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Beer lovers enjoy new tastes at Oakland’s Japan Beer Festival

on February 15, 2017

Ruben Dominguez, general manager of The Trappist, was tenderly topping glasses of Japanese beer with foaming goodness squeezed from a slushie maker. He was making glass after glass of beer slushies for couples, groups and solo drinkers at the bar’s backyard, where about one hundred beer lovers huddled around the patio.

“The excitement on their faces as I handed over the freshly-made beer slushie was absolutely priceless,” said Dominguez. “Most people had no clue what it was. All they knew is that they had to have it.”

Meanwhile, the smell of Japanese fried chicken wafted through the air, into buildings, and out on the streets. Japanese pop music played, while someone in one corner was gently screen-printing t-shirts with the logo “Japan Beer Fest.”

Lines at The Trappist’s two bars extended out the door during the festival’s one-day run on Sunday. “This festival is certainly gaining popularity. I have been a part of the last three festivals, including this one, and I can tell that the crowd is getting bigger with every passing year,” Dominguez said. “It has become clear to us that this event has outgrown our venue.”

“This year is crazy,” said a customer who had escaped the long lines at The Trappist to just buy some Japanese beer at Umami Mart next door to take home to enjoy there instead.

Some 300 to 400 people attend the Japan Beer Festival in Oakland every year, said Kayoko Akabori, co-owner of Umami Mart, one of the two businesses that organize the festival.

For the last four years, the Japanese barware and food shop has been collaborating with The Trappist and other partners, such as Abura-Ya Fried Chicken, in hosting the festival during San Francisco’s Beer Week. During the festival, The Trappist puts Japanese beer in all its taps, while people looking for takeaway beer come to Umami Mart for bottled and canned beer imported from Japan.

Akabori said Oakland has a community of beer lovers who are willing to try new tastes. “They have an inherent interest in beer,” she said. In response to this demand, Umami sells 50 beer brands.

Yoko Kumano, the market’s co-owner, said Japanese beer is smoother and easier to drink than other beers such as California IPA, which could be “really hoppy and very strong.”

“I think people love Japanese beer because it’s crisp, it’s easy to drink,” said Kumano. “Some of the ingredients are very unique and exciting—like yuzu [a citrus fruit], rice, black beans, ume [plum]. … People are very curious about them and when they drink them they enjoy the clean, smooth taste that is prevalent in a lot of Japanese liquors like sake.”

Another reason for the growing appreciation for Japanese beer is the love for Japanese food, according to Kumano. She said Japanese restaurants have been popping up around the Bay Area, and when people discover they like the ingredients in Japanese food, they tend to like the drinks, too. Zomato, a restaurant finder app, lists 23 Japanese restaurants in downtown Oakland alone.

Asked what the crowd favorite is during beer festivals, Kumano said Hitachino, Yoho, Coedo and Shigakogen top the list.

Like the patio, The Trappist’s bars and tables inside were packed with people drinking beer in every shade. On one table, one may find Baird’s Suruga Bay Imperial IPA, Rising Sun Pale Ale, Wabi-Sabi JPA, Kurofune Porter, and Jubilation Ale. On another, there was Shiga Kogen’s wide range: African Pale Ale, Draft Pale Ale, House IPA, Drunk Coffee, Snow Monkey IPA, Miyama Blonde, Pale Ale, Takashi Imperial Stout, and 10th Anniversary IPA. Coedo’s Beniaka, Kyara, Ruri, Shikkoku, Shiro, and Tsuyu Saison were also on the line-up, as well as Hitachino Nest’s Belgian White, Ginger Brew, Commemorative, and Red Rice.

The beer slushies were a new feature to this year’s festival. “Last year, we brought in an Asahi dry machine which would dispense an extra frothy head onto the beer, and we all decided that we need to take it a step further,” said Dominguez. He said The Trappist has once done the beer slushies before when representatives from a Swedish brewing company, Omnipollo, visited for a “tap takeover.”

Dominguez said the bar’s management is now looking to expand the festival into the parking lot to accommodate the growing number of patrons expected next year. “We want to cut the lines down to a minimum and make sure we keep them moving,” he said.

About an hour before closing time, there were no more lines at the beer slushie and fried chicken stations—both beer and the appetizer had been sold out.

Text by Aileen Macalintal; video by Yesica Prado.

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