Anyone for lambic flavoured with Japanese plum? Aaron Goldfarbdiscovers the Brussels brewery bringing striking new flavours to a traditional brew
AtDélices& Caprices, Pierre Zuber’s beer shop in the centre of Brussels, something stands out among the familiar saisons and trappist ales: three bottles, their necks covered in delicate tissue, with washi-paper labels depicting Japanese artwork and kanjicharacters.
Délices& Caprices, of course, doesn’t sell sake; these are beers. But who makes them?
As is often the case, Pierre has the answer. Leo Imai is the man behind these beers and he’s from Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city after Tokyo and often considered the birthplace of Japanese beer.It was there at Kirin, the country’s second oldest brewery, where Leo first got his taste of the beer industry, working from 1996 to 2001 in its restaurant department.
Kirin is so gigantic (it’s also Japan’s second largest brewery) that during his five years with the company, Leo never once met any brewers.Nevertheless, he fell in love with the camaraderie he noticed beer fostered among people.He also developed an itch to put to use his chemistry degree and sophisticated culinary knowledge – he’s also a sake sommelier – and become a brewer himself.
Bored with the industrial beers Japan had produced for generations, in 2001 he set off on an educational quest that would take him through three of Europe’s top brewing destinations.He first earned a masters in brewing and distillation from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.Next, he apprenticed at a small Bavarian brewery in Germany.Finally, in the mid-2000s, he ventured to Belgium.
In Brussels, he took a job at a new upstart brewery of the time, Brasserie de la Senne.It was there he finally got the opportunity to brew his own beer.During a brief period in 2007 when equipment wasn’t being used, he seized the chance and OWA was born (the O represents Europe and the WA Japan).It was the name not just of the new brewery, but also its first beer. Leo wanted to design stylistically Belgian beers that paired well with foods from his native land.So for OWA, he roasted caramel malts and produced a Belgian pale ale that works well with sushi and the intense umami of soy sauce.His second beer became OWA Kuro, a roasty,chocolatey Belgian strong ale designed to stand up to the potent flavours of miso and curry.
Those beers are fine examples of their respective Belgian styles.However, what Leoreally had his sights set on were lambics, one of his newlyadopted country’s most intriguing styles and the style of those three beers at Délices& Caprices.They would have stood out in any bottle shop in the world, and not simply because of their packaging. Though OWA’s lambics are unquestionably Belgian in style, they have a Japanese twist: all are named after and use a Japanese ingredient unfamiliar to most in the western world.There’s OWA Yuzu (a citrus fruit, similar to lemons), OWA Sakura (cherry blossom, Japan’s national flower), and OWA Ume (a bitter Japanese plum).
The base for each is De Troch lambic, but the additional ingredients are 100% grown and imported from Japan.Though it would be easier for Leo to use flavoured juices to mimic these additions, he doesn’t believe in spoiling such a traditional Belgian style with any sort of artificiality.OWA’s one other beer at this time is a limited edition Grand Cru, Kuro, aged in Bordeaux wine barrels from a Japanese winemaker also called Leo.
Though his brewery’s small headquarters may be in Uccle, Leo has to rent space at two other locations in Flanders to do the actual brewing.In the past, he’s brewed out of De Ranke and St Feuillien, but he currently uses Van den Bossche in Sint-Lievens-Esse for OWA’s regular beers and De Troch in Wambeek for the lambics. He’s hardly a contract brewer, though:as well as handling the actual brewing at both locations,he also deals with much of the sales, marketing and even distribution himself.
Though he’d initially planned on sending 50% of his beer home to Japan, Leo’s small-batch offerings have garnered such demand within Europe he now keeps about 90% on the continent. Grab some of these one-of-a-kind beers before they become even harder to find in Belgium.
OWA lambics would stand out in any bottle shop in the world, and not simply because of their packaging