Summertime in Japan can be intolerably hot and humid. Back in June of this year, I recall reading an article which stated that 1,132 people throughout Japan had hospitalized for heatstroke. So how would you beat the heat if you were in Japan? To me, the best way would be with a nice, ice cold glass of beer! And visiting one of the major breweries on a hot and humid summer day would be ideal!
Beer is one of the oldest beverages humans have produced, dating back to at least the 5th millennium BC and recorded in the written history of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Yet Japan has only been producing its own beers since the 1870s! Beer was introduced to the Japanese public during the Meiji period when Sapporo Brewery, sponsored by the Meiji government began production in Hokkaido in 1876. Then in 1888, a small brewery opened up in Yokohama and became known as Kirin. Later these breweries were joined by Asahi and Suntory which set up business in Osaka rounding out the four major beer brands that are still operating in Japan today.
These major breweries offer tours during which visitors can see the brewing process and partake in sampling some of the product. Most tours are conducted in Japanese, but English brochures and English signboards along the tour route are available.
Sapporo has five breweries in Japan. The first, Sendai Brewery, was opened in 1971 in Natori, Miyagi. Shizuoka Brewery in Yaizu began production in 1980, Chiba Brewery in Chiba was opened in 1988, Hokkaido Brewery in Eniwa, Hokkaido was constructed in 1989, and the Kyushu Hita Brewery was opened in Hita, Oita in 2000.
At the Hokkaido Brewery visitors can witness the advanced technology of Sapporo’s current brewing techniques and take advantage a free tasting. The brewery is located at Sapporo Beer Teien station on the JR Chitose line, about half an hour southeast of Sapporo. Advance reservations are required to visit the brewery. (Phone 011-748-1876).
The Kyushu Hita Brewery is the newest of Sapporo’s breweries. Taking advantage of the excellent water of north central Kyushu, the beers produced here are predominately distributed around Kyushu. Tours are free but reservations are required. (Phone 0973-25-1100). The only set back is that traveling to this brewery by public transportation is challenging. By car, the brewery is merely 10 minutes from the Hita Interchange of the Oita Expressway. Be aware that drivers will not be served alcoholic beverages.
The Sapporo Beer Museum located in the Sapporo Garden Park in Higashi-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan is the only beer museum in Japan. Originally serving as the Sapporo Sugar Company in 1890, it was converted into a museum and opened to the public in 1987. The museum was registered as one of the Hokkaido Heritage sites in 2004. The museum consists of three floors and there is no entrance fee charged. During the tour visitors can learn about the origins of Sapporo Beer as part of the Meiji government’s industrial development plan for Hokkaido. At the end of the tour, tastings and explanations of the Sapporo line of beers are available for an additional fee. The Sapporo Garden Park also houses a shopping mall and the Sapporo Beer Garden, which is connected to the museum. (Webpage: http://www.sapporobeer.jp/english/guide/sapporo/)
Kirin Beer Village located in Yokohama is less than 10 minutes on foot from Nama-mugi Station on the Keihin Kyuko line. Free tours are available followed by a 20 minute tasting (maximum three drinks). The tour features videos of the brewing process, in particular explaining what is so special about “ichiban shibori” (the first press). The tours are conducted every hour between 10:30 AM and 3:30 PM. Advance reservations are required. (Phone 045-503-8250).
Kirin Beer Park Nagoya located at 100 Hanagasa, Terano, Kiyosu, Aichi Prefecture, also offers free tours including up to three free glasses of beer at the end of the tour. Easiest access is via the free shuttle bus from the west exit of Biwajima Station. Reservations should be made at least two days in advance. (Phone 052-408-2000). (Webpage: http://www.kirin.co.jp/entertainment/factory/nagoya/index.html)
Kirin Beer Park, Kobe located at 2-1-1 Akamatsudai , Kita-ku, Kirin Beer Park Kobe, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture offers a free tour which focuses on the production of Kirin’s “Ichiban Shibori” beer, and provides tastings of Ichiban Shibori and two other Kirin beers at the end of the tour. The facility can be reached via the complimentary “Beer Bus” from Sanda Station. Advanced reservations are required. (Phone: 078-986-8001).
Asahi Brewery, Nagoya located at 318, Nishikawahara-machi, Moriyama-ku, is only a 10 minute walk from Shin-Moriyama Station on the JR Chuo line. The tour explains the brewery and packaging process at this amazingly automated plant. You will see one of the few staff members at work, the official beer taster, whose job it is to test the quality of the day’s brew. (Where do I apply?) The tour concludes with tasting Asahi’s classic Superdry, as well as its dark beer and one other. Reservations are recommended, but not absolutely required. (Phone: 052-792-8966).
Asahi Brewery Hakata, Fukuoka is one of the few breweries that will arrange a tour in English upon request. The facility is located near Takeshita Station on the Kagoshima Main Line. Complimentary tasting follows the tour where you are given 3 glasses of beer to sample however you only have 15 minutes to finish your drinks. Reservations are required. (Phone: 092-431-2701).
Suntory Brewery Musashino, Fuchu is another brewery that offers English tours with prior arrangements. The facility is 5 minutes on foot from Fuchu Honmachi station on the Nambu Line in western Tokyo, situated near the Tokyo Racecourse. Call for advance reservations. (Phone: 042-360-9591).
So there you have it, a brief introduction to the breweries of four major beer brands in Japan. Keep in mind that Japan also have 200 micro-breweries in production but they operate on such a small scale that tours at their facilities may not be available or difficult to schedule.