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Seeking summer refreshment? Check out a brewery

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By Vicki L Beyer

Nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer's day than an ice cold beer...except perhaps a trip to the source: a brewery. Beer is one the oldest forms of alcohol known to humans. Yet Japan has only been producing its own beers since the 1870s. Most Japanese beers are in the German lager style containing usually around 5% alcohol by volume.

Beer was produced in Japan by foreign traders for their own purposes as early as the Tokugawa period, but it wasn't until the Meiji period that it was introduced to the Japanese public. The Meiji government sponsored the Sapporo Brewery—named for its city of production--in 1876. A small brewery begun by a Norwegian-American in Yokohama became Kirin in 1888, and Asahi and Suntory followed in Osaka to round out the four major beer brands still in production today. A few minor labels mustered competition over the years, including Yebisu, which began production in 1890 in the Tokyo suburb that was later to take its name (it is now part of the Sapporo line of beers). About 25 years ago, micro-breweries also burst onto the scene; Japan now hosts more than 200 micro-breweries.

The process of making beer starts with malting barley. Malting consists of causing the grains to sprout and then quickly drying them. This process facilitates releasing the sugars contained in the grains at the next stage of the process: mashing. This is when the barley is soaked in hot water to produce wort—basically barley juice. The wort is then boiled up with hops and any other flavor additives, strained and put into fermentation tanks, where yeast is added. Over the next several weeks, as the concoction is kept cold in the fermentation tanks, yeast converts the sugars in the wort into alcohol and bubbles (ie, lager-style beer).

It's easy to appreciate why Japanese so easily took to beer production. The key ingredient for good beer, like the key ingredient for good sake, is water. Japan has plenty of sweet-tasting water and knows well how to identify the best water to use for alcohol production. Interestingly, most Japanese breweries rely on imported hops and imported barley, which they malt themselves.

On a hot, sticky summer day when a cold beer seems just the ticket, why not head to a brewery to see a bit of the brewing process in action and taste a few samples. Most tours are conducted in Japanese, but English brochures and English signboards along the tour route make it easy enough to get the gist of the explanations.

Sapporo Beer

Sapporo Beer Museum, Sapporo – Located a 10-minute bus ride from Sapporo Station, this museum is housed in a 125-year-old red brick factory building, which lends an historic atmosphere to the experience. Learn about the origins of Sapporo Beer as part of the Meiji government's industrial development plan for Hokkaido. At the end of the tour, tastings and explanations of the Sapporo line of beers are available for an additional fee.

Hokkaido Brewery, Sapporo – In contrast to the historic approach of the in-city beer museum, the Hokkaido Brewery tour shows visitors the advanced technology of Sapporo's current brewing techniques and concludes with a free tasting. The brewery is located at Sapporo Beer Teien station on the JR Chitose line, about half an hour southeast of Sapporo; advance reservations are required. Phone 011-748-1876.

Kyushu Hita Brewery, Oita – Also known as Beer Forest Sapporo, this is the newest of Sapporo's breweries. Taking advantage of the fine water of north central Kyushu, the beers produced here are predominately distributed around Kyushu. Tours are free; reservations are required. Phone 0973-25-1100. Unfortunately, public transportation to this location is difficult. By car, the brewery is about 10 minutes from the Hita Interchange of the Oita Expressway. Of course, drivers will not be served any alcoholic beverage.

Museum of Yebisu Beer – Yebisu Garden Place, which sits on the former site of the Yebisu Brewery just a few minutes walk on the Ebisu Skywalk from Ebisu Station, honors its beer roots with the Museum of Yebisu Beer, a museum/restaurant in the lower level of the Sapporo Beer offices (Yebisu Beer is now produce by the Sapporo Group, which has its headquarters here). Visitors can take a self-guided tour through the displays on the history of Yebisu beer, or pay 500 yen for a guided tour (between 11 a.m. and 5:10 p.m.) that ends with a special tasting (including a limited edition beer). Among the interesting explanations provided by the guide are the origins of JR Ebisu station and why the theme from “The Third Man” is played at that station to warn that the train doors are closing.

Kirin Beer

Kirin Beer Village, Yokohama – Located less than 10 minutes' walk from Nama-mugi Station on the Keihin Kyuko line, Kirin Beer Village offers free tours that last about 40 minutes and conclude with 20 minutes of tasting (maximum three drinks). The tour features a couple of videos of the brewing process, in particular explaining what is so special about “ichiban shibori” (the first press). Visitors also get the chance to handle both hops and malt (and even to taste the latter!) as well as a taste of wort. The tour concludes with an explanation of the plant's environmental measures—they recycle 100% of their waste.

Kirin Beer Park, Nagoya – The free tour at Kirin Beer Park is similar to that at its Yokohama cousin, including up to three free glasses of beer at the end of the tour. Easiest access is via the free shuttle bus from the west exit of Biwajima Station. Reservations should be made at least two days in advance by phoning 052-408-2000.

Kirin Beer Park, Kobe – This free tour also focuses on the production of Kirin's “Ichiban Shibori” beer, and provides tasting of Ichiban Shibori and two other Kirin beers at the end of the tour. To get there, take the complimentary “Beer Bus” from Sanda Station. Reservations are required: 078-986-8001.

Asahi Beer

Asahi Brewery, Nagoya – A 10-minute walk from Shin-Moriyama Station on the JR Chuo line, this brewery offers an extensive tour demonstrating all aspects of production and a chance to observe the canning line, where cans a filled, sealed and boxed. A display on their recycling and environmental measures includes a view of their special plant air conditioning system, which uses no chloro-fluorocarbons. The tour concludes with tasting Asahi's classic Superdry, as well as its dark beer and one other. Reservations are recommended, but not absolutely required. Phone: 052-792-8966.

Asahi Brewery Hakata, Fukuoka – This is one of the few breweries that will arrange a tour in English on request. Conveniently located near Takeshita Station (one stop from Hakata on the Kagoshima Main Line), here you can learn the history of Asahi and observe various aspects of the production of Asahi Super Dry, including bottling or canning (depending on the day). Complimentary tasting follows the tour. Reservations are required: 092-431-2701.

Suntory

Suntory Brewery Musashino, Fuchu – Another brewery that offers English tours with prior arrangements, this brewery is a 5-minute walk from Fuchu Honmachi station on the Nambu Line in western Tokyo. Situated near the Tokyo Racecourse, consider combining your visit here with a day at the races. Phone: 042-360-9591.

This is not an exhaustive list of breweries offering tours, but there are enough here to keep thirsty and intrepid tourists busy for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Most tours are offered daily except Mondays (Tuesday when Monday is a public holiday) and over the New Year's period.

True beer aficionados may prefer to explore a micro-brewery. With more than 200 micro-breweries in operation in Japan, in theory this should be easy to do. Unfortunately, most micro-breweries operate on such a small scale that hosting regular tours is beyond their means. However, if you call ahead, speaking Japanese, some breweries will be happy to show you through their production facilities. And, of course, many micro-breweries have close affiliations with restaurants where you can relax and enjoy their beers.

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