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Minoh Beer, Osaka

Minoh Beer, Osaka

Minoh Beer, Osaka

Imagine waking up one morning and finding out your parents have bought you a brewery? It’s a scene that dreams are made of – at least for beer geeks like me – but for Mayuko and Kaori Ohshita, that’s pretty much what happened back in 1997 when their father, a liquor store operator, decided to start a brewery and put them in charge of it.

Outside the brewery

Outside the brewery

Fast forward to the present day and the Ohshita sisters are running one of the most innovative breweries in Japan. Minoh W-IPA was one of the few Japanese double IPA’s and is multi-award winning. Minoh Cabernet is part beer, part wine, made with a significant portion of cabernet grapes. Past specials like Hemp High and Ganja High speak for themselves. And Minoh Stout recently one World’s Best Stout at the World Beer Awards 2009 – one of the many awards Minoh has received over the years (if you’re going to try Minoh Stout, definitely try the bottle over the hand-pump version). While other brewers are sticking to safe styles or trying to copy world styles, Minoh is out there experimenting, and they have a huge following in Japan.

Small bar in the entrance area

Small bar in the entrance area

The brewery is located in Mino-o Osaka, about 30 minutes by train from central Osaka (official Romanisation of Minoh City is actually Minoh, but train and city signs still refer to it as Mino-o.) While there’s a small bar area at the brewery, it’s not an official “bar” as such – there are only two or three seats and only one tap. It’s mostly a place for people to wait while they are buying take-away bottles.

A newspaper cutting showing the Minoh sisters

A newspaper cutting showing the Minoh sisters

Thankfully it’s not necessary to go all the way to the brewery to sample Minoh beer. Minoh runs two bars in downtown Osaka – Beer Belly and Beer Belly Edobori – that not only serve draught Minoh beer, but craft beers from other Japanese microbreweries. Both bars are featured in Beer in Japan’s Osaka listings.

The brewing area

The brewing area

The brewery itself is split into two roughly equal sections – the mashing, fermentation, and kegging/bottling area on the left, and a huge cool storage room on the right.

On the left there are two copper vessels. The front one is for mashing, lautering, and whirlpooling – the back one is the kettle, where the wort is boiled and hopped. Here’s the mashing, lautering, and whirlpooling vessel:

Mash, lauter, whirlpool tank - top section

Mash, lauter, whirlpool tank - top section

Inside the top section

Inside the top section

Bottom section

Bottom section

Inside the bottom section

Inside the bottom section

Boiling capacity is 1000L. To fill their largest fermentation tanks, the sisters have to brew over two days.

Pipework linking to the boiler, with heat exchanger in the background

Pipework linking to the boiler, with heat exchanger in the background

Here’s Mayuko Ohshita explaining the process of brewing and transferring the wort between tanks.

Ohshita-san explaining the brewing process

Ohshita-san explaining the brewing process

The tanks bears a striking similarity to those used at Harvestmoon (see caption “Mash tun and boiling tank”), though the control panel is significantly different. One day, if I can get the time and my Japanese improves, I’d love to follow a beer through from beginning to end and see what all those buttons and dials actually do!

Control panel

Control panel

W-IPA is one of the beers that brought Minoh to my attention. It’s a very definite Japanese style double IPA, which means that it has a larger malt sweetness and more subdued hop profile than an West Coast Double IPA such as Coronado’s Idiot IPA. The closest comparison I can think of Great Divide’s Hercules Double IPA. It’s also not a million miles away from a British double IPA (though a British double is quite a rare thing).

Taking a sample of W-IPA from the fermentation tank

Taking a sample of W-IPA from the fermentation tank

When it’s on top form, W-IPA is fantastic – and you can’t get better form than direct from the fermentation tank!

One week old W-IPA

One week old W-IPA

A week into fermentation and this was lovely and hoppy – I could have consumed it all day (or at least, until I fell over). While W-IPA is well known amongst beer geeks in Japan and was one of the first Minoh beers that I tried, Ohshita-san told me that it only really became popular after it was featured in a newspaper article in summer 2009.

The W-IPA was followed by a sample of Minoh Cabernet – again, direct from the fermentation tank. My first time to try Cabernet, I had little idea what to expect – crossover beers can be just plain weird – but the Cabernet was very nice indeed. So good that I bought a couple of bottles to drink on the train back from the brewery!

Cold storage room

Cold storage room

Minoh is quite different from other Japanese breweries I’ve been to in that their cold storage room not only contains their keg, bottles, and hops, but also their conditioning tanks.

The back of the cold storage room

The back of the cold storage room

It’s a huge room, filled with 8 tanks for conditioning and 2 for bottling, and appears very chaotic – a lot like my apartment (though probably a little bit warmer than my apartment in winter!)

Looking towards the front of the cold storage room

Looking towards the front of the cold storage room

In fact, quite a lot of the Minoh brewery is in organised chaos – something I liked a lot, because it highlights the family and fun aspect to the business.

Ohshita-san with a bag of freshly picked hops

Ohshita-san with a bag of freshly picked hops

Here’s Ohshita-san showing off some of the Japanese hops she picked from Shiga Kogen’s hop farm. I do like the way that a number of the Japanese breweries are friends with each others – a spirit of co-operation rather than a spirit of competition.

Behind Ohshita-san you can see a tank with some string tied to the opening – this is how Minoh do dry-hopping. Bags are filled with hops – Minoh mostly use pellet hops – and tied inside the conditioning tanks.

Dry hopping

Dry hopping

Bottling at Minoh is done by hand. While this new machine from the USA adorns the brewery…

New bottling machine

New bottling machine

…at the time I visited the brewery, bottling was still being done using this smaller bottling machine…

Existing bottling machine

Existing bottling machine

…and capped using something every homebrewer will be familiar with…

Hand capper

Hand capper

Yup, a good old hand capper.

Ohshita-san at the labelling area

Ohshita-san at the labelling area

As well as being capped by hand, bottled are all labelled by hand also – in fact, while I was touring, a customer came to the brewery to buy some beer and Ohshita-san had to quickly label some bottles for sale:

Bottles are labelled by hand

Bottles are labelled by hand

The reason for the hand labelling is Minoh’s distinctive labels – while the back labels can be done automatically, the shape of the front labels means that they can only be done by hand.

Distinctive Minoh labels

Distinctive Minoh labels

Minoh’s beers can also be ordered with original labels for company events, weddings etc. Quite a few different designs were hanging around – even MTV has ordered beer for events from Minoh.

Original beer labels

Original beer labels

Of all the labels hanging around, this has to be my favourite:

Father's day beer with a touch of humour

Father's day beer with a touch of humour

Was this a personal beer made for their father?

Brewery tour finished, it was back to the “bar”. On the single tap was Minoh Weizen –  a good standard weizen. (I used to drink a lot of weizen in the past, but these days I rarely drink weizen at all.)

Weizen on tap

Weizen on tap

Minoh make a number of seasonal beers and special beers. This “monkey beer” was a peach beer, exclusive to Sogo department stores. Peachy it was – tangy, not sweet. Fruity beers are made by a number of breweries in Japan, with varying results. I enjoyed this one.

Peach monkey beer, exclusive to Sogo

Peach monkey beer, exclusive to Sogo

The seasonals are produced in limited quantities.  The record for the fastest ever sell-out was a release of their February Valentine’s Imperial Stout which, after a TV station mentioned the beer, was sold out within 30 minutes of the brewery opening on the day of release.

W-IPA

W-IPA

Final beer of the visit was the W-IPA which, true to form, had that malty Hercules style profile.

As work continued in the brewery, it was time for me to return back to Osaka – not without buying some bottles to drink on the train back of course!

Work continues in the brewery

Work continues in the brewery

Minoh’s website is here. Their current beers, including seasonals and boxed sets, are listed on this page. Beer Belly and Beer Belly Edobori are both near Higobashi station – details here, map here. If you’re intending to visit the brewery because you’ll be in the area, I’d advise contacting them first – the Beer Belly bars are better places to try the beers though, because they have a large range of Minoh beers on draught.

My opinion? I was given a very warm welcome at Minoh by Ohshita-san, and it was awesome to see inside the brewery and talk about the operations with her. Minoh has been a stand-out brewery for me in Japan and I’ll be continuing to watch for new releases and keep enjoying the beers. By coincidence, as I write this now, I’ve just found out that today Cat and Cask has Minoh’s 2010 limited Valentines Imperial Stout on tap. I’ve already ordered one of the limited 200 sets for delivery this weekend, but I can think of nothing better than finishing this review and heading to C&C for a pint of it on draught!