For many, the story of Japanese craft beer starts in 1994, the year when tax laws were altered to allow smaller breweries to enter the field. One company, SanktGallen Brewery, managed to get a head start on the rest of the domestic industry by exploiting an almost absurd loophole in Japan’s strict regulations.
Named for the Swiss brewery that received one of Europe’s first official brewing licenses, SanktGallen began producing craft beer a full year before Echigo Beer was granted the first microbrewing license in Japan.
“My father first experienced craft beer in California,” says Nobuhisa Iwamoto. “He was stunned by the aroma and flavor, and wanted to make something similar here in Japan.”
The head of a frozen dim sum company, Mitsuo Iwamoto applied to open a brewery in Japan in 1991, only to be told that laws made it impossible. Refusing to give up, he found that it would be easier to make beer in America and import it back to Japan, an approach that landed him mentions in Time and Newsweek magazine articles about regulatory difficulties facing Japanese entrepreneurs.
In March, 1993, the Iwamotos opened their San Francisco-based brewery, Cafe Pacifica, as well as a small pub in Roppongi. SanktGallen craft beers from America, as well as non-alcoholic versions brewed in Japan in accordance with tax laws, were available at the pub.
When the laws changed, the Iwamotos jumped on the chance to begin brewing in Japan, opening their first Japan-based brewery in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1997. They closed both the American brewery and Roppongi pub to focus on brewing. The timing, though, was off, and the ji-bīru (local beer) craze was already dying. By 2001, due to Mitsuo’s declining health and a drop in sales, the Iwamotos were unable to meet their tax obligations and closed their company.
Nobuhisa refused to give up, applying for licenses and loans to start again. Each time, banks told him “you’re an Iwamoto, no way.” Finally, in 2003, Nobuhisa managed to get a new SanktGallen brewery up and running. “I have no parent company behind me. SanktGallen is an entirely independent company,” Nobuhisa says with a smile. “We meet the American definition of craft beer.”
For the first few years, Nobuhisa ran a very tight ship, just squeaking by. In 2006, he hired Miki Nakagawa, who immediately jumped into the marketing driver’s seat, getting SanktGallen’s name into magazines and newspapers across Japan.
That year, Nobuhisa brewed something new, an Imperial Chocolate Stout, that would appeal, he thought, to beer maniacs. With its chocolatey aroma, Nakagawa decided to market it as a Valentine’s Day gift. On the day of release, the silence was deafening, and no one seemed to be buying it. Then, just three days later, the beer was sold out. Through Nakagawa’s public relations efforts, a report on the beer had landed the top spot on Yahoo News, driving sales through the roof.
The next year, the Yokohama branch of upscale department store Takashimaya asked to carry the beer. This time, the beer was featured on TV programs, leading to lines forming at the department store by 8 a.m. and, once again, the beer quickly sold out. Now, SanktGallen releases three annual stouts and one yearly special edition, usually featuring an experimental flavoring. In 2018, they produce a one-off stout using the popular Chinese dessert annin dōfu, and this year they released a chocolate banana stout.
SanktGallen has developed a number of business partnerships, including one with soccer team Shonan Belmare, which named SanktGallen’s Shonan Gold, brewed with a local variety of oranges, as the team’s official beer.
“Many brewers in Japan don’t seem to want to market their beers,” Nobuhisa says, “but craft needs to grow in Japan, and marketing is an essential part of that.” Standing in the SanktGallen he started, next door to the original brewery, he says he wishes his father, who passed away in 2005, could see it now: “Beer was his last dream, and I wish he was alive to see what SanktGallen has become.”
For more information on SanktGallen, visit sanktgallenbrewery.com. This is the seventh installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.