The Kirin Beer Story

Kirin Beer, it seems, is doing everything right these days. Domestically, their products have always had visibility, especially with celebrities like Suzuki Ichirô gracing its commercials. But now Kirin is branching out from its more traditional offerings. As micro-brewing continues to take off in Japan—possibly threatening the market share of all major brewers—Kirin is actively catering to niche tastes with similar offerings. The company has released several premium beers, including a Belgian white. Their new stout (which replaced the Gargary Stout made in collaboration with Echigo Beer last year) is rivaling Guinness as one of the most readily available dark beers in Japan.

Overseas, Kirin has been no slouch either. Ichiban Shibori, Kirin’s mainstay beer, is being produced in the U.S. market by AB and in the U.K. by Wells and Young. The company has also worked out domestic distribution deals with Hoegaarden, Stella Artois and even Guinness, which previously had a contract with Sapporo. Most impressive, perhaps, has been Kirin’s acquisitions and tie-ups. It recently purchased San Miguel in the Philippines and, before that, Lion Nathan in Australia. No doubt we will hear of further expansion down the road as Kirin reaches into the Chinese market.

So by what glorious means came Kirin to such eminence? Like many great things, its origins are humble and involve an entrepreneur. In 1870, William Copeland, an American, established the Spring Valley Brewery in Yamate, Yokohama. He mainly imported his raw ingredients from San Francisco and brewed in barrels. Foreign management of the company continued as it expanded, and the Yamate brewery property inherited from Copeland by a resident proprietor was eventually established as the Japan Brewery. In 1888, they released Kirin lager beer and their fortunes took off. The official founding of the Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. came in 1907.

Little remains of that little brewery up on Yamate—just a preserved stone well. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed mostly everything. Kirin reestablished the brewery up the coast, in Tsurumi-ku, and today it is a sprawling complex with about a dozen like it across the country—the Fukuoka brewery, in fact, is three times as large! Even if you don’t care much for beer, a visit to one of the factories will likely be a fascinating experience.

The guided tour at the Kirin Yokohama Beer Village was state of the art, with video screens showing each step of the process in clear detail. Along many parts of the tour, you can of course watch some of the activity through large glass windows. At the end, you can do some tasting. The guides are knowledgeable—as they should be—but even beer geeks won’t be disappointed (I deliberately asked a few obscure questions). Perhaps the bottling, canning and “kegging” process was the most interesting. The contrast between the massive machinery and the precision of its tiny, intricate parts is hard to fathom, even when you see it. Perhaps we all forget that a good, mainstream beer is not simply the result of decades or even centuries of recipe refinement. Cutting edge manufacturing and robotic science, extensive laboratory research on ingredients such as yeast, and of course devoted barley and hops agriculture all contribute to the making of a good Kirin brew.

But what contributes to the making of a good company? As Kirin looks to capitalize on world markets, it hasn’t forgotten the world itself. Parts of the tour show Kirin’s commitment to the environment. While cynics may point out that there are very real economic incentives for going green, it seems obvious that the company is committed to the good cause. As some examples, Kirin is ambitious in reducing its carbon footprint. The water used in the Tsurumi plant is sourced locally, from nearby Sagami Lake, reducing the energy required to transport it. Kirin has surpassed its own goals and reduced its CO2 output by 26% since 1990. They are working toward further cuts. Nearly 100% of its returnable bottles are recycled. Innovative can design has reduced aluminum consumption by 26,000 tons each year. Some of the by-products of processing become animal feed. Yum.

Kirin is taking CSR (corporate social responsibility) very seriously. Their thick CSR handbook outlines a vast array of activities and commitments that enrich society, from sponsorship of sports and the arts to grants and scholarships. It is unlikely that Kirin will recoup the millions it is investing in community endeavors because thankful citizens will buy more beer. But that’s not the point. The point is a good company, a good beer, and you. Cheers to that.

Tours with English support are available. Call for tour reservations. Drink responsibly

Ry Beville, a craft-beer enthusiast, has visited breweries across Europe, America & Japan.









Ry Bevilleは地ビール大好き人間。おいしい地ビールを求めてヨーロッパやアメリカそして日本中を飲み歩いている。

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