Asahi Beer Brewery
There is something about beer. Where would the world be without it? In fact it is often argued that beer production was one of the key incentives that persuaded human beings to cease a nomadic existence and grow grain crops. Beer didn't arrive in Japan until much later, but it didn't take long to catch on and gradually displace sake consumption.
Beer consumption in Japan is now massive, and enormous breweries such as the Asahi Brewing Co facility in Nagoya play a vital part in keeping the wheels of Japanese society running smoothly. Brewing is of course a form of manufacturing, something that people in Aichi Prefecture have never been shy of saying they are pretty good at.
The company was founded in Osaka in 1889 and the first Asahi beer was chugged in 1892, but the massive Nagoya brewery established in 1973 is more or less the epitome of dedication to making a perfect beer. Located near JR Shin-Moriyama station on the Chuo Line (about 10 minutes walk to the brewery gate) next to the Shonai River, this brewery quenches the thirst of many beer lovers in the Chubu region.
Touring the plant takes approximately 90 minutes guided by Asahi's public relations staff (usually rather attractive young women who you suspect don't drink much beer). We start with a display containing the ingredients.
To make good beer you first of all need good barley. You can usually pick these up and run a sample of the grains through your fingers. There are usually two types of barley used for making beer. For softer tasting, less astringent beer the preferred type is called "two row barley". The main reason why Asahi uses two row barley is because of the larger grain size, uniform size and shape of the kernels, thin husks and because two row barley has a large amount of starch and suitable proteins.
Because the quality of the barley is so important, Asahi has a pilot barley farm where a wide range of different types of barley can be grown under carefully monitored conditions. Food technologists and biotechnologists use the research to improve the plants, and the company carefully guards its progress by providing the seeds to contract growers (ie farmers who will see their crop to Asahi).
Also absolutely vital for good tasting beer is good quality water. It must be colorless, clear, odorless and be free from objectional taste. Sadly, the waters of the Shonaigawa is no longer of good quality, so the company has to bring in purified water from farther afield.
Last of all, hops. The hop plant is a vine (perenial) often referred to as the beer flower. This plant is fairly delicate the best hops come from those regions best suited for its cultivation such as the Hallertau region of Germany, Saaz in the Czech Republic etc. In Japan hops are usually sourced from Yamagata, Nagano and Iwate prefectures.
Only the unfertilized female flowers (cones) are used when making beer. These are the most important as they contain lupulin, the small sticky golden granules which form at the base of the cone that give beer its flavor and bitter taste. Hops help clarify the beer by causing excess proteins to precipitate out and inhibit the growth of bacteria (hence beer's popularity as a "safe" drinking source years ago) in the beer and maintain its quality. Lastly but importantly, hops promote foaming.
Afterall, there is nothing worse than a glass of beer without a head on it when freshly poured.
We then start moving through the brewery making our way past massive lauter tuns and wort coppers. Whats all this? In the Mash Copper, rice and corn starch are heated with small quantities of malt. The mixture moves to the Mash Tun, where malt is added to the hot water, and the starch converts to fermentable sugar.
After this the mash is filtered in the Lauter Tun, resulting in a sweet clear liquid known as wort. It is only after this that the hops are added to the mixture in the Wort Copper, where the wort is boiled to produce the aroma and bitter taste of beer.
The "not-yet-beer" then heads off to the wort cooler where it is cooled before it goes to the outdoor storage tanks. We can't see the wort cooler on the tour because at this stage we arrive at the quality control rooms, which according to David Fulvio have "more switches than a nuclear power plant". This is one of the most fascinating parts of the plant. You can watch the technicians testing the beer. I must confess that I've always wanted to work as a Quality Controller in a massive brewery, but judging by the lack of a party like atmosphere in the quality control rooms you can tell that the staff are very serious about what they do.
Outside the building there are an enormous number of enormous fermentation tanks. It is in these tanks that a tiny micro-organism (about 5 to 10 microns in diameter) yeast is added to initiate fermentation and transform the sugar in the wort into alcohol and CO2. Being perfectionists, the company uses different yeasts for different brands - the result of the efforts of its food technologists at work again that helped the company overtake Kirin to become Japan's largest brewer.
When the beer in the tanks is fully matured it is filtered before being canned, bottled or kegged. Canning is done by massive high speed rotary seamers that fill and cap the beers can at a rate of several hundred a minute. The steam that you see pouring out of the capping machines isn't from heat but from cold. While we can see the canning, unfortunately we are unable to seeing the bottling or keg lines during the tour.
Bottling is also done by seamers, however the bottles are inspected for clearness (absence of foreign bodies) and consistency of volume levels by the brewery workers as they watch the beer shoot past the inspection point on the bottling line (this task needs to be rotated between different staff every 20 minutes because it is mentally exhausting).
This is immediately followed by the "Laverne and Shirley" moment as we enter the packaging section. Even if you are not an industrial engineer, watching the massive conveyor belts, the control systems designed to build quality into the production process, the various robots and mechanically simple but superbly engineered production processes (if you also visit Toyota you will note many resemblances) will make you very thirsty. And this is very fortunate, because now that the tour has been completed, its time to sample the product.
Attached to the brewery is a small beer hall and a series of tasting rooms where the girls from the Asahi public relations team will do their best to encourage you to sample a range of beers (or other products including juice and sodas produced elsewhere by the same company). At this stage the propaganda tends to cease, though there is the inevitable gift shop.
The tour of course is one thing, but what I like best about Asahi Brewery is the annual "Customer Thanks Day". This is where the company thanks all of the distributers, small bar owners, wholesalers, restuarants, marketers, transport companies and Japanese language institutes that keep them in business. Usually held on a Sunday in the middle of May each year, a visit to the brewery on "Customer Thanks Day" will see thousands of people receive free beer, munch on festival foods, drink too much, sprawl on the lawns, sing and stumble across the grounds, and occasionally loose their footing and splash into the ornamental pond. Many bring their families for a picnic on the lawns.
All in all, its not a bad way to spend an afternoon. No invitation is required - Enjoy! Lets Beer!
How to get there
1) From Nagoya: Take the JR Chuo line from Nagoya Station to JR Shin-Moriyama. The tickets cost 650 yen one way and the journey takes about 15 minutes. Then walk to the brewery (its easy to find)
2) From Okazaki: Take the Kaisoku (Express) from JR Okazaki Station to JR Kanayama Station. Change to the JR Chuo Line and get off the train at JR Shin-Moriyama. As of writing, the tickets cost 650 yen one way and the journey takes about 40 minutes not including the train change at JR Kanayama Station.