Food & Drink | Cultivating Craft

Coedo Brewery's beer is rooted in agriculture

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

Readers of this column might have noticed that although many companies profiled have been in business more than 20 years, it can still be difficult to find their beers in stores.

On the other hand, Coedo, brewed in Saitama Prefecture, seems to have not only found its way into supermarkets and convenience stores around Japan, it exports roughly 30 percent of its beer to over a dozen countries in Asia, Europe and North America. By all accounts, Coedo is one of Japan’s most successful craft brewers.

Like many early Japanese craft breweries, Coedo Brewery got its start as a venture by an older company only tangentially related to beer: Kyodoshoji Corp., a distributor for organic vegetables. While Japan’s supermarkets are famed for uniform produce, those standards come at a cost, and around 40 percent of vegetables and fruit that don’t meet standards are discarded. The company began to look into ways of utilizing produce that was perfectly edible, yet deemed unsuitable for sale.

Sweet innovation: Coedo Brewery uses a local variety of sweet potato as an alternative to malted barley. | COURTESY OF COEDO BREWERY
Sweet innovation: Coedo Brewery uses a local variety of sweet potato as an alternative to malted barley. | COURTESY OF COEDO BREWERY

Scientists working for Coedo began to explore the possibility of using local produce in beers, settling on a local variety of sweet potato as an alternative to malted barley. However, none of the scientists had any knowledge of brewing, leading the company to recruit Christian Mitterbauer, a German brewer, who joined the company in 1997. Mitterbauer stayed with the company for five years, brewing and helping to train brewery staff.

However, just as the quality of the beer began to improve, the initial boom of Japanese beer was fading fast, leaving the brewing arm reliant on its parent company to survive. Shigeharu Asagiri, who first joined the company in 1998 and has been CEO since 2006, believed in focusing on a premium product, and worked on improving quality and marketing strategies. Asagiri, who speaks fluent English, is passionate about beer, though he leaves the brewing to his experts on staff. After traveled extensively in Europe he came to appreciate the beer culture there and seeks to bring the same feeling to Japan.

While working with Coedo’s brewers to improve the quality of the beer, Asagiri also began communicating with high-end stores to find shelf space for the company’s beer, first reaching an agreement with Seibu department stores. Asagiri’s discussions with retailers led him to see the importance of moving toward canning, making Coedo one of the few Japanese craft brewers to sell its beers in cans as well as bottles.

In 2016, the brewery moved to a new location, further from Tokyo, near Higashimatsuyama. Asagiri prefers the new location, which allows Coedo to keep itself rooted in agriculture, away from busy urban areas. The new brewery building was originally built by Ricoh for use as a factory, though never used for that purpose, instead becoming a staff training center.

Currently, the brewery only occupies the former lecture halls, but Asagiri dreams of turning the hundreds of dormitory rooms and large-scale kitchen space into a destination for beer fans. The closeness to local farms has an additional benefit, since spent grain from the brewing process is delivered to local farms for use as livestock feed and fertilizer.

With Coedo’s background in agricultural science and food safety, Asagiri is proud to point out the company’s strict cleanliness standards. While tours are available two Saturdays a month (¥2,000 per person, visit Coedo’s Peatix page for more information), guests can only view the brewery from the glass-enclosed floors above since only brewers are allowed on the brewery floor as part of efforts to maintain beer purity.

Along with the handful of craft brewers in Japan who moved into canning beers, and having secured precious shelf space in retailers nationwide, Coedo seems ready for whatever the next stage of Japanese craft brewing will bring.

For more information about Coedo, visit coedobrewery.com/en. This is the 11th installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.