Nagano microbrewer takes eco-friendly path


Remember that book, “100 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth?” Here is the 101st: Head out to Kurohime in Nagano Prefecture. At the foot of Mount Kurohime you’ll find Shinano Brewery. Walk into the woody Chestnuts Pub, order one of their English-style beers and you’ll be partaking in a unique recycling effort based on a concept called “zero emissions.”

Zero emissions involves industries recycling all their wastes into material and energy for new production, and Hideyo Sekiguchi and his daughter, Megumi, Shinano’s owner and managing director respectively, are turning Shinano into Japan’s first zero emissions brewery.

Hideyo points out that although in old Japan nothing usable was thrown away, today the economy is based on waste.

“But we can’t continue like this,” he says. “Japan is too small. It’s especially important that we don’t make a lot of waste from non-necessities like beer.”

So instead of making waste, Shinano Brewery is making bread, and will soon be growing mushrooms, from its spent grain.

Since the government changed the law in 1994 to allow small-scale beer brewing, about 300 microbreweries have sprung up. Microbrewers share the conviction that crafted beer offers an interesting alternative to the mass-produced brews sold by Japan’s five big beer companies. They also share the problem of what to do with their spent grain: Shinano alone produces 20 tons of it a year. While big companies like Kirin have the resources to dehydrate the wet, nutrient-rich grain before it rots and sell it for animal feed, this is not feasible for most microbrewers. Brewers must pay disposal companies up to 20,000 yen a ton to cart it off and incinerate it.

Hideyo, who owns two Chinese restaurants and the Vanryu Beer Hall in Nagano City, grew up in the hungry post-war era and had been taught traditional Japanese frugality. Megumi, who learned microbrewing while a student in the United States and launched Shinano with her father’s backing in 1996, was concerned about ecology. Both had become increasingly aware of Japan’s environmental problems through talks with their friend C. W. Nicol, a British-born naturalist, writer and environmental activist who lives in Kurohime.

So when Nicol dropped by the pub for a beer and told them about a brewery in Fiji that was using its spent grain to grow mushrooms, the Sekiguchis’ ears pricked up. Nicol explained this brewery was part of a zero emissions project by the United Nations University. “My father got really excited and wanted to try it,” Megumi recalls.

Hideyo began trying to grow mushrooms under the kotatsu, and brought boxes of malt to mushroom farmers around Nagano so they could also join in.

The Sekiguchis visited the zero emissions project in Fiji in February 1999, and met two professors at Tokyo University’s Institute of Industrial Science who were involved in zero emissions research, Akiyoshi Sakoda and Motoyuki Suzuki, also a vice-rector at the United Nations University in Tokyo. The scientists began using samples of Shinano’s spent grain to cultivate mushrooms at their Tokyo laboratory, with the goal of setting up a mushroom-growing operation at the brewery. “So we could finally stop growing mushrooms under the kotatsu,” Megumi says.

Growing mushrooms from spent grain is tricky. The waste is 85 percent water, becomes a ripe medium for bacteria and after a while, according to Megumi, “smells really bad.” So before the Sekiguchis can begin growing large quantities of mushrooms in the building going up next to the brewery, the researchers have to perfect the process.

They are using a method called “steam explosion” that separates the water and nutrients to make a substrate for mushroom cultivation. Ten kilograms of substrate can yield 5 kg of mushrooms, according to Yukiyori Ihara, a Tokyo University graduate student working on the Shinano project. After the mushrooms are harvested the substrate can be recycled into a fiber to make things like paper.

While the researchers were applying scientific technology to mushroom cultivation, Hideyo, an inveterate amateur inventor, was chewing thoughtfully on bits of spent barley. It was delicious, but rough. If he could somehow dry it out and grind it into flour, it might make good bread, he thought. He tried various methods of dehydrating it, without success. Then it occurred to him that since bread dough requires water anyway, all he needed to do was turn the malt into a paste and add flour.

Using a blender, he experimented until he came up with a recipe that used 60 percent barley paste and 40 percent wheat flour. This baked up into light, brown bread which had flavor slightly evocative of beer. The blender was hardly practical for pureeing hundreds of kilograms of grain, so, working with a machinist, he invented a ceramic grinder that could process large quantities.

A small bakery was added to the pub, and it now turns out about 160 loaves a week. They also sell frozen dough to supermarkets, and barley paste, dubbed malt fiber food, to 10 bakeries. The bread is healthy. Like beer, it contains antioxidants, and is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Hideyo is now working with two machine companies to produce the grinder for sale to other microbreweries, and is applying for a patent. His dream is that microbreweries throughout Japan will use his machine to turn their spent grain into uniquely local breads.

Between mushroom cultivation and bread making, the brewery will soon be utilizing 100 percent of its waste grain. “Tourists might like to come and learn about this system,” Megumi says. “Trying to get people to think about how to waste less is part of our goal.”

“Various industries have other types of waste that can be reused,” Hideyo points out. “But businesses have to be able to make money. If they can’t make money they aren’t going to do it. I want to be an example to businesses.”

Shinano has been both “green” and successful. Their beer is sold in about 150 stores and restaurants in Japan, and the pub attracts 800 customers a day during summer. Three of Shinano’s five brews have won awards in national beer competitions, including Number One Beer in Japan for their Mountain Ale. Shinano also has also gotten plenty of free publicity from the local and national media, for which the twin novelties of microbreweries and a woman running one proved irresistible.

After Shinano began their no-waste project there was a new round of media attention. “Working on zero emissions at the brewery is very good PR. This tells people we care about the environment,” Megumi says. She even found herself on a talk show with Nagano Gov. Goro Yoshimura. “The prefectural government is very interested in the Shinano Brewery project,” she says. Local officials in Kurohime, a popular tourist town, have also shown an interest. They might consider a new slogan: “Think globally. Drink locally.”