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Brewed From Pure Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Asia: U.S. entrepreneurs raise glasses to microbeer boom underway in island nation.

August 15, 1996|MICHAEL STROH | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Stroh, based in Tokyo, is unrelated to the Stroh brewing family of Detroit

TOKYO — On a blazing-hot Sunday afternoon, a group of young Japanese men fidgets excitedly on the shaded patio outside the new Koedo Brewery, set among rice fields an hour outside Tokyo. It's their first trip to a microbrewery, and they can't wait to taste the beer.

Finally, it comes: the brewery's flagship Satsuma Imo lager, made from the region's legendary sweet potatoes. The men greedily snatch the cups, shout "Kampai!" and guzzle down the sweet and silty amber brew. The waitress looks on nervously. Well?

Some of the men smile. Others pucker ambiguously. One or two cock their heads sideways in a traditional gesture of disapproval and whisper, "Do you have any Kirin?"

Welcome to the Land of the Rising Suds. Recent changes in the nation's liquor law have uncapped the jibiru bumu, or microbrew boom, here. Newspapers and magazines are writing about it. Travel agencies are designing tasting trips. And ever so slowly, Japanese are starting to drink the new brews.

In the end, although opinions on the Satsuma Imo lager are mixed, all the tasters agree on one thing. "Isn't it great to have a choice?" beams 36-year-old Gocho Takashi, a hint of foam lingering on his upper lip, as he orders another round.

"Whether it's a boom, a fad or a trend, it's hard to say. But microbrews are on everyone's lips right now," says journalist Wayne Gabel, an American who is the beer critic for the English-language Mainichi Daily News.

Japan's Big Four brewers--Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory--still control about 96% of the market, but that grip is slowly loosening as imports, and now upstart microbrewers, begin to grow in popularity.

The microbrew phenomenon in Japan dates to April 1994. All it took was a decision by the government to reduce the minimum brewing requirement for a single brewery from about 528,000 gallons a year, which only the Big Four could handle, to about 16,000.

The niche is still small. But last year the Japanese guzzled 541 million cases of beer, making Japan the world's fourth-largest market, after the U.S., China and Germany. The growing number of Japanese beer drinkers pining for porter and wishing for weizen could provide a business opportunity for Americans to start selling their suds, equipment and know-how in Japan. Some crafty Californians are already paving the way.

Beer lovers Michael Khoo and Craig Tillman started MicroBeers International last year to import American microbrews to Japan. MBI's beer-of-the-month club offers subscribers two different six-packs of beer delivered fresh to their doorsteps, whether they live in downtown Tokyo or in a fishing village on a remote island. The service costs about $50 a month and so far has 700 subscribers. The pair also operate a mail-order beer store that carries a rotating selection of microbrews.

"If you were to line up a bottle of French wine and a bottle of California wine, nine times out of 10, Japanese will choose French wine because it's French wine and represents what they expect in a wine," Tillman says. "We want them to do the same thing with American microbeers."

Khoo and Tillman, both 28, came to Tokyo in 1991 after having been roommates at UC Santa Barbara. "When we first came, we had to figure out how to say 'microbrew' in Japanese because nobody knew how to say it," Tillman says.

They hit on the idea of importing microbrews one night while sipping a Sapporo after work and ruminating that whenever they had microbrews in Tokyo they were too expensive and rarely freshly produced.

Unlike mass-produced beers such as Budweiser, microbrews are usually unpasteurized and spoil easily. Keeping their beers fresh has been Khoo and Tillman's biggest challenge.

So far they've been successful. After a two-week boat ride from the U.S., the beers go straight into a refrigerated warehouse that Khoo and Tillman rent from a wine-importing company.

They have even hired their own customs handler so the beer gets ushered off the boat through the notoriously tricky Japanese customs and into their chilled warehouse as quickly as possible.

Although Tillman says he and Khoo have recently built up enough subscribers to make the business profitable, he adds, "It's still a labor of love."

In Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, 43-year-old Phred Kaufman is trying a different approach. Kaufman sells beers under his Ezo label; the name is the traditional Japanese word for Hokkaido. The beers, however, are brewed by the award-winning Rogue Ales microbrewery in Newport, Ore., and exported to Japan.

"I'm a beer missionary," says Kaufman, who, at 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds, appears more keg than missionary. "If I can turn on a few more Japanese to really good beer and they stick with it, I'll be happy."

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