March 23, 2023
The Journey of Akatsuki Brewery
The organic beer brewery helping to revitalize the Tohoku region
For many in Japan, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami stands as a chronological marker – a sort of bookend to everything that happened prior, and jumping-off point for everything that’s happened since. The last 12 years have been a period of huge physical and philosophical change for Japan but, while the country continues to pick up the pieces, stories of that collaborative efforts made to restore the Tohoku region continue to emerge. One such story is that of Akatsuki brewery, an organic beer brewery that started as a way of lending a helping hand to the region and has since become a symbol of the region’s unique characteristics. We spoke with Izumi Okabe, CEO of Akatsuki Brewery, about how the company came about and everything that’s happened since.
From Brand Design to Craft Beer Design
Taikyokusha, led by CEO Izumi Okabe and headquartered in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, is the company behind Akatsuki Brewery. Founded in 1998 as a design company, their primary focus was planning and designing crafts, food products and branding for regional revitalization projects and Japanese-style inns. The company moved into craft beer production with a vision to create local communities around their beverages, inspired by the craft beer scenes in Europe and the United States. In September 2004, they opened barBAR Tokyo in Kurobe Yokocho, on the basement floor of Tokyo Station’s Yaesu North Exit. A beer bar serving Japanese craft beer and local food, it was the first Japanese craft beer bar ever to be opened near Tokyo Station, the heart of Japan. Their desire to promote regional craft beer from such a location eventually led to a desire to create organic beers that they themselves wanted to drink. In 2016, they established the first microbrewery in Kyodo, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, named “Akatsuki Brewery Tokyo Lab.” barBAR Tokyo closed in August 2021 due to the renovation of Kurobe Yokocho.
Natural Water, Geothermal Energy, Organic – The Birth of Akatsuki Brewery Hachimantai
The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 sparked the next phase of Akatsuki’s journey. Unable to stand idly by while witnessing the destruction on TV, they founded the non-profit organization Soul of Tohoku and headed to the region. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, they and chefs from across the country provided food for evacuees at shelters. Later, when temporary housing was built, they held cooking classes at community centers to help bring the community together and prevent social isolation. While continuing to work towards revitalization in Tohoku, they realized that a long-term, locally-focussed strategy was needed and decided to start their own business, one that was deeply rooted in the region.
“The damage in Iwate and Sanriku was more devastating than we had ever imagined, and despite our best efforts to support the region, it is difficult to create new value through words and design alone. I realized that the only way I could be of service to the community was by starting a business with a strong determination. The first thing that came to my mind was to create a beer that fully utilized the region’s unique characteristics. I decided to be of service to the region through this beer, and for that, we needed strong branding,” says Izumi Okabe.
Akatsuki Brewery’s vision is expressed by the phrase “brewed for people, from nature.” It’s a philosophy of people and nature collaborating to build a brighter future for future generations.
Hachimantai: The Search for the Perfect Water Source
When it comes to making beer, using natural water that is both appetizing and pure is key. Just as whiskey distillers are particular about their water sources, beer brewers should also pay close attention to the character of their water. With this in mind, Okabe set out to explore potential water sources in Iwate Prefecture. Eventually, he discovered the Kanazawa Shimizu spring in Hachimantai and was immediately drawn to its unique qualities. He then approached Hachimantai City Hall to inquire about the land where the spring flowed into a former fishing pond facility, with the goal of building a brewery there. The process was not without challenges, and it took two years from the initial discovery of the water to finally acquiring the land in 2019. They then renovated an old, disused building and in September 2020, they opened Akatsuki Brewery. Kanazawa Shimizu is one of seven spring heads that make up the Kanazawa Shimizu Spring Group, located throughout the Hachimantai Matsuo-Kanazawa area. It is rich in minerals and has been selected as one of the 100 best waters in Japan.
Making Beer with Natural Energy
Hachimantai was home to Japan’s first commercial geothermal power plants, and today, geothermal power generation continues to thrive in the area. Akatsuki Brewery benefits from this energy source, utilizing geothermal power for its brewing operations. By producing and consuming natural energy locally, the brewery is actively contributing to the formation of a sustainable society, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 – promoting the use of clean and affordable energy sources.
A Rare Organic Beer Brewery in Japan
Akatsuki Brewery stands out as a pioneer in the organic beer industry, being one of the few breweries dedicated solely to organic brewing. Okabe shares his inspiration for brewing organic beer, citing his experience with natural farming methods that forego the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Okabe believes that food production should prioritize the preservation of the natural environment, and that organic farming serves as a litmus test for sustainable agricultural practices. In December 2022, Akatsuki Brewery made history by becoming the first beer company in Japan to be granted JAS organic certification. The brewery has recently expanded its market to include overseas exports and is poised for continued growth in the organic beer industry.
Dragon Eye: A Beer that Embodies the Spirit of Hachimantai’s Landscape
Akatsuki Brewery’s flagship brand is Dragon Eye, named after a natural wonder in Hachimantai. The Kagami-numa lake atop the Hachimantai Mountain experiences a unique phenomenon every May to June, where the sun melts the snow surface, causing it to push up into a shape resembling a dragon’s eye. This rare sight serves as a point of pride for the region, and the brewery takes its name directly from this natural wonder. Akatsuki Brewery’s beer is known for its refreshing taste and lack of aftertaste, making it an ideal accompaniment to Japanese cuisine. The brewery’s use of natural water in its brewing process contributes to this refreshing flavor profile.
- Dragon Eye [Sky] Organic Pilsner: This versatile beer boasts a crisp and refreshing flavor that pairs well with traditional Japanese cuisine, such as sushi and sashimi.
- Dragon Eye [Magma] Organic IPL: This is the only beer in the Dragon Eye series with a hoppy bitterness. As a lager, the bitterness is sharp, making it a great pairing for dishes cooked with oil, like roasted meats and fried foods.
- Dragon Eye [Sun] Organic Golden Ale: The light sweetness and malted barley flavor of this beer give it a refreshing taste reminiscent of sunshine. It is an excellent complement to fish and vegetable dishes.
- Dragon Eye [Snow] Organic Pale Ale: Featuring a stunning aroma, this beer is perfectly suited for the silvery landscape of Hachimantai. Its moderate bitterness pairs well with dishes that incorporate herbs and spices, making it an ideal complement to a range of flavorful meals.
The Opening of Akatsuki Taps, Akatsuki Brewery’s flagship restaurant
In December 2018, Akatsuki Taps opened its flagship restaurant in Ginza, followed by a location in Shiba Daimon in May 2019, both of which faced challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These organic beer restaurants showcase the Dragon Eye brand and offer unique dining experiences. Akatsuki Taps Ginza centers around the concept of “Tohoku Roast,” highlighting carefully raised and fed livestock and deer, as well as organic roasted vegetables. The space is designed to resemble a mountain brewery, complete with ironwork tanks on the walls. Akatsuki Taps Shiba Daimon is themed around “beer cure,” focusing on dishes made with kelp, shiitake mushrooms, and Chinese herbal ingredients, as well as char-grilled Sanriku fish. Consistent with the medicinal herb concept, the menu emphasizes warming ingredients like chicken, pork, lean fish, yams, sesame, mushrooms, black beans, and burdock root, with beer classified as a cooling element to complement the food regimen.