Food & Drink | Cultivating Craft

Fujizakura Heights Beer: Bending the rules of traditional German beer

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

Since the advent of Japanese beer brewing in the late 1800s, “traditional” beer meant German-style beer. Even after brewing regulations changed to allow microbrewing, it was only natural that most early companies hardly strayed from the familiar German trifecta of weizen, alt and pilsner. For Fujizakura Heights Beer the quality of their German-style brews has kept the company going strong, even as current trends in Japanese and global craft beer markets have shifted away from German beers.

Fujizakura is a part of the much larger Fuji Kanko Kaihatsu group, which owns several golf courses, ski resorts and restaurants near Mount Fuji. Fujizakura’s head brewer, Hiromichi Miyashita, known affectionately as Tentsu-san, started at Fuji Kanko a couple years before the brewery opened. Initially working in other sectors of the resort corporation, Miyashita was called in for a meeting with the president.

“The president said to me, ‘You like beer, right?’ so I said ‘Yes, of course,'” Miyashita says.

He continues, “Then the president told me, ‘Good. You’re going to Germany to learn how to brew.’ I was stunned.” The first craft beer boom had begun, and Fuji Kanko wanted its own beer to serve at its resort facilities.

Miyashita attended a two-month brewing boot camp under an accredited German brewmaster before flying to Munich for an additional two months of night-and-day study, brewing and tasting. Until then Miyashita had only tried Japanese imitations of German beer, and his first taste of a proper German weizen was a shock. “It was like drinking real beer for the first time,” Miyashita says.

Once Miyashita returned from Germany, the size and wealth of Fujizakura Heights’ parent company helped the brewery get up and running quickly, and their first beer, a weizen, was brewed in December of 1998. Unfortunately, the initial craft beer bubble burst in 1999, and Fujizakura entered the market just as many drinkers were writing off the entire experiment. Without the financial support of its parent company, and its restaurants and pubs as dedicated outlets for its beers, Fujizakura might have joined the long list of shuttered breweries.

During the lean years Miyashita honed his craft, and the results of his commitment show in the repeated medals Fujizakura has won for its traditional German beers. The company’s lineup of pilsner, weizen, and rauch, or smoked beer, are considered world-class, and its 20 rotating seasonal beers are much sought-after, especially its Sakura Bock, a spring beer made with cherry blossoms.

In 2012, the Japanese craft beer scene was rocked by the passing of Masaji “Godfather” Oshita, of Osaka’s Minoh Beer. Wanting to do something to commemorate Oshita’s passing, Miyashita contacted Masaji’s daughter, Kaori, as well as Eigo Sato of Shiga Kogen Beer. The late Oshita’s favorite hop had been the American Citra, but Miyashita had never had the chance to use American hops before. Working closely with the other brewers, Miyashita’s tribute beer, called White Dandy, was a success.

That cooperative experience, combined with a recent lull in sales as drinkers moved toward powerful, hoppy IPAs and away from more traditional styles, has spurred Miyashita to experiment further.

This year, for Fujizakura’s 20th anniversary, he once again called on Sato from Shiga Kogen. Together, they brewed Okite Yaburi, or Rule Breaker, an India pale weizen. Combining the traditional weizen brewing method with assertive hop flavors was a valuable learning experience for both companies.

Fans of Fujizakura’s traditional beers needn’t worry: Those favorites aren’t going anywhere. Meanwhile, Miyashita is hard at work bringing new beers, more fusions of traditional German and modern American styles, to market, such as the Extreme Pilsner and the seasonal Dragon Mosaic weizenbock wheat beer, which uses the popular Mosaic hop.

Where some breweries that have garnered as much acclaim as Fujizakura might feel content to stick to their greatest hits, Miyashita is looking to the future, excited to try new things and break more rules.

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