While Japan’s major breweries continue to report flat beer sales amid an ailing economy, there is one Hokkaido-based beer maker that’s brewing up a storm.
Otaru Beer in the port city of Otaru has continued to flourish since its inception 15 years ago, with output growing at an annual average of 10 percent. At its head is a man who hails from a village near Frankfurt with a population of just 500 people.
Braumeister Johannes Braun, one of just two German nationals residing in Otaru, attributes the microbrewery’s success to a surprisingly simple recipe. “I brew beer — real beer, using only natural ingredients,” he says. “Many breweries in Germany still abide by a law governing beer production that dates back almost 500 years. I follow that law to the letter.”
A copy of that regulation, the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law), takes pride of place on a wall at the company’s Soko No. 1 microbrewery, which is housed in one of Otaru’s picturesque canal-side stone warehouses. Alongside it a photo of his family brewery, which was built in 1610, indicates Braun’s brewing pedigree.
Braun, 43, began lending a hand at his family’s brauhause when he was 12 and followed the established apprenticeship path before studying to become a “Brau engineer” at prestigious Technische Universitat Munchen Weihenstephan — a university comprising Europe’s best-known faculty dedicated to the brewing business that is connected with the world’s oldest brewery.
He subsequently worked for German makers Henninger and Lowenbrau before moving to Scotland to study whisky distilling at Edinburgh’s Herriott-Watt University.
After graduating he worked as an engineer-cum-troubleshooter for United Distillers, one of Scotland’s biggest whisky producers.
In 1994, he was head-hunted by an Otaru-based businessman who wanted to open a brewery in the western Hokkaido city following the relaxation of laws regulating micro brewing here. Although knowing nothing about Japanese culture or the language, Braun readily accepted.
“I’ve been brewing beer since I was a child, so that and the technical experience I gained in Scotland meant I felt confident I could run a brewery,” said Braun.
“Until then there were only four big makers offering two types of beer in Japan. So I thought this was a fantastic opportunity to bring in a wider variety to such a highly developed country.”
Utilizing centuries-old recipes formulated under the Reinheitsgebot, Braun began producing three regular ales — Dunkel, Pilsner and Weiss — and a number of seasonal ones, including an Octoberfest beer and Rauch (smoked) varieties.
Success was immediate. Braun recalls having to alternate beers on offer and curtail opening hours during peak seasons. Even today, customers line up to taste the local brew, especially in the busy summer months.
This and a contract with restaurant chain Bikkuri Donkey, for whom Braun produces an exclusive organic ale, necessitated the opening of a second brewery in Zenibako, which today produces 2,000 kiloliters in addition to the 150 kiloliters made at Soko No. 1.
Yet, Braun has refused to be drawn into mass commercializing his products, though in reality he has little choice in the matter.
Ingredients used are all organic, with high-grade barley, wheat and hops imported from Germany to be combined with Otaru’s soft, pristine water.
The only other ingredient — yeast — is propagated by Braun himself and is the reason why Otaru Beer’s draft ales and their bottled equivalents are only available within a 100 km radius of Otaru.
“My aim was to produce genuine German ale and, like in Germany, people have to visit the brewery or nearby to drink it,” said Braun.
“Our beer contains a lot of yeast, minerals and vitamins, meaning they have a short shelf life and don’t travel well. Bigger breweries filter out the yeasts and the proteins and so the beer is longer lasting, but consequently much lighter.”
Braun believes Japan’s major breweries have upped this filtering process in recent years, pushing customers toward so-called third-category beers — beverages made from soy and other ingredients — that first appeared on the market in Japan in 2004.
Unlike malt-based beers, sales of these cheaper beverages have expanded as consumers have tightened their purse strings amid the insipid economy.
“The taste gap (between ‘third sector’ beverages and mass-produced malt beers) has closed dramatically, to the degree that consumers can’t tell the difference and therefore naturally choose the cheaper option,” he says. “That’s the ideology of the big makers and that’s why the output of beer is dropping in recent years.”
This is not such a big issue for most consumers in Japan who, Braun says, see beer as “little more than something to clear the throat” before moving on to something else.
Indeed, “nodogoshi ga ii” — a phrase used to describe the smooth sensation of beer passing down the throat — is a quality that Japan’s major breweries frequently stress in promoting their products, while taste or body are given short shrift.
What’s more, the new products are subjected to a lower tax than malt-based beers, a move that Braun calls “baffling.”
“If the tax rate was the same for both products, beer would be cheaper to produce than third category beverages, which use chemicals that have become increasingly expensive.
“I find that very unfortunate because you shouldn’t with your laws promote products that are unhealthy. You should try and give people products that are as natural and healthy as possible.”
Yet, Braun says this shift toward nonmalt “nonbeers” poses little threat to his brewery. Japan’s major beer producers have each attempted to mimic the kind of craft ales produced by the country’s 222 microbreweries, but invariably fail due to the distribution difficulties posed by yeast-based products.
“Every year, Asahi Breweries sends staff here for research purposes and they often say they would like to do what we do, but couldn’t get it to the customer in decent enough shape,” says Braun. “Neither could I, and that’s why I don’t try. What’s important for microbreweries is not to expand to other areas, but to brew decent beer that will lure more customers and improve understanding of what real ale is all about. By doing this, I believe we can change the beer culture here.”