Home Behind The Beer Prefecture Focus : History of Hokkaido

Prefecture Focus : History of Hokkaido

by BeerTengoku Writer
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Welcome to a new 47 part series that focuses on craft beer in each prefecture of Japan. In each installment, the aim is look at how craft beer came to be in that area of Japan, how it developed, and then look at some of the local breweries that a noteworthy. With over 600 breweries at the end of 2022, not every single brewery will be covered. Some will be known to people, some will be contentious, and some may be new to you.

Craft Beer in Hokkaido

In spite of Hokkaido being one of Japan’s most popular places to visit by foreign tourists, it is still quite low on most people’s itineraries. Extra flights, the distance from Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and also the number of places to visit in comparison to those three means that outside of winter, Hokkaido is often overlooked. And that’s a shame because it is an island of stunning natural beauty, wonderfully kind people, and fantastic food and drink.

A Brief History of Hokkaido

While Hokkaido is often seen as part of Japan, and one of the four main islands alongside Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, its history within Japan is much newer. The island’s early history is much troubled. The island’s original name was Ezochi and as more people moved to the settlement to avoid battles, disputes arose between the Japanese and the Ainu. OF course, these disputes came into conflict. There were numerous revolts by the Ainu against the feudal rule. The last large-scale resistance was Shakushain’s revolt in 1669–1672. 

With Russia in close proximity to the island, the Tokugawa shogunate realised there was a need to prepare northern defences against a possible Russian invasion and took over control of most of Ezochi. conflict between Russia and Japan caused Hokkaido to be annexed by Japan in 1869 during the Meiji restoration and was renamed Hokkaido.

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In 1947, Hokkaido became a fully fledged prefecture of Japan, though unlike most of the others, it’s not a ken but a so it should be called hokkai-dō. Since then, the Ainu have been almost totally assimilated into Japanese society; as a result, many Japanese of Ainu descent have no knowledge of their ancestry and culture.

Beer in Hokkaido

Hokkaido’s beer industry began in 1876, when the Japanese government opened the Kaitakushi Beer Brewery (now Sapporo Breweries) in Sapporo. This effort was led by Nakagawa Seibei, the first Japanese person to train in the beer kingdom of Germany.

The brewery’s first German-style beer was launched in Tokyo in September of the following year, under the name “Cold-brewed Sapporo Beer”. Sapporo Beer’s iconic star logo can be traced back to the ‘red star,’ which was the symbol of the early pioneering administration from the Japanese mainland.

In 1887, another company, the Nippon Beer Brewery Company, which was established in Tokyo, began producing Yebisu Beer. The competition between Sapporo and Nippon Beer, as well as competition with the Osaka (now Asahi) and Kirin breweries led to a 1906 merger of Sapporo, Nippon, and Osaka breweries into the Dai-Nippon Beer Company, Ltd. After 1949, Dai-Nippon was split into Nippon and Asahi breweries, with the Nippon Breweries resuming production of Sapporo beer in 1956 and renaming itself to the present name, Sapporo Breweries, in 1964.

Craft beer didn’t come to Hokkaido until much later, after the government lifted restrictions in 1994. In response, Kitami City’s Okhotsk Beer received a local beer production licence in December of the same year. The brewery applied for a licence from the National Tax Bureau on April 1st, the same day the law was revised. At the time, it was a competition between Echigo Beer, based in Niigata, and Okhotsk Beer as to which was the first craft beer brewery in Japan but since Echigo Beer started operations on February 16th of the same year, it has been replaced by Echigo Beer as Japan’s first commercially available local beer.

On January 25, 1995, Japan’s first local beer tasting event was held with three types: Pilsner, Ale, and Black, and on March 17, the restaurant attached to the brewery opened for business. Okhotsk Beer received their permanent licence in March 1998. After that, many beers were created in Hokkaido using local specialties as raw materials. In particular, Hokkaido has high-quality water resources that are essential for beer brewing, and at its peak in the late 1990s, up to 38 breweries were established, from Hakodate in the south to Asahikawa in the north and Kushiro in the east. It is. However, in the 2000s, there was a series of suspensions, closures, and licences being returned, and the number dropped to below 20.

Since 2010, the number of breweries has slowly been increasing, with the number of breweries standing steady at around 25 though at the time of writing, that number may increase as the number of brewpubs is increasing.

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