Having grown up in a sea-level desert, even the small, rolling hills around Adelaide are a novelty for me. So zipping along at 250 km/hr on a Shinkansen (bullet train) and catching a glimpse of Mt Fuji was enough to put a smile on my face as wide as the mountain is high. Likewise, as the bus I subsequently boarded began to wind its way up into the snow frosted hills surrounding Nagano my excitement was unashamedly plain to see.
Snow Monkey Beer Live is hosted and curated by Shia Kogen Brewing, the craft beer wing of 7th generation family-run Sake producer Tamamura Honten, based in the ski resort town of Shiga Kogen. Although head brewer Kato Sato only began brewing beer in 2004, his 8% House IPA is widely regarded as one of the best in Japan.
Since it's modest beginnings (in 2012 the festival drew around 1000 punters) Snow Monkey Beer Live has grown into a vibrant 2-day festival which this year features 10 bands and 12 breweries. Shuttle buses trip around the the chalet villages, which dot the many slopes of Shiga Kogen, collecting the thousands of festival goers and bringing them to the 98 Hall. The hall was originally constructed for the Winter Olympics hosted by Nagano 1998 and makes for a great venue for celebration and revelry.
Of course, no Japanese beer festival would be complete without meticulously prepared food and this event is no exception. On entering the festival you must pass through a gauntlet of tasty Japanese snack foods. Ramen, squid balls and fried chicken are perfect accompaniment for a beer festival and make a nice change from the ever present beer fest pulled pork burger. For the most part they only require one hand to consume. Convenient given the circumstances.
As Snow Monkey Beer Live has a firm focus on both music and beer, the festival featured incredible performances from an eclectic array of musicians: rock bands with violins, ukulele and trumpet versions of Louis Armstrong and some fantastic Japanese Hip-Hop. The final act of the festival was A Hundred Birds Orchestra, a stage-filling rock orchestra lead by the coolest and smoothest dancing conductor you can imagine. They brought the house down. It was literally impossible to be in that room and not have a good time.
The music was fantastic but the beer was definitely on par and the brewers were amazingly hospitable. With most beer in Japan served from 10L kegs the number of different beers tapped across the two days must have been close to 100. IPA is definitely the flavour of moment with all permutations of the style being poured. However this was by no means purely an IPA party. Fantastic versions of saisons, stouts, barley wines and whiskey barrel-aged beers were all to be had. The beginnings of a trend towards sour beer in Japan was on show with guest brewery Oxbow (Maine, USA) pouring their farmhouse style beers and Swann Lake Brewing showing off a tidy Belgian Red.
Amazingly, no security was needed as everyone was too busy enjoying great music and fantastic beer. The crowd of mainly Japanese people were polite, orderly and welcoming. They were more than happy to share their festival with a smattering of skiing backpackers, ex-pats and one really excited travelling brewer.