Beer and sake factories show tourists what’s brewing

by Anna Masui

Kyodo

Faced with shrinking revenues in the domestic beverage market, a number of Japanese brewers and distillers have been seeking to boost their brands by giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at their operations.

Guided brewery and distillery tours have gained popularity particularly among tourists from abroad, many of whom have a strong interest in Japanese food and drink.

At the end of February, a group of 25 people aged from their 20s to 60s, including three foreign visitors, took part in a free guided tour organized by Suntory Liquors Ltd.’s Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, in western Japan.

Following the 40-minute tour of its distillation facility, with copper-pot stills and a storage house filled with whiskey barrels, the visitors also tasted whiskies from Suntory’s popular Yamazaki and Hakushu brands.

A 30-year-old man from France said, “Yamazaki whisky is popular in France, too, and can be found at many department stores and bars. This will be a great gift for my friends.”

For foreign visitors, Suntory has prepared audio guides in English, Chinese and French. The number of visitors who asked for the devices during 2013 jumped 1.5-fold from the previous year, according to Suntory Holdings Ltd.

Foreign tourists apparently show interest in Suntory’s whiskies because many of its products, such as Yamazaki 18 Years Old and Hibiki 21 Years Old, have won top awards at international competitions like the International Spirits Challenge.

The Shintokiwagura sake brewery at Kinshi-Masamune Co., an established liquor maker based in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward, organizes a tour describing the fermentation process of mixing yeast culture and rice malt, followed by a tasting of four kinds of sake.

The number of visitors to one of Japan’s major breweries in 2013 marked a 2.7-fold year-on-year surge, amounting to 418. Out of the total, 63 were foreign tourists, a 1.9-fold jump from the previous year, according to the company.

The company said that the increase in foreign visitors can be largely attributed to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s designation of traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku, as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Akira Tanaka, an executive at the company, also explained that the Kyoto city government’s implementation last year of its so-called Nihonshu Kanpai (sake toast) ordinance promoting drinking of sake has also helped raise the interest in sake among young generations.

Kirin Brewery Co.’s tour at its Kirin Beer Park Kobe factory in the port city has also been popular, luring about 150,000 visitors in 2013, about 10,000 up from the previous year. Tourist numbers from China and South Korea have also been increasing.

Visitors can see the beer-manufacturing process and taste up to three glasses of Kirin’s popular brands, including Ichiban Shibori.

Since the factory has a restaurant and a souvenir shop dealing with special brands available only at the factory, the free tour has often been visited by associations of parents whose children go to the same day-care centers or elementary schools, according to the company.