On the 18th, 19th and 20th of September this year, three of Tuatara Brewery’s beers were served alongside many of Japan’s finest, and a number of other imports, at the Yokohama version of the Great Japan Beer Festival. This was surely a first for a New Zealand craft brewery and represented a bold play for a stake in the vibrant Japanese craft beer market.
The origins of the venture lay in an approach from the brewery to Hashigo Zake looking for contacts in Asia that might lead to export opportunities. The subsequent advice from Nagano Trading, Japan’s leading importer of US craft beer, was to exhibit in the GJBF. This was easier said than done. Between the peculiarities of the market and the intricacies of Japanese bureaucracy, the equivalent of months of preparation had to be squeezed into a few weeks before a pallet of kegs and bottles set sail in late August. In the end there were just hours to spare when the beer arrived at the Osambashi Hall in Yokohama on the morning of September 18.
Flying out of the Wellington winter to meet the beer and represent Tuatara’s interests were David Bernard of Tuatara and myself, in my capacity as “the guy who once lived there and knows some people”.
Before we started the hard work of dispensing New Zealand beer, 50mls at a time, there was a free day in Yokohama and Tokyo, spent at as many of those cities’ serious beer outlets as time would allow. There was the Nakameguro Taproom of Baird and the Aldgate and Craftheads in Shibuya and Yokohama’s own Thrashzone. At all four bars the stamp of Nagano Trading was evident. Many taps were pouring immaculately fresh beer from a variety of US brewers, even at the Baird Taproom, which sets aside four of its 28 taps to guest beers. It was eye-opening to see the impact one importing company has had on the Japanese market, particularly in Tokyo, whose beer drinkers might just be the most spoiled on the planet. Not that these treats come cheaply. A US pint glass (474 mls) can cost between 1000 and 2000 yen ($NZ15-30).
Indulgence is certainly the theme at the extraordinary Thrashzone. It starts with the owner, Koichi Katsuki, who indulges his two loves - extremely noisy thrash music and “extreme” beer. He manages to squeeze eight kegs into two kegerators – most of them high octane and highly hopped. A few are local but probably the majority are imports. There’s no concession to anyone seeking a session beer and very little room to do anything except sit or stand, drink and admire the heavy metal videos on the big screen behind the bar. But amazingly when some well lubricated foreigners wandered in late one evening, he willingly agreed to a request to “put some Queen on”.
On the morning of the 18th we arrived at the venue. The Osambashi Hall is part of a huge, modern equivalent to Wellington’s overseas terminal. It extends more than 400 metres into Yokohama Bay. The hall itself occupies a portion of the terminal, with 2000 square metres of bright, open exhibition space. The exhibitors line the sides, leaving vast open space for festival attendees to mingle. Tuatara are with other imported beers, most of which are American, but we also find ourselves rubbing shoulders with Italy’s Revelation Cat. Curiously one of their taps is pouring a lambic, dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin.
The paying guests start to arrive and a steady trickle wander up to see what we’re about. On offer are Tuatara’s IPA, APA and Ardennes. Signs are improvised to explain what the beer names signify, and a map appears with an arrow to Otaki. The Japanese seem comfortable ordering an IPA or Belgian Ale and tend to overlook the APA. Fortunately a different dynamic is at work on the other side of the trestle tables and the APA is quickly in demand from our fellow workers. In fact it becomes clear that amongst the plethora of highly hopped and/or flavoured beers from the USA, there are few, if any, classic American Pale Ales.
Overall the feedback is quite encouraging. While Tuatara’s IPA is far too nuanced and moderate to compete in an environment like this with the American IPAs, the APA is fresh and aromatic, has stood up to the sea journey across the tropics and is popular. One influential player stresses the need for original beers showcasing New Zealand hops. While his case is valid and I agree up to a point, he eventually has to concede that the reception has been too consistently positive to ignore.
By the third day of the festival the managers of several prominent bars have been through and expressed interest in getting access to the beer. Our ally says that it’s a matter of waiting and seeing how many calls come to him from bars asking for kegs. But there are extra kegs in this shipment and all the signs are that these will be snapped up by Tokyo bars.
While future orders are far from guaranteed and the hard work of adapting to the target market has barely started, there are signs that Tuatara might have a new export market. This should be great news not only to them but to all New Zealand craft brewers. Between sessions at the beer festival we took several cases of New Zealand beer, naturally including Tuatara, but also Renaissance, 8 Wired, the Mussel Inn and Emersons to an informal tasting for many of Tokyo’s most prominent beer lovers, writers and, well, pissheads. The reception was universally positive. There is little doubt that beers like Emerson’s Pilsner, Captain Cooker, Hopwired and Stonecutter Scotch Ale would gain an instant following if we could simply get a consistent supply of them to Japan.
I’m sure there is plenty of scepticism about the export potential of New Zealand craft beer. We came across it when another local brewery applied for funding to help get to the GJBF too. The dismissive tone of the poorly-informed functionary who turned them down sends shivers down my spine. Even if the craft brewing industry here is small and immature, sceptics overlook the trail being blazed by our hop industry. New Zealand hops are the height of fashion amongst leading brewers like Mikkeller, Baird and Sierra Nevada and are probably being used with little fanfare in many other
famous beers. At the GJBF we found ourselves next door to an Italian brewer boasting about his use of New Zealand hops. Aficionados are desperate to taste beers brewed in the land where these very hops come from. It’s time some of the resources bestowed on cinderella industries like wine, fashion and software were donated to something we have a natural advantage at.