Music, beer and the magic of the mountains
Live Report : “Music, beer and the magic of the mountains” Snow Monkey Beer Live 2017 @ Shiga Kogen 98 Hall 2017.03.19
Before I delve into my report of Snow Monkey Beer Live 2017, I should make a few things clear. I’ve been a big fan of the Snow Monkey Beer Live festival since its inception. The 2017 edition was the fifth consecutive year for me to the make the pilgrimage to the mountains of Shiga Kogen in Nagano for their annual celebration of craft beer and live music (I missed the first year of the fest in 2012).
So with full disclosure, I likely fit the target audience of a festival like this. Being a bit of a fanatic of both live music and craft beer, this festival ticks all the boxes when I imagine the possibilities of a good festival. Great live music? Check. World class craft beer? You bet. Ample and delicious food? But of course. Stunning location in the snowy mountains, with the option to ski and soak in the hot springs? Well, isn’t that just icing on the cake now.
First and foremost, Snow Monkey is a beer festival. It’s put on by (in my opinion) the best craft brewery in Japan, Nagano based Tamamura-Honten aka Shiga Kogen Beer. The festival is a celebration of Japanese craft beer, inviting all the best Japanese craft brewers to the event each year. This year featured a total of 21 breweries, which included 4 guest breweries from America. Only recently did the event include guest brewers from America to participate and as a rule they’ve all been small independent breweries that weren’t currently being imported into the country.
Snow Monkey is a chance for independent Japanese brewers from all over the country to converge in the mountains, to share their craft and passion with like minded people. For myself and the hundreds of other crafts beer geeks that join the party, Snow Monkey is a chance to get a great sampling of the overall Japanese craft beer industry. It’s an opportunity to try new beers, rare beers, revisit old favorites and have a chat with the people who put heart and soul into their liquid art form. I come away from this festival each year with a new appreciation and admiration for Japanese craft beer. As a supporter of the scene, it’s always encouraging to take part in a festival celebrating the success and progress of craft beer in Japan, this 2017 edition was no different.
Leading the way on the beer front as usual, were the festival hosts, Shiga Kogen Beer. They showed up offering 33 different kinds of beer. However with a total of 197 different beers being offered over the two-day, three session festival, there was no shortage of variety for both casual beers fans and hardcore craft beer snobs alike. I obviously can’t speak to the whole of the beer offering this year, however from what I sampled, along with people I talked to, it’s clear to see that the quality of beer being produced in Japan just keeps getting higher. The beers are tasting better, brewers are getting more skilled and new techniques and styles are being innovated. The Japanese craft beer scene is reaching new heights and gaining more followers with each passing year. The gap between Japanese craft beers and crafts from around the world is getting smaller or even non-existent.
Stand out brewers for me at the fest this year included the aforementioned host, Shiga Kogen Beer, also Ushi Tora Brewery, Kyoto Brewing , Yo-Ho Brewing and Texas based guest brewers, Jester King (who specialize in saisons, sours and wild ales, styles still in their infancy here in Japan). Variety was the name of the game for the beer this year. There was an abundance of brews covering a range of styles, flavors, tastes, alcohol percent, and ibus (International Bitterness Units). There were barrel aged beasts and mild sessionable swillers, browns, reds, ipas, apas, coffee beers, sours, saisons, farmhouse ales, stouts, porters, barley wines, golden ales, old ales, scotch ales, wild ales and more.
I hope you’re getting the picture that Snow Monkey is serious about its status as one of the premier beer festivals across the country, year after year. Unlike some of Japan’s other preeminent beer festivals such as Keyaki Hiroba in Saitama or the the Japan Brewer’s cup in Yokohama, Snow Monkey is not a convenient trek for those living around the Tokyo area. However, like many of the great festivals (beer or otherwise) around the world and even within Japan, location and venue play a big part of what makes this festival special. Like another of my favorite festivals in Japan, the world renown Fuji Rock Festival, the magic of mountains play a big part in the positive atmosphere and overall allure of the event.
Since inception, Snow Monkey Beer Live has fallen on the weekend of the Vernal Equinox Day in Japan. This allows for a three day weekend and an easier opportunity to get in a final ski getaway in Nagano before the snow melts. If you’re not as hardcore into craft beer as some of us, Snow Monkey can be just one part of the long weekend trip. So while the prospect of travelling some 300 kilometers for a beer festival might be fine for the craft beer junkies, most opt to join one or two of the sessions then hit the slopes for some of the best skiing in the country. That said, there is more to Snow Monkey than just beer in the mountains. The festival has always had the goal to pair quality live music with quality brews, it’s a combination where Snow Monkey excels.
It’s not uncommon for a beer festival to offer live music during the event, what is uncommon though, is to see so many top indie bands and DJs at a beer festival. Artists that could, and do sell out events on their own, are consistently booked to Snow Monkey. From my experience most beer festivals treat live music as an afterthought or something that isn’t necessary at all. One exception to this rule I can think of is the yearly Craftrock Festival, which incidentally had one of the same headliners play their fest last year as Snow Monkey welcomed this year, Japanese post-rock legends, toe. I can’t speak directly to all the music, as I didn’t attend the first day of the fest this year, but day two was filled with excellent bands and DJs per usual. Some standouts from the first session of day two included early afternoon sets from Sunny Day Service followed by our post-rock heroes, toe.
The seasoned Sunny Day Service, with more than 20 years experience as a band, played a nice, laid-back afternoon set, filled with folky, punk inspired ballads and jams. They had the bulk of the crowd put their beer to the side and rock out. Tunes like ‘Baby Blue’, ‘I’m a Boy’ and ‘Super love’ seemed to get the most response. Following Sunny Day Service and leading us into the afternoon break were instrumental rockers, toe. While toe isn’t always the best music to get a drunken crowd up and dancing, it seemed to fit the lazy afternoon. Like Sunny Day Service, toe has been active and maintained popularity in the Japanese indie rock scene for years now. They’re an innovative, extremely technically talented group and have great fan support, selling out venues wherever they go. Their hard edged instrumental jams took a hold of many in the crowd and didn’t let go until we hit our scheduled one hour break.
From my experience, the final session of Snow Monkey is usually the busiest and most energetic. The day on the slopes has come to an end and people are ready for a lively après-ski, filled with uptempo tunes and great craft beer. 2017′s final session of Snow Monkey featured great hip-hop, funk and soul from the likes of DJ Nao-K and renown record digger, DJ Muro. Controlling the tempo and crowd energy through the early evening into the night were MC Gebo, who played with Nao-K and beatbox/MC extraordinaire, (also a Snow Monkey regular) MC Afra, who performed with Muro. A familiar Snow Monkey musical highlight was the Kyoto based jam band, Nabowa. They seem to play Snow Monkey each year, in addition to loads of other major festivals in Japan and abroad. Nabowa is a perfect, high energy, good vibe addition to the festival and I can understand why they keep getting invited back. They get the people moving, smiling, shouting and singing. Nobawa knows how to lead a crowd on an energetic, unforgettable musical journey no matter how many craft beers you’ve consumed. They’re a personal favorite of mine and one of the reasons I anticipate returning to Snow Monkey each year.
To sum it up to the uninitiated, Snow Monkey Beer Live is a first-rate beer festival, but it’s also much more than that. Snow Monkey is a trip to the mountains, a chance to ski or snowboard and a place to drink the best beer in Japan directly with the people who make it. Snow Monkey is a getaway with friends and a celebration of great live music. It’s the journey to get to the snowy mountain resort, a chance to relax in the hotel and hot springs. It’s the after parties and the hazy Monday trying to make it back to the land of the living.
Snow Monkey is a festival that is more than the sum of its parts (however each of those parts are very enjoyable as well). The 2017 edition of Snow Monkey Beer Live, like each edition before, seemed to tweak the format and improve upon the beer and the music, delivering top quality independent brews and bands from across the nation. I’ve heard each session has a cap of 1000 tickets and I think this inclusively is a key to the success and warm feeling of the festival. The place is busy, but never ground to a halt like events in Tokyo. There’s room to move around, second floor seating to take a breather and delicious food at every turn to soak up all the beer. And while you may find yourself in a small line at times, it’s never so bad with fantastic live music playing behind you. You can spot it on the face of everyone in attendance, that whatever brought us to the mountains of Nagano this weekend, be it the beer, the music, the skiing or something in between, we’re all a part of something special and you’ll do whatever it takes to make it back next year.
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