Just months after being damaged in Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, the Kiuchi Brewery is thriving.
When the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami rocked the Japanese island of Honshu on March 11, not many people were thinking about beer. Toshiyuki Kiuchi didn’t have a choice. His eponymous brewery in Naka city, which produces sake along with the Hitachino Nest brand of beers, is located roughly 9.3 miles (15 km) from the Pacific Ocean and less than 100 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. And as (bad) luck would have it, Kiuchi had just begun construction work to expand brewing capacity.
Matthias Neidhart, a specialty beer importer and friend of the Kiuchi family since 2000, elaborated on the aftermath. “Toshiyuki emailed me pictures a couple of days later. He told me it was unbelievable: All of a sudden there was a huge ship sitting on a nearby hill where it was not supposed to be.”
“The vibration of the earthquake was terrible and there were so many damages at the brewery ,” adds Kiuchi.
On his property, the filling line and about 500 bottles were broken; two buildings lost a significant number of roofing tiles, and nearly 212 gallons of umeshu, a liqueur made from the plumlike ume fruit, had spilled after the main quake and its immediate aftershocks. Miraculously, given the buckled roads, crumbled walls and smashed automobiles scattered around Ibaraki Prefecture, the facility escaped serious destruction. “Everything is replaceable, which is good news,” Neidhart says. Fortunately, none of the employees were hurt or missing either. And so, four days after the largest earthquake in the history of modern Japan, everyone went back to work. “We received so many emails and phone calls from all over the world, and those encouraged us so much,” Kiuchi says.
ut before the company began brewing another batch of its popular White Ale or its intriguing Red Rice Ale, the business offered what it could to victims of the disaster. Still reeling from the scale of the catastrophe, the city of Naka lacked many necessities, and the brewery was in a unique position to help.
Once they recovered their electrical supply and repaired their bottling system, Kiuchi’s staff began supplying drinking water to customers and neighbors. They also prepared free meals at their soba restaurant, Nakaya. During the first few days after the earthquake, more than 1,000 onigiri (Japanese rice balls) emerged from Nakaya’s kitchen.
In a way, Kiuchi’s eagerness to give back speaks to his ongoing generosity and deep sense of pride—for his community, his country and his beer. After producing beer on a relatively small scale for several years, a decade ago he noticed a growing interest in homebrewing among craft beer aficionados. The only problem: Japanese law forbids homebrewing beers greater than 1% ABV. Kiuchi’s solution was Brew on Premises, a day-long class he launched in 1999. There, students learn the basics of brewing and make the style of their choice, all for the price of roughly $6 per bottle. Professional brewers handle fermentation and the customizable packaging, and then ship boxes of each finished product (sorry, only within Japan) to its creator.
Aside from a willingness to share equipment and expertise, however, Kiuchi also wants to encourage his industry to experiment and innovate.
“In Japan, the history of craft beer has only 15 years,” he explains. “And we started brewing by copying historical beers in Europe like weizen and pale ale. But now we need to create new, Japanese-style beer, using Japanese culture and Japanese ingredients.”
Kiuchi’s off to a promising start. In a national laboratory in 2005, he found 15 seeds of Kaneko Golden barley, the first beer barley developed in Japan. Cross-pollinating European Golden Melon with Shikoku, a Japanese barley used for noodle-making, farmer Ushigoro Kaneko created this new variety of the cereal grain in 1900. After rediscovering Kaneko Golden (and five careful years of cultivation), the brewery had enough malt to work with—which is right about when Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, introduced Kiuchi to Sorachi Ace, a hop variety developed by Sapporo in 1988. And thus, a new beer, Nipponia, borrowing from Nippon-koku, the Japanese name for the country, was born.
“We started to brew Nipponia by using two Japanese materials,” Kiuchi reveals. “[In the] future, we will brew all our beer by Japanese ingredients!”
According to Neidhart, the elegant, black bombers of lemony Ancient Nipponia have sold well since debuting in the United States a year ago. “We’re not getting enough,” he says with a laugh. The American hype didn’t go unnoticed back in Japan: In August, Kiuchi shipped temperature-controlled tanks of a draft-only version of Nipponia across the Pacific. This time, though, Kiuchi’s brewers used a bottom-fermenting pilsner-type yeast to create a unique lager.
Equally remarkable is the fact that on May 25, less than three months after the massive earthquake literally rocked his enterprise, Kiuchi opened True Brew Beer Cafe & Shop in nearby Mito, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture. Inspired by the gastropubs he visited on trips to the United States, he arrived at a concept that American beer enthusiasts would find familiar: a casual atmosphere with sophisticated fare like Wagyu beef burgers on sake yeast rolls, beer-braised ox tail and a white ale chiffon cake. The taps span the globe with hoppy American brews like Southern Tier 2XIPA and Tröegs Hop Back Amber Ale alongside an oyster stout from Porterhouse Brewing in Ireland, Aecht Schlenkerla, Germany’s most famous Rauchbier, Sally Brown Baracco from Birrificio del Ducato in Italy, and half a dozen offerings from Kiuchi, including a rotating cask.
Ask Neidhart to look into the future of Japanese craft beer, and he’s cautiously optimistic. “You can’t escape this, Japan will always deal with this,” he says, referring to the seismic upheaval that nearly destroyed a handful of other Japanese breweries (see sidebar). But he’s convinced the quake won’t smother the Japanese beer revolution. “There’s quite a strong movement going on here, and I think it’s here to stay.” -Ben Keene
As kiuchi climbs back on its feet, the area’s other breweries are doing likewise:
Miyagi Microbrewery was destroyed, along with the head brewer’s home. He has vowed to
Four large storage tanks were damaged at Kirin Brewery’s Miyagi location. The country’s second largest brewery recorded more than $65 million in disaster-related losses in the first quarter alone.
Iwate Kura Beer (which has a World Beer Cup silver medal for its oyster stout, made with shellfish pulled from the same area the tsunami hit) had its tank toppled; it was repaired, and Iwate Kura’s brewing again.
Equipment was damaged and bottles were smashed at Sapporo’s Chiba and Sendai breweries, which resumed full production in April and May, respectively. The company expects to incur $64 million in losses by January.