For their first collab, Southern Highlands Brewing didn’t think small. Quite the opposite, in fact. They thought: “Japan.”
The NSW brewery – based in the small town of Moss Vale – teamed up with Two Rabbits Brewing in Shiga, about a five-hour drive west of Tokyo, to create a Australian golden ale for the Japanese market.
“We've called the beer Two Rabbits and a Roo,” says Sean Collett (above left), the Australian-born founder of the Shiga brewery.
“SHBC [Southern Highlands Brewing] have done well with their golden and blonde ales, and we hadn't brewed one before. It's also something not so common here in Japan amongst the wave of local and imported IPAs.”
The beer grew out of a friendship that started when Sean was researching brewing setups and visited SHBC in late 2017 because they were using the system he was planning to take to Japan.
When SHBC owner Ben Twomey (above centre) said he was heading to Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup, Sean figured they should pencil in a brew day as well.
“We collaborated on the recipe prior to me getting there,” says Ben, “because they had to get the grain orders in.
“We had a pretty distinctive idea of what we wanted to do. We wanted to create a golden ale with Australian hops. The other thing we wanted to do is make it a little higher in alcohol than your standard golden ale, because they’re going into autumn over there, so we wanted to have a beer with a little more punch, a little more mouthfeel.”
As well as watching a bit of rugby and making some beer, the overseas trip allowed SHBC to further develop ties with the Japanese export market.
A year ago, the ANZ bank had invited SHBC to the region in order to explore the chances of exporting their beer. The Southern Highlands brewery was chosen in part because of the kangaroo that features in their logo and on their cans.
“So this visit was sort of a continuation of that initiative,” Ben says.
“I did meet with ANZ Tokyo as a follow-through on that and they’ve introduced me to a couple of groups over there who might be interested in our beer.”
Two Rabbits and a Roo won’t be available outside Japan – Ben says it costs too much to export a small number of kegs from Japan – but there is scope for the Rabbits and the Roo to work together again.
“What I think we might look at doing is potentially [brewing] under license,” he says.
“So the recipe we’ve got, I could brew it in Australia and market it to Japanese clients and Sean could potentially brew our beer under licence in Japan so SHBC can cater for its Japanese clients.”
Australian-born Sean had previously been working in the oil and gas industry in Brisbane and Perth. After he and his wife lost their first child, they decided to do something different.
“With my wife being Japanese we decided to come back to Japan where I enrolled in Kyoto University's MBA program,” he says.
“Basically, the study was secondary, and I was looking for an opportunity in Japan. The brewery idea came along during a return trip home to see my folks in Adelaide. My father worked at Le Cordon Bleu, and right next to that was Stephen Nelsen's brewing school at TAFE SA.”
A homebrewer for more than ten years, he decided to enrol on the brewing course.
“I've always had an interest in brewing and cooking, and so it made sense to turn the hobby into the profession, and having the business background has helped with loans from banks,” he says.
Construction on the Shiga brewery began in March 2018 and the doors swung open five months later.
Sean says there are some similarities between the Japanese and Australian craft beer markets, including the constant need to have new beers on tap. There’s also the thing about a few behemoths dominating the market.
“The big boys [Kirin, Asahi, Suntory, Sapporo] really own the market here,” he says.
“Their advertising fills the television screens daily, and the beer is found on tap almost everywhere.
“It all tastes the same, but people choose their brand based on image. In Japan, especially among white collar salary workers, beer is seen as the first alcoholic beverage to drink on a night out with the company or friends.
“Then they move onto whiskey highballs, sake or shochu. Craft beer is still growing, and every city has bars and restaurants that serve craft beer. But the popularity of craft beer still remains in smaller circles.”
For more on Two Rabbits Brewery, head here.