Encouraged by the craft beer boom, the city of Tono in Iwate Prefecture has been welcoming outsiders wanting to try new ways to revive its hop-growing industry and transform the community into a “beer town.”

Japan imports about 95 percent of hops for domestic beer production from other countries, including Germany. For the remaining 5 percent, Tono plays a key role, providing about 20 percent of the nation’s output.

But the hop-farming industry in this city of about 27,000 people, largely unscathed by the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, has been hit by a drop in farmers due to old age, a lack of successors and cheap imports.

Its hop output has plunged about 80 percent over the past 30 years, along Japanese production as a whole.

One of the outsiders addressing the problem is Atsushi Yoshida of Yokohama, who established Beer Experience Co. in February 2018.

“By putting efforts into hop production and other activities, I want to realize a situation in which everyone from all over Japan and the world will associate beer with Tono,” said Yoshida, 46.

The former ad agency worker moved to his wife’s hometown of Tono in 2008 “to do farming” and first focused on growing padron peppers, which in Spain are often eaten with beer, because he “just wanted to do something that hardly anyone in Japan had tried.”

Yoshida began cultivating hops in 2015, two years after meeting Ryuhei Asai, 38, an employee of brewing giant Kirin Holdings Co., through a training program it offered to local farm managers.

Kirin’s program was aimed at supporting the Tohoku region’s recovery from the March 2011 quake and tsunami, although hop production in Tono was unaffected.

The native of Iwate said he feared people “probably won’t be able to drink beer made of Japanese hops in the near future” when he returned to his home prefecture and learned of the industry’s predicament.

After discussing how to increase Yoshida’s sales, they came up with the idea of promoting Tono as a “hometown of beer” in cooperation with the city and Kirin by revitalizing the hop industry and marketing the peppers. Yoshida was sold on the plan.

Hop cones — the unpollinated female flowers harvested in August and September — are known as “the spirit of beer” and added in the manufacturing process. They not only create the distinctive bitterness and aroma, but also sterilize it, stabilize the head and improve preservability.

But hops, high in water content, are quick to spoil and are thus normally dried at a processing plant just after the harvest.

The dried hops are then thrown into wort, which is made from malt and water, and fermented at a low temperature by yeast before being put into cold storage to age for up to two months. The malt liquor is filtered before being bottled or canned.

The perennial herb also has “bines,” long and flexible stems from underground roots that climb while growing onto tall trellises.

One of the challenges for Yoshida was to streamline the farm work. In 2017 he realized that Tono needed a more mechanized hop production method after making a trip to Hallertau, Germany, one of the world’s major hop-growing areas. Hallertau produces over 100 times more hops than Japan.

“I thought even if the number of farmers continues to decline, we might be able to maintain the amount of Japanese hop yields by increasing the acreage per farmer through mechanization and field consolidation,” Yoshida said.

After importing a set of large machines from Germany at a cost of ¥25 million ($230,000), Yoshida redesigned a portion of his fields and replaced the trellis pillars with sturdier ones, reducing their number to create broader spaces between them so the machines could enter.

By adopting the German method, the days needed to trim the old bines away from the rootstock, which is indispensable to starting the year’s crop in April, is reduced to about a seventh, and only one worker is required for harvesting, compared with three to seven under conventional methods, according to Yoshida.

This fall’s harvest at the 1-hectare field was only “a small quantity” because cultivation was pushed back to June to install the new trellises. Nevertheless, Yoshida’s company plans to continue its streamlining efforts by gradually enlarging the cultivation area to eight hectares in 2026 via farmland consolidation.

“I truly made a new start, but the real challenge will come next year,” Yoshida said. “Of course I feel a bit uneasy because I use machines that nobody in Japan has used before. But it’s my mission to show other farmers that the German way can produce a successful business and energize Tono.”

Areas that have a cool climate and a certain temperature difference between day and night are said to be more suitable for hop farming, with Ethiopia, Germany and parts of the United States major hop producers. In Japan, over 90 percent of the output is from Tohoku.

But hop yields in Japan have halved over the past decade, from 446 tons in 2008 to 202 tons in 2018, according to the national farmers’ association. Domestically grown hops accounted for only a fraction of the 4,000 tons imported in 2018, according to government data.

Last year in Tono, 33 producers reaped just 43 tons, far below the peak of 229 tons reached in 1987, when it had plenty of farmers, the city said. Tono had as many as 239 farmers in 1974.

Along with the Tono Municipal Government and others, Yoshida’s company holds a harvest festival every August to cultivate more beer fans. This year, 12,000 people joined, bringing the number of visitors up nearly five-fold from 2015, when the event was first held.

Asai, currently on loan to Beer Experience as vice president, said the start of the event and the company’s attempt to revive hop farming is well-timed to the growing popularity of craft beers, which are made by small breweries and characterized by unique flavors.

While total beer sales in Japan remain sluggish, the craft beer market has doubled in the past five years as consumers shift to other alcoholic drinks, according to Kirin. This boom has raised the popularity of fresh, made-in-Japan hops, it added.

Under such circumstances, Tono is attracting outsiders who want to try out brewing.

Daisuke Hakamada, 31, a former manager of a Uniqlo store, moved to the city in April 2017 to open Tono Brewing Taproom, a small brewery and restaurant, the following May with two fellow newcomers.

“I just wanted to make beer that I love drinking and serve it directly to guests,” said the Aomori Prefecture native. “Here in Tono, we can use just-picked hops (without drying them), which enables us to create unique beer with a fresh flavor.”

About 8,000 people visited his brewery in the first year, and Hakamada expects more than 10,000 next year.

“What has impressed me is that more people seem to come to Tono only to enjoy drinking beer,” he said.

The brewery is also working on some “experimental” brews made with local ingredients, such as white birch sap.

“We’re aiming to be deeply rooted in the community,” Hakamada said. “So I hope we can contribute to the development of Tono by connecting good local ingredients with beer, and by creating jobs.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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