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Sunday, June 30, 2002

Some beer to call your own


By CHRIS POEL
Special to The Japan Times

When my Japanese friends hear that I make my own beer at home, they invariably ask me, "Does it taste good?" When I pour them a glass in response, their next comment is usually, "Wow, it has foam!"

News photo
A shop assistant shows off some of the wide selection of homebrewing supplies available at the Tokyu Hands store in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Well, of course it has foam. And yes, it can taste good. In Japan, where there has been no long tradition of beer brewing, it is not surprising that many Japanese know little of what goes into their cool suds or how they can be made at home.

Making headway

Many people confuse home-brewing, making beer at home, with microbrewing, which is commercial beer production on a very small scale with an emphasis on a quality, handcrafted product.

The rising popularity of microbreweries (very small beer factories) and brewpubs (pubs that brew the beer they serve) in Europe and North America is a direct result of the popularity of home-brewing. The ranks of new professional brewers turning out the suds in microbreweries and brewpubs include many who started out in their own kitchens. Many pros, however, continue brewing at home to try new recipes or develop new styles, because home-brewing in small batches enables greater variety and flexibility.

Unfortunately, this is not so in Japan, where private fermentation of any beverage with more than 1 percent alcohol is illegal. Japan's regulations were eased in 1994 to allow for the opening of microbreweries and brewpubs. But with practically no native home-brewing culture to draw upon, startups were forced to look overseas for accomplished brew masters, primarily from Germany and the United States.

Some new microbreweries made the mistake of merely hiring consultants to teach their inexperienced employees how to use the equipment. Once that service was performed, the consultants left the newly trained brewers to continue brewing what they were taught, with no originality, creativity or knowledge of how to make the beer better or different.

At home, on the range

Beer is not all that difficult to make in your kitchen. If you can boil water or make spaghetti using canned sauce, you can brew beer.

At the most basic level, all you need to do is boil water, cool it down to room temperature, open a can of hopped malt extract, mix the contents with the water and sprinkle some yeast on top.

Then you do what comes hardest to most new home-brewers: You wait. You cool your heels for a week or so to allow the fermentation process to finish, then you bottle the beer. Another 10 days or so and it's ready to drink. The result may not be the greatest beer you've ever had, but is spaghetti with canned sauce the best you've ever eaten?

The professional brewer makes the beer from scratch. The basic materials are malted barley and/or wheat, fresh hop flowers or pressed hop pellets, and pure brewers yeast in liquid solution.

It gets more complicated, of course, but it can be done at home. In fact, those who start out making beer the easy way invariably work their way up to the pro techniques. And you forget the trials and tribulations you went through making it, particularly after downing several pints of the results.

In Japan, there are many obstacles. Beer-making materials are not widely available (although you can mail-order quality ingredients from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom or the U.S.). Kitchens are too small and ill-equipped for handling huge kettles and containers. Houses are too cramped to accommodate several cases of home-brew (brewing beer a bottle or a six-pack at a time is just not practical). Generally, home-brewers make beer in batches ranging from 15 to 30 liters. That's not as much as it sounds, especially when thirsty friends visit.

The biggest catch, as I mentioned earlier, is that brewing beverages with more than 1 percent alcohol is illegal. The word on the street is that the tax office does not actively pursue people brewing small amounts for their own consumption, but it does go after home-brew scofflaws who make large amounts to sell or even give away.

Hop to it

Having said that, it is completely legal to buy and sell home-brewing equipment and beer ingredients.

To get your own home-brewing operation started, first invest in a basic set of equipment.

This should include a large, plastic bucket (at least 23 liters), a large, stainless-steel pot (at least 12 liters) and a burner large enough to bring that much water to a boil (most kitchen gas cookers will work fine). Plus, you will need a supply of ice to cool down the wort (unfermented beer) after boiling.

You also need the basic ingredients: malt extract, hops and yeast. Then you need a supply of clean, sterilized bottles, caps and a capper device for affixing caps to the bottle.

Bottoms up

There are many benefits to brewing beer at home. One is quality. Then there is the satisfaction of enjoying something that you actually made with your own hands. But even more important is variety. Japan's major brewers brew basically the same style of beer (light lager), while Japanese microbreweries generally have fewer choices than we'd like to see. Whether you like British bitter, American pale ale, German wheat beers, Irish stouts or even Czech pilsners, you can find satisfaction making them at home.

Since the early 1990s, Japan's tiny yet vibrant community of home-brewers has been growing at a steady rate but it cannot compare yet with the nearly 13,000 members of the American Homebrewers Association. However, the fact that Tokyo's Ichiri Fujiura was named AHA Homebrewer of the Year in 1998 highlights the skill, dedication and attention to detail that characterizes many Japanese home-brewers. His award-winning beer? "Toasted Coconut Porter" -- a concoction that only a home-brewer could dream up. Try finding that at your local liquor shop.

For basic information on home-brewing, there are numerous online resources, some better than others. Especially good are the Brew Your Own site (www.byo.com) and AHA's site ( beertown.org/AHA/index.htm). Northernbrewer.com and www.morebeer.com have photos of home-brewing equipment and offer helpful hints for home-brewers. For a fairly extensive list of Web sites with more detailed instructions, see www.realbeer.com/links/homebrew.html. The Beer Club of Japan, based in Kobe, is run by Junko Saito, an enthusiastic home-brewer with a good command of English. She sells home-brewing supplies by mail and has a Web site with considerable English content at www.bcjkobe.com/english/index.htm. You can also call (078) 651-1437. Chris Poel is assistant brewer at the Fishmarket Taproom, a brewery restaurant located in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and an avid home-brewer. He can be contacted at homebrewjapan@yahoo.com


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