Report from a brewery in the Japanese earthquake zone

If mass casualties, flooding and nuclear meltdown aren’t bad enough, Japan’s beer industry is in a shambles, too.

Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo breweries have all reported extensive damage to their plants in the weeks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Several breweries have closed, others have ceased beer-making operations to bottle water for survivors.

I’ve been trading emails with Toshiyuki Kiuchi, whose small brewery produces Hitachino Nest beers. “Our damage is not so serious,” he wrote, “but there are many small breweries that can not imagine the future.”

Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity.

Q. Can you describe what the earthquake felt like?

A. I was in office at that time. At first, it was a very low sound, like a woofer speaker… Normally an earthquake starts with a small vibration called a P wave , then a big vibration called an S wave. This time there was a long P wave and small S wave. But after a few minutes there came huge, big vibration.
I called everyone to move to the outside of the building. I moved to the garden, which is located close to the main gate of Kiuchi Brewery. This main gate is 100 years old. It’s historical and it’s also symbol of our brewery.
I saw this gate was moved 3 feet to the right side, and soon returned to the left, with a big sound. The gate’s roof remained at the right side, and it finally fell down.
The vibration continued for almost 10 minutes. My feeling is like a coffee cup [spinning] on playground equipment at an amusement park!

Q. Did the tsunami water reach your brewery?

A. Our brewery is located 20 minutes from the sea area, and tsunami water never reached here. But I visited the sea area 2 days after, and there were so many cars and ships on the small hill which was drained [flooded] by the tsunami.

Q. How bad was the damage?

A. We have 2 breweries. One is brewing sake and other is brewing beer.
At our sake brewery we had damage. Some sake tanks were damaged and almost 1,000 bottles of sake were broken. Also the roof of the building was broken.

At our beer brewery, there is small damage only. About 500 bottles were broken. We were brewing beer at that time, and we needed to abandon it because we do not have electricity and steam.

I guess our damage will be almost $125,000, and this is very small compared with other breweries in the sea area. One brewery located in the Miyagi area and owned by one of my relatives was drained everyone of its buildings, and some staff is missing.

At Kiushi, everyone is safe.

Q. Are there any updates on other breweries?

A. I heard 4 big tanks were broken at the Kirin Sendai brewery, and they had some serious damage.

Q. How soon will you be brewing again?

A. We’ve almost finished repairing the brewing equipment and we’re ready to start. But our electrical power is limited. And we are bottling water to supply everyone. The staff of our restaurant is cooking free food for people who lost their homes.


When repairs are complete, the big challenge for Kiuchi and other Japanese breweries will surely be radiation. Even if water supplies are not severely contaminated, the beer-makers may find it difficult to assure consumers that their products are safe.

Kiuchi has begun posting the results of testing for radioactivity in the brewery’s wells and tap water supply on his web site. The supplies, he reported, “seem to be safe at the moment.”


You can get a taste of Hitachino Nest beers and do a good deed at a fund-raiser for Japanese disaster relief at Monk’s Café (16th and Spruce Streets, Center City) on Monday, April 11. At 11:30 a.m., the restaurant will tap kegs of Hitachino White Ale, Real Ginger Brew and one of my favorites, Red Rice Ale and send 100 percent of the sales to Kiuchi for distribution in his community.


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