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Powder, Hot Springs and Hops

A sleepy ski town and hot spring village in northern Nagano Prefecture has become an unexpected hot spot for craft beer lovers. Nozawa Onsen is probably more associated with nihonshu, which flows freely at its famous Dōsojin Matsuri fire festival, where a huge wooden structure is set ablaze every January 15. But now with several taprooms and a top-notch brewery, Nozawa Onsen may also become another must-visit location for beer lovers checking out Nagano’s quickly expanding scene.

Nozawa Onsen’s longest running craft beer bar, The Craft Room, was the brainchild of Outdoor Japan’s founder, Gardner Robinson. In the summer of 2011, one of Outdoor Japan’s sponsors approached him about a space just a few steps from Nozawa Onsen’s Nagasaka Gondola. Gardner had been snowboarding in Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort since 1997, the year before the resort hosted several events for the Nagano Winter Olympics, and had been wanting to combine his passion for the outdoors and craft beer, both forged in his native Oregon. Later that year, he and friend David Elsworth opened The Craft Room.

To complement the beers they partnered with Allpress Espresso, a New Zealand-based coffee roaster, to get top-quality beans from Allpress’ Tokyo roastery. Allpress’ owner, Michael Allpress was inspired by Seattle’s coffee scene in the late ‘80s and went from New Zealand’s first coffee cart to roasting coffee in an Auckland garage to working with over a thousand independent cafes around the world. The Craft Room was the first cafe at a Japanese ski resort to work with Allpress. Seven years later, this ski-in ski-out cafe and craft beer bar remains the best place for après-ski and great coffee in Nozawa Onsen. 

When The Craft Room opened, most of their beers came from western U.S. breweries. However, as Japanese breweries have grown in number and quality, the eight taps are now an even mix of imports (mostly U.S.) and Japanese craft beers. Among their most popular beers last ski season was Joy Juice v.2 (6.2%), a hazy, fruit-forward, not-bitter New England IPA (a style I featured in Issue #64, Summer 2017), from just down the street at Anglo Japanese Brewing Company (AJBC). 

AJBC is owned and operated by Tom and Emiko Livesey, who respectively constitute the English and Japanese aspects of their brewery’s name. They met in London, where Tom was a sculptor (and homebrewer) and Emiko worked in finance. They moved to Nozawa in 2012, opened AJBC in December 2013 and Libushi (里武士), their charming tap room, the following month. 

Since that time, AJBC has been putting out adventurous, delicious beers, including a Barrel Reserve series where they age various styles suitable for wood aging (like sour beers and barleywines) in oak barrels, often with locally sourced fruit. This summer, they expanded from the initial 3hL brewhouse at Libushi to a new 25hL system, pulling double batches into 50hL fermenters. They also recently received Japan’s first oak foeders in which they will ferment a variety of tart and funky beers (see Issue #62, Winter 2017 for more on aging and fermenting on wood). I am hoping to sample some of those new beers at the Saisons, Sours, Barrels, and Brett festival on November 3: Asia’s first beer event focused on sour, funky, and wood-aged beers, featuring offerings from AJBC, other Japanese breweries and imports! 

Gardner’s latest project, the Winterland Lodge & Taproom, is a boutique hotel, taproom, and gyoza bar that will open this winter in the heart of the village. The name is a nod to Nozawa’s great snow and San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom, one of the most significant venues for that city’s musical explosion in the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as the home base for the Grateful Dead. Gardner and his business partner, Chris Hinds, have been going to Dead shows since the 1980s. The décor of Winterland will combine traditional Japanese reclaimed wood and vintage art and music from the era. The restaurant will specialize in gyoza, with a variety of custom-made flavors including ones with local nozawana (a kind of mustard leaf that is a Nagano specialty). Winterland’s twelve taps will feature local and international craft beers and ciders. As it is conveniently located right across from Nozawa’s main bus stop, Winterland will be a great place to grab some gyoza and a pint or two after a day on the hill.

Nozawa Onsen’s thirteen free hot springs, great snow and traditional atmosphere are reason enough to come to this quintessential mountain village, but beer lovers will be surprised to find such a vibrant craft beer scene in this corner of Nagano Prefecture.

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