Communities growing own hops for beer with unique local flavor

Courtesy of craft beer club, Katano Orihime University
An up-close view of a hop plant

Beer gets its distinctive flavor from hops, and communities around Japan are putting their own local flavor into beer through projects to grow hops at the grassroots level.

In some places, there are even hopes of promoting the plant as a new local specialty.

An event called Takanawa Hop Fest was held in November near Takanawa Gateway Station on the JR Yamanote Line in Minato Ward, Tokyo. Organized by East Japan Railway Co. and others, the event featured beer made from hops grown at nine locations by companies and individuals in the neighborhood of the station.

Hops are cone-shaped flowers. Inside the flowers are yellow grains called lupulin, which are removed and added to beer during the brewing process to add a bitter flavor and aroma to the beverage.

Courtesy of craft beer club, Katano Orihime University
A Katano Orihime University event held in a hops field in Katano, Osaka Prefecture

Local residents cultivated hop seedlings in planters and harvested the flowers in August with the specific purpose of using them for the event.

Yuki Minami, who runs a nearby restaurant, is one of those local residents. He planted hop seedlings in April and harvested them in the summer.

“I watered them every day and took good care of them,” he said. “Drinking the beer gave me a real sense that I produced the hops,” he said with a smile.

The group harvested about 2.8 kilograms of hops last year, helping to produce 600 bottles, each containing 330 milliliters of beer featuring all “Takanawa hops.”

Courtesy of Jun Tanaka
A glass of beer with added hops

A JR East official said, “We would like to cultivate a new community through hops-driven exchange.”

In recent years, craft beers with unique flavors have become popular, and hops, which add depth to the taste of beer, are attracting attention. People are also increasingly becoming interested in growing their own hops.

A field next to the terminal at Nanki-Shirahama Airport in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, was used to plant hops. This year, together with local residents, Nanki-Shirahama Airport, Inc. — which operates the facility — plans to increase the cultivation of hops and use the plant to manufacture a homegrown brew at Nagisa Beer Co., a craft brewery in town.

“We hope that airport beer will become a specialty and boost the community,” said Shinichiro Okada, president of the airport company.

Related moves by local residents are also noticeable. In March last year, Katano Orihime University, a community college in Katano, Osaka Prefecture, began recruiting members for its “craft beer club” and rented fields totaling about 2,000 square meters in two locations for the cultivation of hops. About 60 participants planted seedlings in the fields and cleared weeds from the area, the college said.

Brewing of beer using hops harvested in the area took place in late November. The group, which also began growing barley, among other plants, plans to build a brewery.

Takeshi Kai, vice president of the college, deemed the event a success. “The club activity was well-received by the members, who said their participation in this [project] helped them make new friends. I hope the beer will become a local specialty,” Kai said.

Jun Kumahara of Osaka-based Toho Leo Co., which supports community building through the cultivation of hops, said growing the plant builds community spirit.

“Participation by a lot of people is necessary to cultivate hops for beer making. When people come together, various connections are formed,” Kumahara said. “With the activity spreading nationwide, the number of people interested in hops cultivation is likely to increase in the future.”

Cultivating hops at home

Growing hops can also be an at-home hobby. Yasuko Tanaka, a horticultural specialist, has been growing hops on her balcony for the past five years, forming a “green curtain” that acts as a protective shade.

She also experiments with the taste of hops by adding them to commercially available beer. Tanaka said the plant’s bitterness and aroma enhance the flavor.

“The addition makes me realize the flavor of beer does come from hops. And it is not difficult to grow hops,” Tanaka said.

The seedlings become available online or hit the shelves at hardware stores and other shops around March. A large planter is said to be best when cultivating hops, a perennial plant that can be grown over multiple years.