Ōmi is blessed with no less than five craft breweries, one of which is the Two Rabbits Brewing Company. It operates a tap room in Omihachiman called the Rabbit Hutch Craft Beer Café. The café is housed on the second floor of a traditional storehouse next to one of the picturesque rivers that winds through the town. Inside the café is a large painting showing the storehouse before it was restored – the contrast is both surprising and heartening.
The brewery itself is run by a team of three, CEO Ayako Collet (Japanese), Executive Director Bato Purev-Ochir (Mongolian), and Head Brewer Sean Collett (Australian). The café however is run by Sawa Takayuki, who disarmingly but not altogether truthfully claims not to know very much about brewing beer.
I visited the Rabbit Hutch on a rainy autumn evening, and it was Sawa-san who told me all about the Two Rabbits. Before Sean settled on his current career as a brewer, Ayako, now his wife, told him the Japanese saying “If you chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either of them”. She also designed the fetching and slightly ironic logo.
To get a feel for the rabbit family offerings, I order a flight of four beers at the spacious bar and carry them carefully to the long table running down the rest of the space. Today the menu has eight beers, and No.5 is ‘SMASH IPA Idaho 7’. Sawa-san explains, “SMASH is short for single malt and single hop. Most beers are made with a variety of malt and hops, but sometimes the brewer wants to emphasize the character of a particularly attractive type of malt and hop variety, in this case the Idaho 7 hop”. Already we’re into some pretty technical territory.
Sawa-san grabs some clear plastic tubs from off the bar and invites me to open them. They contain the malted barley known as ‘malt’ used in the beer I’m currently enjoying. Interestingly, you can eat the malt as it is, and it tastes good. The little grains of malt for the ‘smoked porter’ are sweet and smoky. The malt for the ‘coffee stout’ is also sweet, but darker tasting. The brewery makes its own malt according to the type of beer they’re aiming for.
Working my way up and down the flight and checking the menu on the blackboard is an intense experience in flavour. There are two IPAs, but whereas one is fruity, the other has a more bitter profile. The ‘White Rabbit Kinkan Wheat’ is a Weizen style flavoured with kumquat. This is my first time to drink beer with kumquat and although I’m not generally a fan of beer with fruity adulterants, the White Rabbit is very agreeable.
It’s time for some food. There’s a menu in English with some very hearty items on it. I order the fish and chips, and out of curiosity, I go to the counter and watch Sawa-san making it. It seems rather complicated.
“If you fry the fish in one go, you end up with soggy batter and dry fish. You have to fry it twice and give it a rest in between. Then the fish is succulent, and the batter is crispy.”
“Do you do that with the chips too?”
“Yes. The same applies to chips.”
It’s becoming clear that the same attention to detail in the brewing also paid in the cooking. What beer would go well with the fish and chips? According to Sawa-san, the answer is Billabong IPA, made with brown malt. It’s the bitterest beer that they sell, and it has a very rich aroma. It does indeed complement the food beautifully.
I’m still curious to know more about the brewing.
“What’s your water source? Is the water around here soft?”
“We actually use tap water. But we filter it until it’s ultrapure. Then we add the minerals required to make the type of beer we’re aiming for.”
“Ultrapure? Like the water used for cleaning semiconductors?”
“Right. If you want total control of the brewing process, you have to be able to design the water too from scratch.”
Paradoxically, this technical approach results in beers that have a thoroughly natural flavour.
These exhausting technicalities have whet my appetite for more food. I order the Chicken Parmigiana and the Smoked Lake Biwa Trout Salad. As I make my way through the food, I try the remaining beers on the blackboard. Obviously, the smoked trout calls for the smoked porter, brewed using the specially smoked malt.
At this point, a group of four English visitors arrive and sit down next to me on the sociable long table.
“So you look like you’ve been here for a while. What do you recommend?”
“All of the beer is good. For food, I can’t recommend the fish and chips too highly.”
“We haven’t flown twelve hours from England to eat fish and chips!”
“You’ll be amazed…”
And they are.
Somewhat surprisingly for a dedicated tap bar, the menu includes some sake options too. It turns out that before delving into Australian pub culture, Sawa-san trained in Japanese food preparation and is also thoroughly acquainted with sake. I wanted to try the remaining Biwako trout with some local sake, so I picked the Emishiki Sensation, an extraordinarily fresh, lively sake that made an excellent pairing.
The Japanese craft beer scene has many aspects that are familiar to beer lovers, but in Omihachiman, you can enjoy the familiar aspects with something intoxicatingly different and distinctly Japanese.