Beer for Purists

by Robert Gilhooly
Beer for Purists German brauhaus in Hokkaido follows 500-year-old law

There’s a distinctly European flavor to Otaru. Signs in the southwest Hokkaido port city are written in Japanese, English and Russian, while its once prosperous herring industry has been replaced by Portuguese-style glassmaking ateliers. Another popular Otaru product is Swiss- and Dutch-influenced orgel musical boxes, crafted in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Centuries-old Reinheitsgebot recipes produce Dunkel (this picture), Pilsner and Weiss plus an Octoberfest beer and rauch (smoked) varieties.

Centuries-old Reinheitsgebot recipes produce Dunkel (this picture), Pilsner and Weiss plus an Octoberfest beer and rauch (smoked) varieties.

Otaru promotes itself as the “Venice of the East,” a claim presumably justified by its picturesque canal lined with Victorian-style streetlamps and the city’s trademark stone warehouses built in the early 20th century when Otaru was the hub of Japan’s grain trade with Russia and Europe. It is inside the first of those warehouses that Otaru’s European taste can be found. Soko No. 1 is home to Otaru Beer, a German-style brauhaus straight out of Bavaria.

At its helm is braumeister Johannes Braun, one of Otaru’s two German residents, who arrived in Japan in 1994 armed with a shipment of brewing machinery.

The most valued of these items for Braun have been given pride of place near the brewery entrance: a photo of his family’s brewery built in 1610 in Braunfels, a small village between Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, and a copy of the celebrated Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law).

“Our brewery is one of many in Germany that still abides by this law, which governs beer production and dates back almost 500 years,” says Braun, aged 43. “Here, too, I follow that law to the letter.”

Braun began helping out at his family’s brewery when he was aged 12 and followed the established apprenticeship path before studying to become a brewing engineer at prestigious Weihenstephaner — the world’s oldest brewery that also hosts Germany’s best-known university dedicated to the brewing business.

He subsequently worked for German beer makers Henninger and Lowenbrau before moving to Scotland to study whisky distilling at Edinburgh’s Herriott-Watt University.

Otaru Beer’s microbrewery beer hall is located in a historic fishing town’s old stone warehouse.

Otaru Beer’s microbrewery beer hall is located in a historic fishing town’s old stone warehouse.

After graduating he worked as an engineer-cum-troubleshooter for United Distillers, one of Scotland’s biggest whisky producers.

In 1994, he was headhunted by an Otaru-based businessman who wanted to open a brewery following the relaxation of laws regulating microbrewing in Japan. Although knowing nothing about Japanese culture or language, Braun seized the opportunity to capitalize on his brewing pedigree and finely honed engineering skills.

“Until then there was only four big makers offering two types of beer in Japan. So I thought this was a fantastic opportunity to bring in a wider variety to such a highly developed country.”

Utilizing centuries-old recipes formulated under the Reinheitsgebot, Braun began producing three regular ales — Dunkel, Pilsner and Weiss — and a number of seasonal ones, including an Octoberfest beer and rauch (smoked) varieties.

Success was immediate. Braun recalls having to alternate beers on offer and curtail opening hours during peak seasons. Even today, customers line up to taste the local brew, especially in the busy summer months.

The popularity of his products, along with a contract with restaurant chain Bikkuri Donkey for which Braun produces an exclusive organic ale, prompted his opening a second brewery in nearby Zenibako.

Ingredients are organic, with high-grade barley and hops from Germany and Otaru’s soft, pristine water.

The only other ingredient, yeast, is propagated by Braun and is why Otaru Beer’s draft and bottled ales are only available within a 100 km radius of Soko No. 1.

“My aim was to produce genuine German ale and, just like it’s made in Germany where people have to visit the brewery or nearby to drink it.”

Entrance to the microbrewery beer hall

Entrance to the microbrewery beer hall

“Our beer contains a lot of yeast, minerals and vitamins, meaning they are healthy, but have a short shelf life. Bigger breweries filter out the yeasts and the proteins and so the beer is longer lasting, but consequently much lighter.”

Braun believes that Japan’s major breweries have upped this filtering process in recent years, pushing customers toward so-called “third-category beers” made from soy and other ingredients that appeared on the market here in 2004.

Unlike malt-based beers, sales of these cheaper beverages have expanded as consumers tightened their purse strings amid the insipid economy.

In an attempt to corner a more discerning clientele and improve understanding of real ales, Braun also gives tours of the Otaru brewery. He also has formed a beer appreciation society that gathers at the brewery on a monthly basis.

“Most consumers in Japan see beer as little more than nodo-koshi — something to wash away the dust and clear the throat before moving on to something else,” said Braun.

“What’s important for microbreweries is not to expand to other areas, but to brew decent beer and create an atmosphere that will lure more customers and improve understanding of what real ale is about. By doing this, I believe we can change the beer culture here.”