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Barrel-aging in Japan

In 2015, renowned brewmaster and author Garrett Oliver, when describing inspiration in brewers around the world, noted that Japan “hasn’t been that creative, but overall quality has been very high.” It’s a point many echoed here around the same time, citing a slow transition from traditional styles to the innovative modern trends occurring internationally. But plenty can change in a short time, and Japan’s beer scene is advancing more rapidly, beyond the customary lagers and weizens we associate it with. Creative and stylistic boundaries are being pushed with greater force. One such boundary is barrel aging.

Barrel-aging beer is a concept that requires a lot of knowledge, patience, and experimentation, and contains an overhanging element of unpredictability. The living organisms in beer mixed with the unique characteristics of barrel wood, and its chemistry with the barrel’s existing flavours, such as whisky or wine, can produce varied results. It can really test a brewer’s abilities to get it just right every time.

The process of barrel aging is nothing new, and many brewers in Europe, such as Rodenbach in Belgium, have perfected the art for decades. The US began to sow the seeds of its current boom in the 1990s, with the likes of Russian River and Goose Island producing some of the world’s finest barrel-aged beers. In the past decade, it has become standard practice for the majority of American brewers, and many brewers worldwide; aged sours and dark beers now have such a cachet with drinkers that non-aged versions struggle for prestige. It’s the next frontier for Japanese brewers, and we are beginning to see it in more forms.

A Taste of Japan

So who barrel-ages beer in Japan? Kiuchi has been for a number of years, with some of its regular Hitachino Nest beers aged in sake and shochu casks. It currently has over 100 barrels in its program and recently released variants of Nipponia, Espresso Stout, and Commemorative Ale aged in barrels sourced from the US and Spain. But it’s Red Rice Ale aged in Japanese cherry barrels that perhaps epitomises Kiuchi’s vision. When I recently asked head brewer, Kouji Tani, which barrels from around the world he wished to source, he didn’t need to think beyond our borders: “We would like to get Japanese barrels that give an image of Japan.”

In a few short years barrel aging has exploded to the point of market saturation, yet as with any beer style, staying true to your own image in its creation can be the key to originality and finding a niche. Japanese brewers have the opportunity to embrace their country’s own sake, whisky, wine, and even fruit industries to harness distinct barrel flavours. Tani is inspired by traditional sake brewers who long ago used wooden tanks for fermentation. “We focus on materials in Japan,” he states. “We want to brew Japanese-style barrel-aged beer.”

Striving for World Class

One Japanese brewery keeping up with the game is Shiga Kogen. For about six years it has been honing its barrel-aging craft, and has released some exceptional beers such as Takashi Ichiro Imperial Stout, and Isseki Sancho, both aged in Ichiro whisky barrels. It currently has about 90 barrels in its program, mostly sourced locally, and is aging an imperial stout, triple IPA, and saison, amongst others.

Director and head brewer, Eigo Sato, draws inspiration from many sources, but encounters with luminaries from the American scene have had great impact. “We’ve gotten incentive from brewers we’ve directly collaborated with,” he says, citing Oregon’s Hair Of The Dog and Maine’s Oxbow as sharers of techniques and expertise. “Also breweries we’ve visited and observed, and . . . exchanged information with have been important, such as Russian River, Port Brewing, and Cascade.”

Whilst some of these brewers’ have created exemplary barrel-aged sours, Japanese brewers have to date only marginally tackled the intricacies involved in bridging flavours to more subtle beers. “We’ve been pleased to release high-alcohol beers in particular,” explains Sato, before adding, “Sour ales and the like are still a challenge.” He aims to continue accumulating experience, and is striving to keep making beer they feel is delicious and interesting.

A Brewer’s Playground

The challenges presented by barrel aging enable a brewer to get out of his comfort zone, experiment, and learn. When one thinks of Nagano’s Yo-Ho, they think of its canned core range lining the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores nationwide. But it too runs a small barrel program with the yearly release of Barrel Fukamidasu, a 9% English-style barley wine aged in Japanese bourbon barrels. Although only a small run (a batch once sold out on Yo-Ho’s website in ten minutes), and something the brewery only commits minimal time and storage space to, the opportunity excites head brewer Masafumi Morita.

“The (program’s) main purpose is to satisfy the brewer’s creativity and challenge the mind,” he says. “I don’t focus on planned sales, but on trial, quality, and creativity.” Some creativity can be forced; with Morita telling me it can be difficult for him to get his barrels of choice. This reality has been echoed by some other brewers, with high costs or variable quality of local barrels, or simply lack of availability, impeding programs.

But such difficulties can lead to unplanned fortuitous results. “I’ve tried many kinds of barrels and the best was a French oak sherry cask used for Japanese whisky for 40 years!” Morita exclaims, detailing a complex, clean flavour with beautiful taste gradation. In the face of obstacles, local brewers will need to innovate and experiment to achieve beers of caliber.

Where to Next?

The list of Japanese brewers undertaking barrel-aging programs is slowly expanding. Minoh, Swan Lake, Shonan, AJB, and plenty more also release aged beers well worth trying should chance arise, and we’ve recently learned that Kyoto Brewing are commencing barrel aging. The process of developing a high-quality program can take years and test a brewery’s limits, but one can trust that the Japanese tendency to work hard at perfecting a craft will mean that lofty standards are strived for. Exciting times ahead!

Many thanks to the kind folk at Yo-Ho, Kiuchi, and Shiga Kogen for all their help with this article.