How the German Roots of Japan’s Sapporo Were Crucial to its American Success

Practically the entire globe has its hand in the beer industry, but few nations are rooted in the beverage like Germany — so much so, in fact, that it is even partly responsible for one of Japan’s most notable beverage brands: Sapporo.

A Japanese man, Seibei Nakagawa, started the nearly 150-year-old Sapporo but only after he spent several years in Germany learning the brewing craft. Nakagawa left Japan at 17, honing his brewing skills at Berlin Beer Brewing Company before moving back to Japan and becoming the first brewmaster at the Kaitakushi Brewery in 1876, which is where he first brewed Sapporo Lager. (In a way, this is similar to Masataka Taketsuru, who spent time in Scotland learning how to make whisky before eventually going on to found Nikka whisky. You can find out more on him here.)

Without that time spent in Germany, it’s arguable that we would not be drinking beers from the top Asian beer brand in America today. (If only we had known things like this when our parents gave us crap for wanting to do a study abroad program in college.)

From its German roots, Sapporo — and the wider Japanese beer culture — has not only grown, but flourished, especially in the last decades, according to Jiro Ohkawa, Sapporo USA’s director of marketing.

Sapporo’s bestseller is the pale lager Sapporo Premium, but Ohkawa said the brand has made strides to move beyond the perception of being a brewer of strictly pale lagers. The brewery released Sapporo Premium Black two years ago, which Ohkawa said truly showcased the brewery’s versatility.

Even casual beer drinkers and visitors to Japanese restaurants are likely familiar with the Sapporo can, which is much sturdier than most other beer cans. The angular, 22-ounce behemoth is meant to feel “weighty” in a drinker’s hand, like a draft beer. The silver can was released in 1984 and remains a staple in most Japanese restaurants.

Sapporo beer

Sapporo pays tribute to its extensive history in Japan and elsewhere at its original brewery. The Sapporo Beer Museum is Japan’s only beer-related museum and is registered as a Hokkaido Heritage site as well. Along with the history of the brand, museum-goers also can learn about the kaitakushi pioneers and the Dai Nippon Beer era, the movement for modern beer in Japan.

The museum also features the Star Hall, where visitors can sample freshly-brewed beers from the two Japanese Sapporo breweries, and the Sapporo Beer Garden, which features local culinary staples and beer.

The brand has seen good growth during the past several years, which has resulted in new breweries being built outside of Japan, including in Vietnam. Most of the Sapporo consumed in the U.S. is brewed at breweries in the U.S. and Canada, Ohkawa said, but the Japanese standards are never strayed from.

“Each and every brewer takes great pride, ensures premium quality and brews Sapporo under strict supervision around the world,” he explained. “Wherever Sapporo is brewed in the world, it will always reflect the mission and standards set in place when Sapporo first started brewing beer in Japan.”

Sapporo beer

Sapporo is one of the top 20 import beers in the U.S. and the top Asian beer brand, Ohkawa said. The brand recently launched a new video-based campaign, Return the Favor, to celebrate the and two-way cultural exchange of the Eastern and Western cultures.

“Fusion has always been at the core of Sapporo USA and the appreciation of Western culture remains true today,” he said. “We’ll continue to embrace cultural exchange and hope to move forward with a campaign that captivates the essence of our origins.

“We’re proud of the steps we’ve taken to become an authority of the category in America and look forward to seeing our enthusiastic Sapporo community grow stronger and wider every day.”

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