Sake may be Japan’s national drink, but locals left the rice wine behind long ago in favor of an ice-cold brew. Although Japanese beer consumption has been on the decline in the last few years—as modern tastes migrate to grape wines, whiskeys, and crafted cocktails—beer still accounts for more than half of the alcoholic beverages consumed in the country.
Beer’s dominance of the Japanese market begins with the island-nation’s oldest brand, Sapporo. Brewed in its namesake city since 1876, the popular lager’s label is emblazoned with the North Star as a symbol of its pioneering legacy—a legacy born from the adventurous spirit of its first brewmaster, Seibei Nakagawa.
Nakagawa was just 16 when he left the small town of Yoita on Honshu and smuggled away on a merchant ship set for England. The voyage was a perilous one, not simply because of the rough seas and conditions onboard. Japan was under a strict isolationist policy at the time known as sakoku, which seriously limited trade, most foreigners from entering, and nearly all Japanese citizens from leaving. The penalty was even more severe: death.
Undaunted, Nakagawa set off for the British isle, where he labored for nearly seven years before moving to Bremerhaven, a port city in northern Germany. There he met a Japanese student named Shuzo Aoki, who referred his fellow countryman to a brewing company outside Berlin so he could learn the art of beer-making. Nakagawa spent two years honing his craft, finally returning to Japan as an official braumeister. As fate would have it, this was right around the same time that hops were discovered growing in the wild on Hokkaido. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Hokkaido Development Commission hired Nakagawa to oversee construction of the Kaitakushi Brewery in what was then the small frontier town of Sapporo. There he perfected its famously crisp, refreshing beer; 10 years later, the company was renamed the Sapporo Brewery Factory, and its famous star would guide other Japanese brewers in their quest to convert the country’s sake drinkers. It also has convinced a fair number of American beer drinkers: Sapporo has ranked as the top-selling Asian beer in the US for more than 30 years.