Ise Kadoya: Bringing craft beer into the mainstream

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

Compared to the typical American craft beer company, many craft beer companies in Japan belong to larger, sometimes much older, parent companies. One of the clearest examples of this is Ise Kadoya Microbrewery.

Kadoya is the brewing arm of Nikenjayamochi Kadoya Honten, which dates back to 1575, when it was only a small shop offering kinako mochi (roasted soy bean flour rice cakes) to pilgrims visiting the Grand Shrines of Ise. In 1923, the company began brewing soy sauce and miso paste. Then, in 1997, Narihiro Suzuki, fresh out of college and with a keen interest in the burgeoning craft beer scene in Japan, asked his father, Soichiro Suzuki, then the 20th president of the company, if he could start a brewery.

The elder Suzuki gave his blessing, but at first it was difficult: The local tax office was hesitant to give a license to someone with no brewing experience and, once licensed, Suzuki had difficulty finding the correct approach to the market. Even worse, six months after receiving the license to brew, the initial Japanese craft beer boom fell flat.

“It was a dark time,” Suzuki says, sitting in his office in Ise Kadoya’s new brewery. “There was no light.” As he was turning 30, married with children and the head of an over 400-year-old family business, he found himself wondering if the company would be able to pay its bills.

Six years passed before Ise Kadoya began to turn a profit. Suzuki consulted business leaders for advice, giving him the idea to split production between Ise Kadoya craft beers and a lineup of souvenir beers under the name Sinto Beer. The gamble paid off, and for several years the Sinto line kept the company afloat. Only as recently as 2010 did the Ise Kadoya side begin to take the lead in sales.

Suzuki is proud of the company’s lineup, especially its pale ale and unique Hime White. The Hime White was developed using yeast Suzuki cultivated from trees in the Ise area. Suzuki focused on the process of using the yeast to brew the beer for the subject of his 2017 Ph.D. from Mie University. Both the Hime White and the company’s brown ale have repeatedly medaled at the World Beer Awards, which Suzuki is proud of, but not satisfied with. “If you want to climb the highest mountain in Japan,” he says, “you climb Fuji, and that’s a great achievement. After you’ve climbed Fuji, though, there’s still Everest. I want to climb Everest.”

One of Ise Kadoya’s more recent successes came from a collaboration with Culmination Brewing in Portland, when the head brewer there suggested trying a style called the New England IPA, an unfiltered IPA heavy on fruity hops. Owing to the two brewers’ love of their household pets, the beer was named Neko Nihiki, or Two Cats. Originally a one-time collaboration, it proved so popular that the company added it to their seasonal lineup.

Suzuki is also focused on strengthening the craft market in Japan. “Now, the craft market share is only 1-2 percent of beer sold in Japan. I want to see the craft beer community reach 5 percent or higher.” The new Ise Kadoya brewery, which opened in August this year, is part of that goal. It uses a fully automated Rolec brewing system, though that change has had its own issues. “It’s like going from a sedan to a Ferrari,” Suzuki says. “There is a lot to adjust to.”

The second part of his plan is the subject of some controversy. Suzuki has been in talks about making Ise Kadoya beer available to Kirin’s Tap Marche server. Long seen as the enemy, Kirin Brewery Co. Ltd. has already installed over 5,000 of the space-saving, all-in-one, four-tap beer servers across Japan, with plans to roll out even more in the coming year.

While the beers available through the system are now mostly limited to subsidiaries of Kirin, Suzuki is excited at the chance to present Ise Kadoya’s beers to a new audience. Suzuki has talked with head brewers from several Japanese craft beer companies, and while a few voiced support, Suzuki admitted some brewers strongly disagreed with the idea. Still, Suzuki hopes that other Japanese brewers will follow Ise Kadoya’s example and see the Tap Marche system as the next step in bringing more drinkers into the craft beer fold.

This is the third installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.