New San Diego beer company Circle 9 Brewing has yet to open. However, it has already served its first beer — in Japan.
Cofounders Darren Baker and Andrew Campbell took a Circle 9 beer to Toyama last month, a port town on the Sea of Japan, for its annual Iwase Hikiyama fighting float festival.
Campbell first attended the May festival in 2016, invited by Japanese beer importers he met by chance while beer tasting in Portland, Oregon. "I already had a trip planned to Japan," recalls Campbell, "and they invited me to come out to Toyama."
Fighting floats festival in Toyama, Japan
Each year, 13 neighborhoods around Toyama assemble colorful parade floats that men haul through town by manually pushing them, or pulling them with ropes. When night falls, the floats "fight" — they're made to crash into each other in elaborate jousting sessions, followed by a huge party.
"We started talking about doing a collaboration with a beer," says Campbell, and since his host's relatives grow rice nearby, "we discussed the possibility of making a rice lager for the festival."
So, as Circle 9 received its brewing permits this spring, its new friends abroad shipped Koshihikari rice to San Diego, and Campbell and Baker used it to craft a Japanese-style rice lager to bring back for this year's festival.
"They let us participate with the fight, which is pretty cool," shares Baker, noting that someone is occasionally killed in such collisions. "They start at each end of a long street," he explains, then on a signal, "everybody runs out pulling these long ropes… and the floats slam into each other."
Circle 9 calls the beer Nagawari, a rice lager named for the neighborhood whose float the two brewers helped battle. The beer was a hit, attracting coverage from local newspapers and TV reporters. "I think they were jazzed to have San Diego brewers using their rice," says Baker, adding, "we ran out of the beer super fast."
Aside from the Koshihikari – a prized sake rice — Nagawari essentially uses the recipe for one of Circle 9's core beers, called Circle One. That's an American-style lager made with rice flakes, which they lager for eight weeks for optimal clarity. Circle One will be on tap when Circle 9's tasting room opens this summer, along with several other beers, including a pale ale and a barrel-aged chocolate imperial stout.
Campbell packed 50 pounds of rice in his luggage when returning from this year's festival, so the new brewery partners can get to work refining the Nagawari recipe to release at home. They plan to release it in cans, and hope to distribute it to some of the many Asian restaurants populating their brewery's Kearny Mesa neighborhood. "It’s a good gateway beer," he points out, describing it as dry, with a mild sweetness, inspired by sushi restaurant staples such as Asahi and Kirin.
Campbell adds that they will, of course, ship some back to Toyama for the 2018 festival, confirming, "We'll be going back next year."