Big, Bold, Gold And Old - - A Japanese Beer Story

Big, bold, gold and old--a Japanese beer storyTo some, it appears enticing, like the frothy head of a beer. To others, it resembles a “golden poop.” But one thing everyone has to agree on is that there’s a massive metallic-looking piece of art sitting atop a building in downtown Tokyo.

Unveiled in 1989, the famous landmark in Sumida Ward is called the Flamme d’Or (golden flame), and it sits atop Super Dry Hall, a facility that houses a beer hall where patrons can sample Asahi’s now-iconic Super Dry beer as well as other brews.

But to Kaoru Yokosuka and many of her neighbors in the Azumabashi district of Sumida Ward, the symbol of Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. is a reminder of when their neighborhood used to reek, not with the odor the golden shape might suggest, but with the scent of fermenting wheat and hops.

“It’s hard to say exactly what it smelled like, but it was something like potatoes simmering but much more potent,” says Yokusuka, 79. “The brewery also stood by the river, which was polluted and stunk. Whenever I passed by, I had to walk fast and cover my nose.”

Opened during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the sprawling brewery replaced a traditional Japanese garden and originally produced Sapporo-brand beer, which originated at a brewery completed in Sapporo in 1876.

Asahi, which was first called Osaka Beer, and Sapporo were competing brands until 1906. That year,

Osaka Breweries Ltd. and Sapporo Beer Company Ltd.

were merged with Japan Beer Brewery Ltd. to create a brewing giant called Dai Nippon Beer Company Ltd.

In 1949, the entity was broken up into two firms--Nippon Breweries Ltd., which later became Sapporo Breweries Ltd., and Asahi Breweries Ltd., which took control of the Azumabashi plant. Asahi Breweries was renamed as Asahi Group Holdings in 2011.

“It was dirty, cramped and wasn’t the kind of place that you wanted people to see,” says Yoshiaki Suzuki, 62, a historical archivist for Asahi Group Holdings, who once worked at the plant. “It took up lots of space, yet barely 10 trucks could fit inside before it was jammed. By today’s standards, it wasn’t a very efficient plant.”

However, it did, according to Suzuki, offer fresh beer on tap at three beer halls: Asahi Beer Hall--the forerunner to Super Dry Hall--located at the front of the plant and facing Azumabashi bridge; another at the back; and yet a third, set inside the plant as a place where workers could sample some of the fruits of their own labor.

Most of the workers, he says, were men who came from the provinces and lived in company housing nearby.

“I think they must have really enjoyed their product because you could often see them drinking as soon as they got off work,” recalls Yokosuka, whose house had a view of the brewery. Neighbors enjoyed a tipple, too, she adds, and it’s probably no coincidence that neighborhood association meetings were held inside the hall.

The drinking didn’t stop there, however. The brewery was generous and regularly distributed caseloads of beer at neighborhood festivals and local ceremonies, which earned the plant the appreciation--or tolerance at least--of its neighbors.

“At one time, there was so much beer at the festivals people would douse each other with it, like baseball players,” says Yokosuka. “That’s why if you ask people here what their favorite beer is, they’ll immediately answer ‘Asahi.’”

The merriment ground to a halt when Asahi Breweries, with its sales in a long fizzle, decided to sell off the brewery property to a public-housing developer and pull out of the neighborhood. The plant was shut in 1985 and then torn down.

But then Asahi announced it would buy back part of the land it sold and put up a new headquarters. It was in 1987--the same year that Asahi Super Dry first went on sale. It was a fizzier, lighter, stronger type of beer, and it became an immediate sensation, boosting the company’s profits.

In 1989, Asahi completed its new headquarters--a 22-story complex designed to look like a beer glass with a head of foam. It stands beside Super Dry Hall, which was designed by the French creator and architect Philippe Starck.

“We could see the object being built from our old headquarters in Kyobashi and were excited to see how it would turn out,” recalls Suzuki. The golden dollop, which is hollow, was constructed in sections like a submarine hull and was meant to stand straight up, says Suzuki.

Fire safety regulations, however, forced it to be built on its side. The artwork is intended to symbolize the burning heart of the beverage firm.

“I think I and many others had the same thought when we could finally make out what it was going to be,” Suzuki says. “It did look like a poop. But I have to add that it looked like a very healthy one.”