Monday, July 30, 2012

Ajen Birmingham on Kansai's craft beer scene

Ajen Birmingham, who was the opening character in my Kansai craft beer article in July's Kansai Scene, had a lot more to say than could fit in the finished product. The excerpts below come from an e-mail interview which took place in June. 

His first impressions of Kamikaze and Craft Beer Base and their impact on the scene

My impression of Kamikaze is that it is going to be very successful in their current location. Conveniently located right on Naniwa street, 2 minutes from Nishiohashi station, they will be able to expose a lot of new people to craft beer in Osaka city.

They have a welcoming, cozy atmosphere and kind staff that knows beer.  With 23 taps they are able to carry some of the best Japanese craft beer. I haven't seen any foreign beer on tap yet though. Decent menu as well.

Craft Beer Base is mainly a bottle shop, but their 4 taps are not to be ignored. CBB's taps rotate the best Japanese, American, Belgian and other world beers at very reasonable prices. If you decide that you want to explore a bit more beyond the 4 taps, there is a beer cellar storing 250 varieties of bottle conditioned beers at perfect temp. Their glassware is extensive, so no mater what beer strikes your fancy from the cellar they will have the perfect glass to match it. Food is light and modest but not without its charm. Most of the food pairs well with beer. They also hold tasting events and beer schools for the uninitiated. 

There are still a lot of people that think all beer is lager and that anything with a darker hue than Asahi Super Dry is like backpacking through Russia- dangerous, overpriced and filled with regret. These are just the people that Kamikaze and CBB are going after. 

Its going to take time to expose the general population to craft beer but I think CBB and Kamikaze are the first steps in that direction.  

On his background and how he got into craft beer in Japan 

Im from Minnesota. Im 31 years old. I arrived in Tokyo in about 2004 -  It was the same day as Matsui arrived in the states. I always say America and Japan did a little ぶつぶつこなん that year!  
I was lucky enough to grow up in the midwest where we take beer and dairy products pretty seriously. The dairy aisle and beer aisle in most super markets are about the same size. I grew up drinking craft beer.
When I first came to Japan I tried all the beer that there was at the supermarket and convenient stores and couldn't understand why it was all lager; this was before the Japanese macro breweries came up with, 'black beer'.  I thought at first it was a regional thing so I started looking in other regions; but still, only lager.
It wasn't until I came to Osaka that I found Craft Beer Works in Fukai. That was Eni Bru owner, Nishio-san's first craft beer place. He had just bought Eni Bru and was running them at the same time. About 6 months later he closed Craft Beer Works and focused on Eni Bru. Eni Bru was only a 3 min bike ride from where I lived. So, needless to say, I have since put his children through college!

On his hopes for the craft beer scene in Japan

My hope for the Kansai craft beer scene? First is the beer tax. The reason why beer is so expensive in this country is the tax. Japan pays the fourth highest beer tax in the world and the quality is nominal at best. The tax laws need to be revised.

Second, one thing about Kansai people is that they are very finicky about price and quality so I think it strange that when most people find themselves in a situation where they are going to buy wine or beer they make a selection based on price. Only thing is, they are for different reasons. Wine- people will consider their budget, and select the highest priced wine that falls within their budget because they think they are paying for quality.  Beer- people will look at the price and alcohol content.  

In the case of wine people are going for quality and experience, but with beer people are going for price only- the drinking experience isn't factored in when they choose, mostly likely because there is only 'Nama' as the main choice in 99% of the shops here.  

Currently, the beer taps are dominated by a few major industrial beer manufacturers who don’t put out much in way of diversity. As I mentioned, 99 percent of what is on the market here in Japan are lagers. Lagers are great, and they do have their place, but like everything else in life, moderation and diversity are key. In a country where variety is taken just as seriously as the quality it produces, I find nothing more un-Japanese than not being asked what kind of beer I want to drink with my meal. When people go into a sushi restaurant, they would never accept only one style of sushi; so why do they accept it when it comes to beer?  

One reason is experience. Sushi has been a part of the Japanese diet for a time long enough that most people have come into contact with so many different kinds of sushi that they can differentiate good sushi from bad sushi; cheap sushi from high-end sushi.  

In the end, appreciation for quality is honed by experience.
So, my hope is that people in Kansai will become more experienced on quality in relation to price so they can make better judgments calls when they are spending their money.  

Also, I would like to see more beer on the menu at restaurants here. Most people don't have my experience with wine, but most restaurants have an extensive wine selection. I would like to see more places stop relying on macro breweries to define beer for them, and instead invest a little time and experience into beer.  Craftsmanship and quality are in the Japanese's blood, thats why, if its done right, craft beer can't go wrong in Japan.  

On his plans for the future 

My hope is to open my own tap room spring of next year in Namba / Shinsaibashi. I would like to offer American, Japanese and other great world beers on tap and bottle at reasonable prices; served correctly.  Atmosphere will be American, but defiantly carter to Japanese proclivities. 

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