When you consider how many friendships are created or cemented over a pint of beer, perhaps it should be no surprise the craft brewing industry is filled with collaboration. Upcoming craft brewers commonly remark on the assistance they receive from more established ones in acquiring ingredients, equipment and techniques.
An increasingly common expression of this camaraderie among brewers is the collaboration beer, where two or more breweries come together to craft a recipe and brew a beer, often a “one-off” special release.
An early example was when American craft breweries Avery (Colorado) and Russian River (California) discovered they each made a beer called Salvation. Rather than go to court, they blended their beers into a rich, complex Belgian strong ale called Collaboration not Litigation (8.5%).
As Japanese brewers rise in the craft brewing world, they are becoming regular collaborators with international brewers. One of the first (and most frequently brewed) of such collaborations is the excellent Isseki Nichō (9.5%) “Imperial Dark Saison” created in 2009 by Luc “Bim” Lafontaine, then of Montreal’s acclaimed Microbrasserie Dieu du Ciel, and Eigo Sato of Nagano Prefecture’s Shiga Kogen Beer.
The first time I tried this beer, which takes its name from the Japanese expression, “One stone, two birds,” I swooned over how it combined dark chocolate from the roasted malts, citrus from the late addition American hops, peppery spiciness from the saison yeast and a smooth, round mouthfeel from oats and wheat.
While the beer is essentially an imperial stout fermented with saison yeast, it is more than the sum of its parts—like any good friendship.
Bim shared with me that Isseki Nichō was years in the making. He fell in love with Japan in 2004—his first of many trips here—when he met a Canadian ex-pat growing silkworms in a “paradise mountain village” near Mt. Takao.
A few years later, on a pilgrimage to his favorite craft beer bar, Kura Kura Ji-Beer House (then in Shimokitazawa, but since relocated to Kanda), he tried Shiga Kogen’s beer for the first time. Impressed, he asked the waitress about them, and she recounted their remarkable story—an eight-generation sake brewery that expanded into craft beer.
On his next trip to Japan, Bim visited Shiga Kogen and, although he was unable to meet their brewer, Eigo Sato, he left some Dieu du Ciel bottles, including Péché Mortel, their renowned imperial stout. Years later, Bim credits this gift as helping to start their friendship.
Back in Montreal, Bim spoke so enthusiastically about Japanese craft beer to the president of the Mondial de la Bière festival, she hired him to include a number of Japanese breweries to these festivals in Montreal and Strasbourg (France).
Bim invited Sato to give a talk at the festival about the Japanese craft beer scene: “I thought his visit was also a great opportunity for Dieu du Ciel to do its first collaboration—something fun and with a great story,” said Bim.
As Bim loved Shiga Kogen’s Takashi Imperial Stout, he thought it would be a great base for the beer. After exchanging dozens of e-mails, the two of them developed the recipe, and Sato came to Montreal with a suitcase packed with almost 5 kg. of Shiga Kogen’s estate-grown Shinshu Wase hops.
This would be Sato’s first experience working with saison yeast; notable, as his Yamabushi line of saison is today among Japan’s finest examples of the style.
Isseki Nichō was a success, and they eventually made another version in Japan. Bim recalls, “The Japanese version ended up being different in many ways but still delicious. So many parameters were different, like Shiga Kogen’s mountain water, their homegrown hops and sake rice additions, yeast pitch, and fermentation temperature, resulting in a drier, but still very balanced, Dark Imperial Saison.”
Like the proverbial stone that catches two birds, Bim says, “Two countries, two cultures, two breweries, two styles, resulting in one friendship beer.” After having since done collaborations with a number of other Japanese breweries, Bim hopes to host them at his new facility in Toronto, Godspeed Brewery, which may even employ a Japanese brewer if his Canadian visa works out.
Stone Brewing Company (California) has made a regular practice of three-way collaborations, releasing several every year, and some of their most popular and most original have been with Japanese brewers.
In 2011, they collaborated with Baird Brewing (Shizuoka) and Ishii (Guam) to create Japanese Green Tea IPA (9.2%), which adds Japanese sencha into a massive dry-hop schedule (including Sorachi Ace, a hop developed in Japan) to create a unique beer where the floral notes and astringency of the tea worked harmoniously with hops from the U.S. and New Zealand.
The beer was so popular, it was revived in 2015 (even stronger, at 10.1%), and imported to Japan by Nagano Trading.
Stone’s newest collaboration, with Coedo (Saitama) and Garage Project (New Zealand), ranks among their most inspired. Tsuyu Saison, brewed in New Zealand during Japan’s rainy season in 2015, employs the fruit forward hops Jarrylo (U.S.) and Motueka (N.Z.) and was aged in freshly emptied Chardonnay barrels with Japanese plums and red shiso. These bottles are limited and beautiful, gracefully combining elements of American farmhouse ales, New Zealand white wine and Japanese umeshu (plum wine).
These types of trans-Pacific collaborations should be more and more common as Japanese craft brewers become more recognized around the world and as international craft beers become better known in Japan. Bim adds, “The North American way of sharing information and knowledge is slowly installing itself in the Japanese mentality, resulting in better beers, I think.” Sounds like the start of some beautiful friendships, something to which we can all raise a glass.
- July 1-10, Oktoberfest Tohoku (Sendai)
- July 14-18, Belgian Beer Weekend (Sendai) July 15-17, BeerFes Osaka
- July 22-24, Tochigi Craft Beer Festa
- July 30-31, BeerFes Nagoya
- Aug. 11-14, Kyushu Beer Festival (Fukuoka) Aug. 27-28, Craft Beer Festival (Akita City)
- Aug. 27-28, Whiskey and Beer Camp (Nagano) Sept. 9-19, Oktoberfest (Tokyo)
- Sept. 14-19, Kyushu Beer Festival (Fukuoka)
- Sept. 16-25, Belgian Beer Weekend (Tokyo)
- Sept. 17-19, BeerFes Yokohama
- Sept. 19-30, Kyushu Beer Festival (Kagoshima)