History of Kirin Beer.

It has been a bit of a drought on my blog page sorry to say.  Even though my junior high schools were shut down at the beginning of March due to the coronavirus, we have been very busy getting the business ready.  Also, those of you who have children know how hard it is to sit down an write when you have a 8 month old in the house.

Anyway, things are progressing well and we hope to open the shop mid May.  So if you are in Fukuoka please come down to Zasshonokuma station, say hello, have a haircut and a yummy Aussie style coffee.

On with the new blog.

Downing a good beer and quenching ones thirst is one of the pleasures of life I reckon.  I knew that beer was introduced into Japan around the beginning of the Meiji Period and I had read that it was basically German brewers that helped develop the Japanese beer industry.  This makes sense as Japanese beer has similar characteristics to many German style beer.

However, just recently I learned that it was a Norwegian-American in the 1870’s that was one of the first pioneers to bring beer brewing to Japan.  Anyway, I had to find out more.

Johan Martinius Thoresen.

30-year-old Johan Martinius Thoresen arrived in Japan in 1864 under the name of William Copeland right at the end of the Edo period, which was a volatile period.  Japan was on the brink of revolution with a major push to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu.  Recent foreign incursions had revealed the old Tokugawa regime weak and in tatters.  A new young breed of Japanese searched for a way for Japan to become unified under the Emperor, in an effort to catch up with the Europeans.  The country had only recently been opened to trade with the West by American gunboats. Its relative isolation for 250 odd years had shielded it from Western imperialism that ravaged other parts of the globe, but at the same time it meant Japan had missed out on industrial advances.

Anyway, Copeland settled in Yokohama, one of the very few cities where foreigners were permitted to live. In his first years in Japan, he worked in a dairy and then set himself up as a brewer in 1869, establishing the Spring Valley Brewery.  He chose a natural spring next to the Amanuma Pond below the Yamate foreign residential neighborhood, where he dug a 210-meter cave into the side of a hill and used its low fixed temperature to help the beer mature. After Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization, Copeland was quick to adopt the new technique in his factory.

One of his early competitors, Emile Wiegand, was already an established brewer, however, had misunderstood the Japanese beer market and were producing beer the way foreigners were used to producing it. But Copeland 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.  I am not quite sure how much Copeland and Wiegand worked together but I found some labels with both their names on them suggesting that they did actually produce some beer together.

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Copeland produced three varieties of beer: a lager beer, a Bavarian beer, and a Bavarian Bock beer. His beer was principally sold in casks to local Yokohama taverns with a small amount of bottled beer being made available to foreign residents in Yokohama, and then was shipped to Tokyo and Nagasaki. He went back to Norway and married Anne Kristine Olsen in 1872. They returned to Japan but she became sick and died seven years later.

After the 1880’s, Japan’s economy became weaker and competition from new breweries, such as Asahi from Osaka and Sapporo from Hokkaido made life difficult for Copeland. 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.

Although Copeland showed talent as a beer brewer, he was a poor manager.  With the assistance of another famous foreigner, Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover, the Spring Valley Brewery was sold in early 1885 to a group of Japanese investors and renamed The Japan Brewery. German brewmaster Hermann Heckert was hired to oversee production. Glover was also instrumental in establishing a sales agency contract with Meidi-ya for the relaunched brewery, Kirin Beer, which was launched in May 1888.

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But who was Johan Martinius Thoresen?

Kirin management 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 joined the migration West, however he did not stop in California, and continued all the way to Japan.

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, which explains how he knew brewing techniques and his ambitious brewing plans in Japan.

In 1872, Copeland went back to Norway and married 15-year-old Anne Kristine Olsen. The couple moved to 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, Copeland married a Japanese woman, Umeko Katsumata, in 1889 and took trips to Hawaii and then Guatemala, trying to establish new businesses but chronic heart disease and arthritis, as well as financial difficulties, prevented him from doing so. Finally the couple came back to Yokohama in January 1902, and Copeland passed away the following month at the age of 68.

By the way, his wife Umeko was the second daughter of the proprietors of Ise-ya—a famous, long-established inn in Hakone’s Ashino-yu district. These days, Ise-ya is called Kakumei-kan and is still doing very well.

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 1870-1884. 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.

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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.

Another interesting story of foreigners in the history of Japan.




  1. This site looks wonderful. Looking forward to many happy reads. Thank you!


  2. Excellent article. I’m interested in reading more on the later mergers and developments of other beer companies, particularly Sapporo.


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