《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》
The producers of distinctive alcoholic beverages help to support the stagnating Hokkaido economy during the Coronavirus pandemic and perhaps possess the presence to refresh the region. In this ‘New styles of delicious alcohol from the north’ series, we explore the strengths and unique techniques of Hokkaido-produced alcohol, and its links with food.
《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》Part 1： Aiming for worldwide recognition 4- The presence of distinctive beers
When the amber colored beer was poured into a glass, a citrus-like aroma of hops spread in a flash. The ‘Tap Room BEER KOTAN’ – a bar in Minami 2, Nishi 3, Chuo-ku, Sapporo that is directly operated by the microbrewery Hop Kotan Brewing in the town of Kamifurano in the Kamikawa subprefecture – offers a range of distinctive products made with Kamifurano-produced hops.
With an eye on the production of hops in Kamifurano, the company began brewing beer there in 2018, and set up a microbrewery in part of a disused beer restaurant. Kamifurano is the place of origin of ‘Sorachi Ace,’ a variety of hops developed by Sapporo Beer that spread throughout the United States.
Currently, contracted farmers in the region harvest varieties native to the United States, but are also developing their own varieties, and may soon be able to cultivate them. Citing the company’s goals, Hop Kotan Brewing’s CEO Tsutsumino Takayuki (45) says “It’s a long, hard road, but we would like to nurture varieties that help spread the name of Kamifurano throughout the whole of Japan and beyond.”
■Popular in the past
According to Sakamaki Kikuo (50), a Sapporo restaurant owner who is familiar with the situation regarding beer in Hokkaido, the 1994 amendment of the Liquor Tax Act reduced the minimum production of beer from 2,000 kiloliters to 60 kiloliters per year, resulting in the birth of local beers in all regions of the country. The pioneer in Hokkaido was Okhotsk Beer (Kitami), and in 1999 there were as many as 33 companies, but issues such as quality and prices resulted in a decline in demand and by 2013 the number of companies had halved to 16. Subsequently, distinctive products made by small-scale companies became known as ‘craft beer’ and now the number of companies has risen to 25.
Many manufacturers produce distinct regional products, such as SOC Brewing (Ebetsu), which produces the popular ‘Weizen,’ a mellow beer made using wheat produced in Ebetsu; and Abashiri Beer (Abashiri), known for its light blue ‘Ryuhyo Draft’ prepared using water from drift ice.
■Thorough re-examination of manufacturing methods
One product that is well known throughout Hokkaido and beyond is ‘Noboribetsu Craft Beer Onidensetsu,’ produced by the confectionery company Wakasaimo Honpo (Toyako, Iburi subprefecture) in the city of Noboribetsu. It began producing beer as a souvenir in 1998 but, as a result of ‘thoroughly re-examining the manufacturing method’ after a slump in demand from 2010, sales have grown to the extent that it is now shipped to 600 establishments nationwide. In a national contest of bitter-tasting ‘IPA’ held at a famous beer bar in Tokyo in March this year, Onidensetsu was ranked No. 1 by experts and visitors.
There have also been inquiries from Europe, the United States, China and the like but the company continues to turn them down. “The current flavor can be created because it’s additive-free and has not been heat-treated. Because of quality control, the current environment makes it difficult to export,” explains factory manager Shibata Yasuhiko (53). Priority is given to quality as the company continues to spread the name of Noboribetsu throughout Japan and beyond.
■A ray of hope
Meanwhile, Kamikawa Taisetsu Sake Brewery (Kamikawa town, Kamikawa subprefecture) is attracting attention in the shochu industry. After the local agricultural cooperative was no longer able to produce shochu using buckwheat, a specialty product of the town, the company will now produce it instead, at a small distillery established at its Ryokkyugura sake brewery. The product was scheduled to be released exclusively in the town in mid-May and the company’s chief brewer, Kawabata Shinji says “We want to enhance the appeal of buckwheat produced in the town, by means of shochu, and once the coronavirus has been brought under control, we hope to welcome the return of visitors from around the world.”
In FY2020, the occupancy rate of major hotels in Kamikawa – which relies on tourism as its main industry – fell below 20% due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the slump in the region’s economy is severe. According to the town’s mayor, Sato Yoshiharu (72), “The presence of alcohol that brightens up local specialty products is a ray of hope for the region and the people of the town.”