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Culture

Beer, Sauerkraut and Yakitori?

Competition is high on the beer market, both in Japan and Germany. In Japan, a German has opened a Bavarian brewery. In Berlin, a brewer has brought Japan to the beer table.

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German beer is a hit in Japan

When Japan deregulated its beer market in 1994, hundreds of small companies jumped in to compete with the big four ruling beer makers.

Now, almost a decade later, the number of breweries in Japan is falling. An ancient distribution system, controlled by the four still biggest companies, and lacklustre marketing are among the factors forcing the kettles to go dry at a large number of the micro-breweries.

In order to compete, many of the smaller firms hired European brewmasters, hoping with their help to make an impression on the market.

A hired hand from Europe

33-year-old German Christian Mitterbauer was one of the first of the imported brewmasters. The fourth generation Bavarian brewmaster arrived in Japan five years ago and is now the manager of the Kowedo Brewery.

The brewery showcases its beer in its Yokohama restaurant, which was built by German craftsmen using traditional decorations -- from wooden brew house benches to a cuckoo clock to a copper brewing kettle.

According to Mitterbauer, one of the major factors behind the failures on the Japanese beer market is the Japanese attitude that successful beer-making is merely a matter of technology transfer with initial training by European brewmasters.

"The mistake maybe they made was that sometimes they just hired them for three months, six months or a year," he said. "After that, they thought, we can do it ourselves".

Mitterbauer said maintaining quality is the greatest challenge -- one which led to an end to the first boom as the breweries’ reputations deteriorated.

Pig's knuckles and sauerkraut

Oliver Lemke was among the first German brewers to go to Japan. The diploma-holding brewery engineer first travelled there in 1996 with his brewer’s know-how in his suitcase. He stayed on for two years and built two breweries.

Along with each brewery, he built a large German kitchen, which fulfilled the German food stereotype by serving sauerkraut and pig's knuckles. "The Japanese are mad about it, " Lemke says.

After returning to Germany, Lemke opened his own small brewery in Berlin’s city centre. But Germany’s beer market has problems that are similar to Japan's: In the late '90s, Germans drank some 130 million litres (34 million gallons) of beer – only the Czechs drank more. The steady increase of beer consumption in Germany led to mass production, making it increasingly hard for small breweries to compete.

In Berlin alone, there used to be 400 small breweries. Today there are only eight. Lemke’s is one of them, but he, too, knows that survival is only possible with innovative ideas and quality. Lemke’s range of beer varies regularly, and each beer is carefully made and tested by the owner himself.

Breaking traditions

Back in Japan, Christian Mitterbauer personally delivers a complimentary glass of his special banana beer to a pair of unsuspecting Japanese housewives.

One of the reasons for his brewery's success, he says, is the willingness to break with German tradition. In addition to brewing respectable German varieties of beer, such as Weizen (a blonde beer) Pilsner, (pilsner) and Dinkel (German for spelt, a wheat grown mostly in Europe), the brewer has created a variety of other beers more suited to Japanese taste, such as apple beer, sweet potato beer and even banana beer.

These fruity and tangy beers are becoming a hit with Japan's heavy-spending young females, who are the country's - and to a great degree, Asia's - trendsetters.

Mitterbauer explains that such experimentation would not be possible in his native Germany, where the 500-year-old Brewing Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) limits brewers’ ingredients to natural grain, hops, yeast and water.

However, the Koedo Brewery has its own secret marketing weapon - its German Braumeister.

Mitterbauer has created his own signature masterpiece -- a pure malt beer with a light taste and a rich 5.7 per cent alcoholic content. Its name is a mouthful - the
"Mitterbauer Historic Braumeister Beer", but both Mitterbauer and the Koedo Brewery are hoping the German name will now make a lasting impression on the lips of millions of Japanese.

Marketing weaponry

In Berlin, Lemke also has a marketing weapon: What pig's trotters and sauerkraut are to the Japanese, Y akitori, the small meat and vegetable skewers sold on Japan’s streets, have become to the German brewer.

Lemke said he persuaded a street seller to reveal the recipe to him, which Lemke then took back with him to his home land. Today, guests at Lemke’s can sit in his beer garden and enjoy the view over Berlin, sipping a beer – and eating Japanese Yakitori.