Interview: Dan of Hakuba Brewing Company

Who is Dan of Hakuba Brewing Company?

Dan Cockburn is the proud founder and owner of HBC (Habuka Brewing Company).  Like the name implies, HBC is located in Habuka with bears and monkeys (yes, you read that right).  It is a very small and new brewery but Dan is just about to hit his 2 year mark with his finely tuned 500L system.  He is not only just a brewer, but a father of two and a father of five, his five standard beers that is.  Just like any father, he knows his beer kids inside and out, and of course he has his favourites.  Check out the video of Dan describing his beer kids below.

Before he founded HBC and moved to Hakuba, he was trained as a scientist from Cambridge University.  He then got caught up in the craft beer revolution by home brewing in London during the early 2000’s.  He soon took his love of home brewing and found employment at Eden Brewery and that’s where Dan learnt to blend UK malts with “exciting modern US hops.”

Once, he dreamed of his own brewery, and until now he has had to jump through hoops of hoops to get HBC off the ground (so much monkey business).  He then become the master of Mickey Mousing his equipment to run smoothly and perfected his five beer kids.  Listening to Dan about his experience and hardship to get HBC to what it is now is truly encouraging for those that share the same dream.  He should be selling motivational posters.

The Uniqueness of HBC

“I aim to make exciting but accessible beers using a blend of Hakuba’s excellent water, drawn straight from a well at the brewery; English yeast and malt, as I’m British; and then heaps of fun American hops.  I love the nature and mountains here, and want to reflect the energy and fun that they imbue on the local population in the beer.

Our main market presently are the Japanese and foreign tourists who come to Hakuba during all 4 seasons, but we are happy to ship our kegs and bottles nationwide.  We are only just keeping up with local high season demand but are beginning to see our beers in Nagano, Matsumoto, Kanazawa, and Tokyo.”



Taihei: How did you get from London to the lush mountains of Hakuba (no pun intended)?

Dan: I lived in Yamanashi from 1999-2001 and during that time came up to Hakuba to ski pretty much every weekend in winter.  After 9 years in London, the draw of returning to the mountains, the nature and most of all the snow was too much!

Taihei: Being a scientist of the fine arts of beer; how has this help you develop your beers?

Dan: I studied a broad range of sciences at university and this has really helped in setting up a new brewery.  Obviously a basic understanding of chemistry and microbiology is important, but less obviously you need to be a jack of all trades with a new business and so have often been using my physics training to solve both electrical problems, fluid dynamic issues and calculating pressures, pump heads etc.

Taihei: What kind of scientist would you describe yourself: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Peter Venkman, or Doctor Spock?

Dan: Ha ha ha! Definitely Venkman!

Taihei: What was your best concoction that you created in your brew lab?

Dan: The two favourite recipes that I’ve ever done are a Black IPA that really scored the balance between super hoppy and a gentle cacao/chocolate malt flavour (that I sadly could never get to repeat as well!) and the session IPA recipe that I am using now.

Taihei: Have you tried to cultivate and use wild yeast?

Dan: No, I’m not a fan of wild/soured beers at all, but never say never!

Taihei: With your science background, what do you think of the three college students in the States that said they were able to cut the fermentation process by nine times than the average three weeks?

Reference: Penn Students Can Ferment Beer 9 Times Faster (Philadelphia Magazine)

Dan: I’m interested to see how this pans out and also to hear if it adversely affects the flavour in craft beers (as opposed to being primarily a way for the giants to rotate tanks quicker).  I’m guessing it’s to do with keeping more flow of sugars and nutrients across the yeast cells surface to ease their process, but need more information.

Taihei: How will this beerovolution change the landscape of the industry and how will this beerovolution affect independent breweries?

Dan: I think we just need to look at what has been happening in the west to see how this will likely pan out in Japan.  I’m guessing the big boys will see market share drops, get scared, acquire a few middle sized, quality craft breweries and then gradually remove their creative companies allowing more small-breweries to develop to become mid-sized!  The UK is already well over-saturated with craft beer and most small ones without strong branding are now struggling to make a profit as cask and keg prices have been driven down through competition.  I could see it becoming a brief “fad” in Japan, before the market settled back to a more steady level, but still much higher than now volume of craft beer sales.

Taihei: Enough of the weird science from me, tell me about HBC?

Dan: The company is only two years old and so we are still finding our feet really.  It’s been a fun journey so far and only seems to be getting more enjoyable and less stressful as we work things out!  We simply want to make great, clean tasting beer that is accessible but also always interesting and exciting.  I don’t really follow style guidelines too closely (all of our beers are UK malt, American hops and unadulterated pure Japanese mountain water), but just focus on what I think will make beers taste good.

Taihei: What makes Hakuba’s water so great for brewing?

Dan: The water here is absolutely delicious to drink straight from the tap.  It is super clean and has a very low and simple mineral profile.  The village never even added chlorine to tap water until recently when the national government told them they must (they now add the absolute minimum allowed).  It’s pretty much an alpine Pilsner style water profile, but creates a very good simple base to build beers off.  I have tested with Burtonising it for darker beers, but have decided just to keep it simple and be proud of our beautiful water.  Plus mash PH is always bang on 4.2 naturally!

Taihei: Any new tasty treats fermenting as we speak?

Dan: I’m flat out building up stock for our very busy winter (ski) season, so all the tanks are full of our regular beers.  I have just printed out the recipe submission form for a hoppy wheat beer though that I hope to brew before winter as a one off using plenty of Hakuba grown raw wheat.

Taihei: When can we see them in Tokyo and where?

Dan: So as I write this, Goodbeer Faucets have just tapped their first keg of our beer (and reported it’s pouring beautifully).  They have Pale Ale and IPA stocked presently.  We are also stocking bottles and occasional draft (as of last week!) at Shinshu Osake Mura at Shimbashi.

Taihei: Being British, why the love for American hops? I personal enjoy pale ales with Fuggle hops (for the readers, Fugggle hops are from the UK).

Dan: I love a well-made golden ale with Fuggles, but it was American hops that really woke me to the joys of very hoppy beers.  I think it’s hard to really push the hop flavours with UK beers and have a tasty drink at the end of it, but US hops are generally offering simpler and cleaner (and more exciting) flavour and aroma profiles.  Citra, Amarillo, Mozaic, Azacca – these are revolutionary to beer flavours and yet incredibly easy for craft-beer novice drinkers to enjoy.

Taihei: Does your favorite style you enjoy to brew up differ from your drinking preferences?

Dan: Absolutely – I love hopped to hell, but they are a pain to work with!  My easiest beer to brew is the Amber Ale, but fortunately I love that one too for its deep malt characteristics and the “other side” of the hop world that the Chinook brings

Taihei: Favorite hop and favorite malt?

Dan: Mozaic and Marris Otter.  Mozaic hops provide different flavour and aromas to everyone, yet always enjoyable and I love that aspect of it.  Marris Otter just has such a distinctive, wonderful and rich flavour on its own that if I was only allowed to drink beer made with one malt for the rest of my life, I’d be pretty content with Marris.

Taihei: What was the biggest difference going from home brew to production brewing?

Dan: Engineering! Home brewing is all about the creative side of it – huge freedom to experiment with minimal cost if things go wrong.  Production brewing is about working out how best to use your systems, how to keep things uniform and regular, but also to understand how to take apart a pump in an emergency or how to quickly problem solve a clogged plate chiller whilst your flavour hops are still isomerizing!

Taihei: Your brewery has been open for over two years, what was the worst day you had?

Dan: The first few brew days done in the new brewery were enormously stressful, challenging and long.  None of them were fun, but the beer came out good.  Now my brew day is down from 12 hours to 7-8 hours and I have systems in place to keep things moving smoothly and well.  Getting systems in place is incredibly important – it prevents things getting forgotten, makes sure best practice is repeated and repeatable.  Also, it’s essential to start training staff (which I am now) to be able to replicate a craft process.

Taihei: Do you have a program “will work for beer” (we are looking for anyone to give us room and board)?

Dan: Ha ha! Not yet, although beer is a great trade-able commodity and I have had help from numerous tradesmen for a six-pack or two!

Taihei: How was the experience at Eden Brewery for you?

Dan: It’s great – they are 5 years old and expanding rapidly, so it’s good to keep an eye on what and where my brewery could be in the future and see what problems they are coming up against. At the same time they are trying to get some movement into the Japanese market, so I am a useful contact for them.

Taihei: Working in a brewery in the UK and now owning one in Japan, any striking differences or similarities?

Dan: Lots – the process is the same, but the taxes, legalities, safety requirements, etc., are all very different.  For example at Eden, they are quite carefree about ditching a batch early on if they think it won’t turn out perfectly.  Here it’s a big deal to ditch a batch and we have to be much more careful with hygiene, etc., right from the start.

Taihei: Is there any other question that you want our beer lover fans to know about HBC and the mad scientist behind it all?

Dan: How about why come to Hakuba?  It’s one of Japan’s most beautiful mountain towns and offers great snow and huge mountains in winter (most ski runs and lifts of any resort in Japan), plus a great cool retreat from the heat of the cities in summer.  Oh, and it also has some great beer!

Taihei: Last question: I know that you are using bottles but not filtering your beer, how difficult is it to explain to your customers how to pour your beers?

Dan: This was a big concern of mine at first as the Japanese mass market is not at all aware of bottle conditioning and yeast sediment.  However, they have proven to be incredibly tolerant and easy going with it.  I made a big fuss about pouring them carefully at first, but don’t anymore as most Japanese are easy going about getting some yeast into their glass.  I think it stems from the unfiltered sake bottles you can get, combined with the “craft” moniker.

Dan on Hakuba Brewing Company Beers


Brewery Hakuba Brewing Company
Phone Number 080-8905-4362

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