Every year, more than 50 million people visit Kyoto to see the historic capital of Japan, the Golden Pavilion, Gion, and other incredibly old things. The allure of the ancient city holds powerful sway over the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. But what makes Kyoto significant to this day is not what has happened but what is happening, from its quiet residential streets to the banks of the Kamogawa River on a Friday night in Sanjo’s party district.
What is happening is a revolution, a turning of the cultural wheel, where a new generation of artists, craftsmen, and professionals are leaving their mark in the history books of this illustrious city. And it is by no means a stretch to say that the team behind Kyoto Brewing Company (KBC) is writing their chapter in bold ink. Founded by a Welshman, an American, and a Canadian, who are intensely devoted to their adopted home, KBC is a perfect example of a new phase for Kyoto.
Exploration, Craftmanship, Engaging, Ethical
Their core values are a testament to the strength of their dedication to excellence and a commitment to Kyoto. In line with the current trend of culinary and artistic culture in Kyoto, KBC is focused on the exploration of the possibilities of craft brewing. Just like the city itself, which is not content to loaf in decadence, KBC is not content to make another pale ale or stout that has been brewed since time immemorial. Instead, they are using the historic foundations of brewing as a launching point to explore just how vast the ocean of flavors and beer styles can be.
With a kettle, some malt, and a dash of yeast, anyone can blindly make a beer that’s never been made before (and quickly learn exactly why it’s never been made before!), but KBC navigates their endless exploration by the guiding hand of superior craftsmanship. Their website notes, “Kyoto is a city built on a culture of craftsmanship… and we see the medium of beer as our connection to this tradition…”, in interviews with co-founder, Paul Speed, it is obvious that all three of the founders place the utmost importance on crafting a quality product that is worthy of being in leagues with Uji tea, Kiyomizu pottery, and Fushimi District sake.
And excellence is not the only way that they are engaging with their local community. According to Paul, KBC was not created to satiate the palate of foreign tourists, but to help grow the craft beer movement in Japan and support their adopted community. As proof of this, KBC was adamant about going door-to-door to introduce themselves to the neighborhood and holding private welcome parties for local residences before officially opening their brewery and tap room in Kyoto’s southern district.
KBC also has many collaborations with associations and companies in Kyoto and Japan. Every year, they make a beer using hops growing in the north of the prefecture by the Hop Union. The next iteration of this collaboration should be out later this summer. They have also collaborated with Kamogawa Cafe to make a “coffee beer” that defied style and tasted like a “cafe latte”—which was astounding as they did not add anything that should have brought out a milky/cream flavor.
Not wanting to waste countless kilograms of useable grains, KBC gives them to local farmers who use the spent malt grains for things like livestock feed. In appreciation of this ethical collaboration, KBC also holds a farmers market at their brewery twice each year. Farmers are able to sell their crop to the local community and any beer enthusiasts who happen to be enjoying a pint that day.
KBC’s house yeast is a strain of Belgian yeast which are known for imparting a noticeable flavor on finished beer. Favoring American hops, which are similarly known for their presence in the flavor and aroma of beer, KBC has turned what might sound like a clash of styles into a fruitful conversation between cultures—a true product of Kyoto, a city seamlessly blending the dichotic past and present. However, even in the brews of theirs that don’t use this combination, KBC beers are known for being “dry” (an essential, yet exceedingly difficult, quality of strong beers), and incredibly well balanced.
When asked for his “shipwrecked-on-an-island beer”, Paul responded almost immediately, “週休6日” (shukyu muika), which means “6-day vacation”. When I asked what happens on the 7th day, he gave me a sly smile and shrugged, “make more beer.”
Along with the year-round brews, “Ichigo Ichie”, “Ichii Senshin”, and “Kuroshio no Gotoku”, there are new brews constantly appearing in KBC’s taps. This summer’s Shunkashuto (“4 seasons”) brew is a saison whose low alcohol and acidity make for a perfect beer to have along the banks of the Kamogawa on a hot afternoon. Their recently released “Yugo” (in collaboration with DaisenGbeer) is an intriguing piece of brewing wizardry that uses sake yeast in the final stages of fermentation.
Located in an unassuming residential district, it is a nice and quiet place to enjoy any of the 10 beers on tap. Visitors to Toji Temple should have no trouble walking over after seeing the sites. Indoor seating is available with a great view of the brewery. There is also outdoor seating on reused beer crates (+1 for ethical!). KBC does not serve food—unless you consider oatmeal stouts a breakfast cereal—but customers are allowed to bring any food and nonalcoholic drinks that they want. Also, there is usually a food truck in the seating area serving things like tacos, pizza, and dashimaki egg burgers(!?).
For now, the taproom is only open on Saturday and Sunday, but there are plans to open on Friday night as well, beginning as early as July. Bottles of the year-round brews are available to take home (while supplies last), as well as eco-friendly tote bags for 1000 yen that give you a 100 yen discount on all six packs purchased as long as the bag lasts! KBC growlers fills (1000ml) are also on sale for 1500yen and 2000yen. If you cannot make it out to the taproom, KBC beer can be found at numerous craft beer bars throughout Kyoto and Japan.
Kyoto is a city that is famous for its rich and historic culture. But the beauty of culture is that it is never fixed. Innovation and exploration, defining qualities of Kyoto Brewing Company, are at the center of a cultural revolution maintaining Kyoto’s relevance in our modern world.
Kyoto has been at the head of the tourism boom in recent years, and Kyoto Brewing Company has made sure that the ancient capital has become a leader once more in Japan’s craft beer boom. KBC and Kyoto go together like the Golden Pavillion and a cold glass of their golden-hued Ichii Senshin. Be sure to experience both while you’re in town!