Imagine the ultimate beer fairy tale. You’re a college student, out for dinner with your family. On the way home, your father, owner of a chain of liquor shops, stops in front of a small warehouse. When you ask why he stopped, your dad replies: “That’s the brewery I just bought! You start making beer tomorrow!”
Like all fairy tales, the truth is a little more complicated, but that’s essentially the origin story of Minoh Beer, an Osaka institution and vibrant part of the Japanese craft beer community since 1997.
Facing lower profits due to an ongoing discounting war between liquor stores and grocery chains amid declining consumer spending, Masaji Oshita believed that brewing and selling an original beer would cut costs and increase profits.
The application for a brewing license took time, and during this period Kaori Oshita, eldest of Masaji’s three daughters, traveled to Hiroshima to take part in a pilot program to train Japanese brewers. For several months she studied on a small system with several other students, many of whom remain active craft brewers.
Returning to her hometown of Minoh, a small suburb north of Osaka, the first of many hiccups presented itself: The system Oshita had trained on was different from the system installed in the warehouse. But, with the help of a consultant, she spent a couple months learning the equipment and, in October 1997, Minoh was granted a license to begin brewing.
“At first,” Oshita says, “we brewed using malt extract,” a cheaper, simpler way of brewing. “Our lineup was limited to the extracts available, so we had a pilsner, a dark lager and a stout. We needed to have something familiar, but we also wanted to have a different sort of beer too.”
In 2002 the brewery decided to move away from using extracts to using all-grain brewing, a process that increases the time, work and complexity of brewing, but allows the brewer more freedom to create their own recipes.
At first, Oshita faced many technical difficulties, and reached out for help. The close-knit community responded, particularly brewers from the nearby towns of Ise and Kadoya, and from Kanagawa Prefecture’s SanktGallen Brewery. With the problems solved, Oshita began expanding Minoh’s lineup, starting with a pale ale.
The brewery faced an uphill battle, though, as the craft beer boom of the late 1990s had faded and drinkers were now skeptical, having bitter memories of poorly made beers. Despite this, Oshita pushed on, slowly adding new and better varieties. The effort was eventually rewarded in 2009, when Minoh won best dry stout at the World Beer Awards, with Oshita and her proud father, now referred to as the “Godfather” of Japanese beer, flying to London to accept the award.
After this, Oshita changed tack and began brewing beers using local produce from Minoh. She created a widely sought-after peach weizen, as well as her proudest creation, Yuzu White — a white ale made with yuzu citrus. That beer won Minoh a gold medal at the World Beer Cup in 2012, adding to the company’s already impressive collection of medals for its stout, imperial stout and double-IPA, or W-IPA as they’re known in Japan.
“We want to educate our customers about our beer,” Oshita says. “Because our beer is unpasteurized, and the yeast is still active, it’s important to keep the beer cold and away from sunlight.”
This education is a crucial part of her work. “People in Osaka,” she says, “demand value for money. Our beer is more expensive than the big four (Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi and Suntory), and especially in Osaka, it’s been important to explain why the beer is worth the premium.”
Part of Oshita’s mission to educate is realized at the nearly 100 festivals and events that Minoh is a part of every year. Asked how many of those events she, as the CEO and head brewer, attends, she grins and says, “Almost all of them.”
If you see a Minoh booth at a beer festival, there’s a good chance she’ll be there, explaining her beer to new faces and greeting longtime customers with a smile.
This is the second installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.