second went to me and we had an emotional kampai.

GR: Has it been challenging to open up the taproom during these crazy times?

CP: It was challenging, of course, but we timed our opening with the country’s reopening—totally by chance—so we didn’t suffer nearly as much as we could have. We were actually hoping to open in March in a different location, but that fell through. If we had kept to that original March opening, we would have been in deep doo doo.

GR: What was the inspiration behind the Shiokaze BrewLab?

CP: I am a teacher at heart. I taught English at all levels in Japan for more than 25 years, including 17 at a university. So, I always had the teaching bug. When I decided to leave Baird and start Shiokaze, I envisioned a kind of “teaching brewery” where brewers can come and get practical training on how to brew, recipe formulation, yeast management, kegging and bottling (and canning in the future), etc.

The name Shiokaze BrewLab combines two different names. Shiokaze comes from my days at Baird’s Numazu brewery. We were growing hops outside the brewery, and one day a typhoon blew through and immediately turned them all brown—hops, leaves, stems, everything. I joked with another brewer that the shiokaze (salt wind) had murdered our hops. That name stuck with us as a joke. While considering a name for my new project, I kept circling back to shiokaze, and I finally decided that was best. The actual kanji we chose, though, means sea breeze, not salt.

The BrewLab part comes from the teaching aspect I mentioned before. Lab in this case means more of a teaching environment than an actual laboratory. Thus, the name combines the two main influences and passions from my 40 years in Japan.

GR: What’s your favorite part of mentoring young brewers and collaborating?

CP: Truly the best part of training brewers is to see them go off and do their own thing and do it well. Several of the brewers I worked with at Baird have gone on to start their own projects, most notably Tetsuya Kataoka, who started Numazu Craft, and Shohei Taguchi, who started Botanical Beverage Works with his partner Yuka Sato (unfortunately he passed away before fulfilling his dream). Several other former Baird brewers are in the process of establishing their breweries, and I’m excited to see what they can achieve.

Collaboration brews are fascinating to me, because they provide me a chance to learn. All too often, when brewers say they “collaborated,” it means they met at the brewery for some photos and then headed out to drink themselves silly while the other brewers did all the hard work. I love getting into the brewery, observing the process differences, asking questions and sometimes offering advice and learning more about brewing. 

While all collaborations are enjoyable, perhaps the most interesting was last September at Yamorido in Kyoto. I joined Yamorido’s two brewers, Yuki Mori and Jordan Smith, and Lallemand Yeast Technical Sales Manager Molly Browning, in brewing a huge Barleywine. Having four experienced brewers in the same brewhouse, exchanging ideas, knowledge, and experiences made for an amazing day. 

On a side note, we still have two kegs of Dragon Horse Barleywine that we will save for our brewery opening and BrewStand Soga anniversary party.

GR: How did your time at Baird prepare you to go out on your own?

CP: The Baird experience was invaluable in my development as a brewer. Bryan Baird is truly a brewery master, and his partner Sayuri is a magician on the pub side. I didn’t only learn about brewing and beer, but about proper beer serving, pub management, event planning, brewery operations—pretty much every side of running a successful brewery. That said, I didn’t truly appreciate how hard establishing a new brewery and pub was until I tried to do it on my own!

GR: How have you seen the craft beer industry change over the years?

CP: The Japanese craft beer world has continued to improve in the past 11 years since I first joined Baird, with some really interesting breweries opening in the past few years. But there is still too much beer that isn’t quite up to quality standards, and that is holding craft beer in Japan back. Again, this is one of the reasons I wanted to start Shiokaze BrewLab; I think we can be a positive influence on young brewers who have a dream and not much else.

GR: When did you know it was time to branch out on your own?

CP: Truthfully, I have always wanted to have my own brewery, even since before I joined Baird in 2009. If I had done it back then, though, it would have been a disaster, and I would have been a crushed man! Once I joined Baird, I realized that there was too much that I didn’t know (I didn’t know what I didn’t know), so I set out to get the experience, knowledge, and skills that I desired. 

Then as I moved up the ladder into more of a managing role, I started missing the teaching/training side of brewing and that’s when I started entertaining the idea of striking out on my own. It was a hard decision, especially since I was already 60 years old, but I’m glad I am where I am today.

GR: Was it challenging to scale up to the big system at Shuzenji with Baird, and has it been difficult in anyway to be back working on smaller systems?

CP: The biggest adjustment for me going from 1,000L to 6,000L at Baird was in the computer programming. When Bryan handed me a recipe for a 1,000L batch on paper, I knew what to do with it and the order to do it in. Of course, as a human, my process was going to be slightly different every time, but the results would be really close. On the big system, the computer takes control of the process, which results in more consistency. 

But setting up that computer is a lot more difficult than it looks. You have seven different vessels that need to talk to each other—when to open this valve, when to turn on that steam, when to rotate this blade, what temperature to chill to, etc. There are literally hundreds of parameters that need to be set exactly right. That was extremely stressful, because if I forgot or screwed up some setting, the whole batch could end up going down the drain. And losing 6,000 liters of beer is not something I wanted to report to the boss!

When I started gypsy brewing for Shiokaze, moving back to small manual systems was actually very comfortable, like slipping into a favorite old pair of jeans after a diet—it just felt like home! But I’ve learned that, like beer, brewing systems each have their own personalities and quirks and need to be treated differently. The experiences I’ve gained brewing at Yggdrasil, Snark Liquidworks and Beer Brain Brewery have given me a lot of insight into what I want when I buy my own brewhouse. We hope to purchase the equipment later this year and be fully operational by spring 2021.

GR: Are there any specific breweries that have particularly influenced you?

CP: My first U.S. craft beer love was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and I still love what that brewery is doing. They don’t hop on every bandwagon to try to keep up with trends. Instead they take their time, do the research, and when they do come out with a new beer, it’s fantastic. I’m kind of famous for my dislike of hazy beers, but when they came out with their hazy beer, I didn’t hesitate to try it—and I was very pleased.

GR: What are some of the recent collaborations you have worked on?

CP: The most recent collaboration was with Izumi Brewing, where we added a bunch of natsu mikan (summer orange) into a Saison. I’m not familiar with brewing Saisons, so that was very interesting to me. I mean, where are the hops?!

In July, we will brew a couple of sour beers using a new yeast from Lallemand. One will be at Yggdrasil, where we’ll add peach puree to make a sour wheat beer. The second will be at Beer Brain, which largely focuses on IPAs. A sour IPA with tropical American hops? Why not? We’re planning to release these beers in August, just in time for the hottest part of the Japanese summer.

GR: What kinds of beer we can look forward to seeing from Shiokaze? 

CP: Gypsy brewing kind of limits us in what we can make. Since we’re using friends’ facilities, we can’t brew anything that requires a long time in the fermenter (like lagers) or need a long conditioning time (most high-alcohol beers). Until we get our own brewery built, we’ll continue to make beers more on the simple side—pale ales, golden ales, IPAs, etc. We do want to make a porter sometime soon and will slowly explore expanding our lineup. 

Another problem with gypsy brewing is that the breweries we’ve been brewing at have limited fridge space, so we can’t brew a lot of different beers and expect them to hold on to the kegs until we use them ourselves or sell to other pubs. In our BrewStand, however, we’ve built a large walk-in fridge where we can store several hundred kegs. Once we get our license to sell from the tax office, we’ll be able to expand our gypsy brewing without putting extra burden on the breweries. When our brewery comes on line, the sky’s the limit! We’ll actually have two brewhouses, with the smaller one for making experimental one-off beers, which is going to be a lot of fun to play with.

GR: Anything else you would like to add?

CP: We are so grateful for all the people who have supported us, both financially through our crowdfunding initiative and for the words of encouragement when things got difficult along the way. Without that support, Shiokaze BrewStand Soga would never have gotten off the ground. Our main partners, Brett and Fusako Davis, have tirelessly provided support and advice (that I have all too often ignored). 

The staff has been especially wonderful. Pub manager Yuka Sato had the patience and belief in Shiokaze to wait half a year before getting a salary, and assistant brewer Takashi Watanabe has been a workhorse doing everything he’s been asked. And finally, our carpenter Mitsuo Nagakura did a fantastic job building a world-class pub where everyone can feel at home with a beer. Our next step is to build Shiokaze BrewLab brewery and add more BrewStands in and around Chiba City.

Shiokaze Brew Lab and Shiokaze BrewStand Soga
Soga, Chiba Prefecture
Three-minute walk from Soga Station
(070) 4211-5114

3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mon. – Fri.  
12 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sat., Sun., National Holidays

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