Visiting Sapporo Beer Museum

by Eric Lim

Tourists visiting Japan have been increasing on a yearly basis. Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) in an earlier posting mentioned that approximately 2.7 million foreigners visited Japan in January 2019, an increase of 7.5% year on year. Come 2020, one can expect a record number of tourists to Japan as Tokyo will play host to the summer Olympics.

July is the start of summer time in Japan and they have a full line up of events around the country like the Kyoto Gion Festival held at the Gion area in Kyoto; the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival a.k.a Star Festival at Kanagawa Prefecture, outside Tokyo and Tenjin Festival in Osaka. There are also numerous Music Festivals, Fireworks Festivals and beer gardens. It is also time to hit the beaches and to go hiking.

Over in Hokkaido, the second largest island in Japan, tourists congregate at Furano City, situated in the central part of the island, to enjoy the scenic rolling hills of colourful flowers, especially the lavender flowers. Then off to Hokuryu, to see the Sunflower field before reaching the capital city of Sapporo. I have mentioned earlier of the coming summer Olympics in Tokyo, so it is fair for me to inform that Sapporo was the venue for the winter Olympics in 1972. My family of four visited these popular destinations plus a few more, during our recent holiday here in Hokkaido.

The popular attractions in Sapporo include Nijo Market (a seafood market), Tanukikoji Shopping Street (walk from Street 1 to Street 7; full of game arcades, F&B outlets, hotels, drug stores that open for 24 hours); Sapporo TV Tower (height of 147.2 metres / 483 ft) and Odori Park, which is right in the heart of the city and when we arrived here, it was the first day of Sapporo Odori Beer Garden Festival. It is dubbed as the nation’s largest beer garden as it stretches for a distance of 1 km and has a capacity to provide 13,000 seats! And talking about beer, I looked forward to visiting the Sapporo Beer Museum on day two of our stay in the city.

Sapporo Beer Museum (SBM) or Sapporo Biru Hakubutsukan is located at Sapporo Garden Park. Besides the museum, the park also encompasses several dining halls and restaurants, a shopping complex and an indoor practice field for the city’s baseball team. SBM was officially opened in July 1987 and was registered as one of the Hokkaido Heritage sites on October 22, 2004.

The history of brewing of beer in Japan began at a time when Japan was embarking on its modernisation journey. It was at the start of the Meiji Empire and Edo was renamed as Tokyo, which became Japan’s new capital. Japan opened its doors to Western cultures and customs. The Hokkaido Development Commission, Kaitakushi, initially wanted to build a new brewery facility in Tokyo in 1875 but the plan was shelved and instead moved to Sapporo. Two key personnel were given the credits for the move to Sapporo – 1) Seibei Nakagawa who was appointed as the Chief Engineer. He left Japan at a tender age of 17 and studied the brewing of beer in Germany. Upon his return to Japan and through a recommendation from a high ranking Government officer whom he met in Germany, he was appointed to the post. He made it known that ice was required for the fermentation and aging of beer. 2) Hisanari Murahashi was employed as the manager and he petitioned for the move to Sapporo where ice and snow were readily available. The petition was approved.

At the inauguration of Kaitakushi Beer Brewery. Beer barrels stacked up on the right.

A two-storey wooden brewery was completed within three months and it was to be the first brewery in Hokkaido. It was named Kaitakushi Beer Brewery and the year was 1876. At its inauguration, piles of beer barrels were stacked up in front of the brewery and the following words were written in white text “Ceremony : combining barley and hops yields a spirit called beer”. The replica beer barrels are now stacked next to SBM. This marked the start of Sapporo Beer and it went on sale in September 1877 in Tokyo. The Kaitakushi logo of the North Star was featured in the label and it became the logo of Sapporo Beer until today. The North Star symbol was also used on the Clock Tower and the former Hokkaido Government office building which the local called Akarenga which mean “red brick”, two landmarks in Sapporo. Today, the Sapporo Museum is housed in Akarenga.

In 1886, the brewery turned from state-owned to private enterprise when Kihachiro Okura took over and called it Okuragumi Sapporo Beer Brewery. Shortly after, it was transferred to two entrepreneurs namely Eiichi Shibuzawa and Soichiro Asano – Sapporo Beer Company (Sapporo Bakushu Kaisha) was established and later, it became known as Sapporo Breweries. From then on, the company started modernizing beer brewing and further boosted manufacturing capacity to deal with intense price wars between the major players: Nippon Beer, Japan Brewery Company (Kirin Beer) and Osaka Beer (Asahi Beer). In 1903, Sapporo Breweries made its foray into Tokyo and became the biggest brewery in Japan. In the month of May the same year, it acquired the Sapporo Sugar Company (Sapporo Seito Kaisha), a sugar mill and converted it into a plant for the malting of barley used in beer; it used the building until 1965. The current SBM is housed in this building.

Today, SBM is the one and only beer museum in Japan. Upon entry into the red brick building, visitors are greeted by a sign on how to approach the facility. For the Premium Tour, a Brand Communicator will guide your through in Japanese and the duration is about 50 minutes. The fee is Yen 500, inclusive of premium theater and special beer tasting at the end of the tour. We had no choice but to explore the museum on our own, on our own pace and of course, it’s free-of-charge but we have to buy our own beer at the end of the tour.

Both tour starts at the third floor. As we were walking down the slope, we could see a huge copper kettle for boiling beer wort which was still in use until 2003. The gallery is on the second floor. There are altogether 12 panels displaying the history of the beer industry in Japan. Information is in Japanese but they do provide translation sheets in Chinese, English and Korean, placed at the side of the panel. The panels are well placed and allows for plenty of walking space. As we approached the centre of the gallery, we could see an additional long panel on the left side, and this highlights the collection of advertisements and original posters of Sapporo Beer, used over the years. This panel also provides an opportunity for visitors to learn about the fashion and design that was popular in Japan during those days. A collection of advertisements and original posters are shown below.

We are then led to a staircase to the first floor, to the Star Hall. And there is no better way to end the tour than by tasting freshly brewed beer shipped directly from the brewery. For me, this part of the tour was definitely the highlight. Back home, l would call it “Happy Hour” but since we are in The Land of the Rising Sun, it’s “Kanpai time”. For a fee of Yen 800, we could get a 3-variety Beer Flight, consisting of Sapporo Draft Beer Black Label, Sapporo Classic and Sapporo Kaitakushi Brewery Pilsner. Meantime, for the Premium Tour, participant is given Sapporo Beer, brewed by strictly following the original recipe used way back in 1881. As in any good museums, there is a Museum Shop. Here, one could buy unique and original merchandise, also Kaitakushi Beer which is only available in Sapporo.

The Star Hall

It was a wonderful family trip and more so for yours truly as it was my first time visiting a beer museum and also my first time tasting fresh Japanese beer. It was a wonderful experience. How I wish to be drinking Sapporo Beer now, on a hot and hazy afternoon in Kajang.

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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