Kirin Beer

Kirin Beer: Japanese beer with a Scandinavian twist

By Vinh T. Phung

Kirin Beer

When sipping on a Kirin, would you ever have thought that it was introduced to Japan by a Norwegian-American in the 1870s? There were many difficulties, but what he began remains...

In American bars, Kirin beer now epitomizes Japanese beer, but its roots can be found not in Asia, but in the enterprising spirit of a Norwegian immigrant.

Johan Martinius Thoresen - The challenge

When 30-year-old Johan Martinius Thoresen arrived in Japan in 1864, he found a country thirsting to catch up to the rest of the world technologically, and with a major appetite to learn from the West. The country had only recently been opened up to trade with the West by American gunboats. Its isolation had shielded it from the Western imperialism that ravaged other parts of the globe, but at the same time it meant Japan had missed out on industrial advances.

Thoresen settled in Yokohama, one of the very few cities where foreigners were allowed to live. In his first years in Japan, Thoresen worked in a dairy. In 1870 he discovered a spring and established The Spring Valley Brewery. Though he started production at this very early stage, his brewery was not the first of its kind. One of his early competitors, Emile Wiegand, was already established. Thoresen's competitors, however, had misunderstood the Japanese beer market and were producing beer the way foreigners were used to producing it. But Thoresen understood that the Japanese wanted a less bitter beer, one that was more palatable to Japanese tastes. With this vision, his product became an instant hit.

Kirin Beer is one of Japans big four brewers.
Kirin Beer is one of Japan's big four brewers

His business grew rapidly, fueled by equipment and raw material from California and the good water he had discovered in that Yokohama valley.

After the 1880s, Japan's economy became weaker and competition from new breweries made life difficult for Thoresen. His letters became more and more desperate as he pressured debtors for money and thanked creditors for their patience. But he could not make it. In 1884, he went bankrupt, and the brewery was taken over by the Japan Brewery Company. Four years later the brewery company combined with Meiji-ya to market Kirin Beer for the first time.

Tracking his steps

Kirin officials had long wondered who Thoresen really was. Together with Norwegian enthusiasts, they tracked his travels from Norway to America, where he became a citizen and changed his name to William Copeland. In 1864 he headed West, and determined to go further then the others, did not settle down until he reached the Land of the Rising Sun.

With the help of a local archivist, company officials found church records in Tromoy of the baptism of a Johan Bartinius Thoresen on 18 May 1834. It is thought that his middle name got mistyped along the way, from Bartinius to Martinius. He was a shoemaker's son who started his career at the Arendal Brewery--an experience that would prove more than handy later in life.

In 1872, Copeland went back to Norway and married 15-year-old Anne Kristine Olsen. They lived in Japan, but life was tough on the young woman and she died seven years later in 1879. In April 1880 Copeland had sent her belongings back to Norway by steamboat.

Ten years later William Copeland married again, in 1889, this time to a Japanese woman. He still experienced much difficulty economically, and the couple made a living by immigrating to Guatemala and selling goods from Japan. But a certain amount of luck and the will to survive never left him. He continued to just scrape by before ultimately returning to Japan in 1901, where he died 11 February 1902.

He is buried in the cemetery for foreigners in Yokohama. His tombstone, provided by the Kirin Brewery Company, is inscribed: Brewery pioneer in Japan and owner of Spring Valley Brewery Yokohama 18701884. There is a memorial to the Norwegian-American adventurer on the original grounds of the brewery. The water spring that Copeland discovered is now a water fountain where children play.

Sake: Water From Heaven: buy this book from Amazon.

His contribution to Japan's economy is honored on 11 February each year at his grave site. The grave is maintained by Kirin Brewery Company, which owes its biggest selling product to the vision of this unlikely immigrant.

Today's Kirin Beer

Today Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. has 15 breweries throughout Japan, but the company has also expanded into restaurants, food services, transportations, sports and recreation facilities, engineering, building management, business systems, pharmaceuticals and medicine. It actually has even played a role in the discovery of an anticancer drug and the development of a hormone in treatment of renal anemia.

This makes Kirin Brewery Co., Ltd. one of the world's biggest multi-business corporations in the world. Such products as Kirin Lemon, Oolong Tea or Tropicana Juice, are all evidence of Kirin Brewery's vastly expanded scope, its arsenal now including drinks such as tea, coffee, wine, spirits and soft drinks.

However belatedly, history has given Thoresen's original vision of his brew and his brewery in Japan a great thumbs up. Kirin now supplies Japan with a full 40 percent of the beer it consumes and what a consumer of beer Japan has become. In 2004 Japan was the world's 6th biggest beer consumer next to Russia and outdoing the U.K. and, perhaps most impressive of all, Kirin Lager is ranked as the fourth largest selling beer worldwide.

We can all drink to that!

Kirin Beer Factory, Nagoya

Where to drink beer in Japan

Restaurants Bars & Clubs in Japan
Restaurants Bars & Clubs in Tokyo
Restaurants Bars & Clubs in Osaka
Restaurants Bars & Clubs in Nagoya
Restaurants Bars & Clubs in Kyoto
Restaurants Bars & Clubs in Sapporo

Books on Japan & Japanese Culture