Portland, Asian brewers unite to quench thirst for craft brew
The past year in Portland has seen a wave of Japanese influence and collaboration, marked by lots of great sushi and ramen — and now beer.
There's no doubt a mutual love affair between Portland and Tokyo, which is home to its own PDX Taproom, with 10 Portland craft brews on tap.
The latest example of this cultural romance is the Portland-Japan craft beer collaboration festival, Fuji to Hood, set for Saturday, April 21, at The Bindery Annex building in Northeast Portland, home of Culmination Brewing.
The festival is the brainchild of Japanese beer and culture blogger Red Gillen, who lives in Portland, and Culmination founder Tomas Sluiter, who is somewhat of a celebrity in Japan, as his brand — designed with a logo reminiscent of the Japanese rising sun — has become one of the top-selling craft brew brands in Japan.
Actually, it's not Sluiter who's famous, but his cat, Abby.
Her fuzzy face is on the label of a collaborative beer between Culmination and Ise Kadoya, a microbrewery in Ise, a small rural town in southern Japan.
The beer is made with a proprietary yeast that the Japanese brewer shipped to Portland, and Sluiter then brewed with yuzu peel — a riff on the orange peel usually used in Belgian wit beers.
Later that year, Sluiter traveled to Ise for another collaboration. He brought a yeast for a hazy New England-style IPA, they made the beer together, and then, somehow, ended up sharing photos of each others' pet cats.
It was enough to inspire the name of that beer: "Neko Nihiki," which means "two cats."
The Japanese brewery ended up using a photo of Abby, Sluiter's calico cat, alongside Gin, the Japanese brewer's large Norwegian forest cat.
Which is why, during one of Sluiter's recent trips to Japan, a woman on the street stopped Sluiter (recognizing his Culmination T-shirt) and exclaimed "Abby!"
"She didn't seem to speak any English, but she knew Abby," Sluiter says. "I nodded happily and opened my phone, showing her some other pictures of Abby. She started taking pictures of my pictures. Then she suddenly became a little embarrassed, thanked me and ran off. It was a delightful exchange and reminded me how small the world is, and how we all share a common language through beer and well, cats."
A lot has happened in two years since Culmination opened their doors, and Sluiter has since turned over the daily operations in the brewery to expand the brand with strategic partnerships across the United States and abroad by consulting with breweries around the world.
His work with Japan led to the Fuji to Hood festival, which he hopes will become an annual event, rotating back and forth between Portland and Japan.
On tap this year will be samples of 10 beers and one cider, made by Oregon's top craft brewers, including Breakside, Burnside, Cascade, Ecliptic, Ex Novo, Gigantic, Hopworks, Reverend Nat's Hard Cider, Upright and Widmer.
Each of the Portland brewers partnered with a craft brewer in Japan and used at least one Japanese ingredient, such as red shiso leaves, Asian pears, shiitake powder, sweet osmanthus flower, Japanese green peppercorns, black rice, Japanese cypress chips and the sweet citrus kabosu fruit.
At Culmination, Sluiter once again worked with Ise Kadoya with the same Japanese yeast and locally sourced Asian pears for a light, grisette-style ale.
This and the other collaboration beers are for the most part sessionable beers, many with fresh, citrus notes in the style of gose, lager, saison and sour beer rather than the bitterness of Northwest-style IPAs. There's one porter, made by Burnside Brewing with shiitake powder, called "Who's Umami?"
The cider also is an ingenius showcase of creativity and innovation. The collaboration between Reverend Nat's and Son of the Smith Hard Cider in Nagano, Japan, uses wild yeast harvested from multiple orchards in Nagano, shipped live and inoculated into a blend of Japanese-origin apple varietals grown in Parkdale. The wild fermentations were blended together and finished with an apple blossom honey, harvested in Nagano.
Portland brewers are enthusiastic about the festival and collaborations, having just done a similar festival with Chinese brewers as part of the 8 x 8 Brewing Project in Beijing.
"It's fun and creative, and you get to meet fellow brewers and share a cultural exchange of ideas," Sluiter says. "Also, all the brewers in Portland know Japan and Asia is a huge blooming market. It's a way to introduce their brands, for possible exporting."
Between consulting jobs in Portland, Montana, Hong Kong, Vietnam and elsewhere, Sluiter is working on finding ways to help Culmination and other craft brewers advance their distribution in Asia for two reasons: Current beer imports face high taxes, and they also can face some degradation by the time they are shipped overseas and reach drinkers in Japan.
"We're thinking if we set up or partner with a state-of-the-art, high-quality facility in Asia, we could invite brewers to brew over there," Sluiter says. "And, if we could get the distribution channels to mature (currently most of the high volume distribution is controlled by the large breweries), it could be highly beneficial to micro beer brands and also the consumer."
More beer, innovation and collaboration worldwide? We can say cheers to that.