Award-winning brewery start-up helps ex-addicts and other ‘unemployables’ change gear
Sat 11 Jan 2020 02.45 EST
Building a brewery in an area once notorious for alcohol-fuelled riots may not seem like the most sensible idea. But Derailleur Brew Works, a craft brewery in the Japanese city of Osaka, is helping transform this unfashionable district with the help of men and women who once thought they were unemployable.
The brewery grew out of Cyclo, a nursing-care provider based in Nishinari, a deprived ward of Osaka long associated with day labourers, dosshouses and social unrest.
Men flocked to the southern Osaka neighbourhood after the second world war in search of casual employment until work began to dry up after Japan’s bubble economy burst in the early 1990s.
Today, many of Nishinari’s poorer residents are battling drug and alcohol addiction, and a significant number have mental health issues and disabilities, according to Akinori Yamazaki, who runs the brewery.
“We saw an increase in the number of disabled people among our nursing-care clients a few years ago,” says Yamazaki. “A lot of them couldn’t find work, even though they had the ability to work. We thought they could put the skills they learned as younger men to good use.”
The nursing-care firm opened a cafe that encouraged ageing day labourers to swap their usual morning beer for a coffee. Before long it became an unofficial job centre.
“A lot of people came to the cafe and asked us to help them find regular, meaningful work,” says Yamazaki, whose passion for road cycling gave the brewery its name (derailleurs shift a bicycle chain between cogs).
“Some of them used to make their own beer – although they didn’t necessarily do it legally – and suggested opening a brewery here.”
With a bank loan and instruction on making beer from a sympathetic brewer, Derailleur produced its first batch in 2018 – an American pale ale named Nishinari Riot Ale. The beer was a nod both to the large number of western backpackers staying in the neighbourhood and to the street battles between disaffected day labourers, police and yakuza gangsters that earned Nishinari a reputation as a no-go area in the early 1990s.
Derailleur employs about 70 people, many of whom have physical and intellectual disabilities. They are given on-the-job training and perform tasks ranging from brewing, labelling, sales and delivery, as well as serving food and drink at the brewery’s three pubs – two in Osaka and one in the central city of Nagoya.
Mr Yamagami – known affectionately as Yama-chan – spent his youth drinking illicitly produced alcohol and getting into fights, but decided to apply for a job at the brewery after he lost his sight.
“It’s fun to be able to work alongside my friends,” says Yama-chan, a 47-year-old former fishmonger. “Handling the bottles by touch alone is the sort of work I can do without any problem. I need help getting around, but apart from that I can do my job freely. I really enjoy it.”
Full-time employees work a four-day week, and casual workers can devise their own work schedule depending on their disability and frame of mind. “The biggest single group are drug addicts who overdosed and now have to deal with physical and mental conditions caused by their addiction,” says Yamazaki. “Before they worked here they spent all of their time at home, doing nothing.
“Some are unable to concentrate for long so work for, say, 30 minutes a day,” he says. “I don’t think they’d be able to find work anywhere else.”
Mr Nishizawa – known to his friends as Sho-chan – found work at Derailleur after his excessive drinking made him ill and he was forced to quit his job as a rubbish collector. The 55-year-old, who once made his own hooch, does several jobs, including packing bottles, milling grain and selling the end product.
“When I first arrived in Nishinari there were men sleeping in the streets, and there are still people here who drink from the morning, deal in stimulant drugs and gamble illegally. But this is a place that accepts outsiders, and it’s cheap so you can survive even if you’re on benefits.
“My previous life was tough but it’s much brighter now and I’ve started to look forward to every new day. I’m able to live alone and I no longer owe money to loan sharks. The most surprising thing is that I don’t drink much these days. I don’t want to go to work with a hangover.”
Derailleur has produced 30 varieties of beer over the past two years, including a limited-edition stout, a mixed-juice IPA and Riot Ale, its most popular type. Its beer is sold mainly in Osaka, where it supplies restaurants, bars and supermarkets, but its market has expanded to include Tokyo and Kyoto – where it will open its fourth pub in April.
The reception from beer drinkers has been universally positive. Derailleur’s beers won seven prizes at last year’s Japan Great Beer Awards and two silver medals at the 2018 International Beer Cup.
It now has plans to quadruple its production capacity when it opens a brewery in Osaka in June, along with on-site accommodation for some of its 40 new employees.
“Nishinari is undergoing a kind of gentrification, but the day labourers aren’t being forced out,” says Yamazaki. “They’re being encouraged to stay and work for new companies opening up in the area. There’s no other place like it in Japan.”