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A look back at Okinawa's own "Beer of Beers"

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-08-20

Orion has been the beer of choice in Okinawa for the last four decades. Although market share has slightly decreased since the introduction of many cheaper domestic beers and foreign imports, it can still claim the title of being the "beer of beers" for most uchinanchu. Its name has become a hallmark for post-war Okinawan business, and its founder, Sosei Gushiken, has proven that persistence and dedication to quality is what counts when it comes to the taste of consumers.

The company first began in 1957 and introduced its first beer to the public in May of 1959. It was supported by the Government of the Ryukyu Islands and the U.S. Civil Administration, which helped to initially introduce Orion beer into the local market. Although total beer sales during that first year in 1959 amounted to a dismal 797 kiloliters, hard work mixed together with an intense sales campaign gradually achieved a loyal following among local beer drinkers. Researchers were able to develop a smooth tasting beer that suited Okinawa's hot and humid climate, and consumer demand began to increase year after year. In 1997 sales topped the 63,000 kiloliter mark, making the 40-year anniversary of Orion Breweries Ltd a true success story.

Orion's origins began in Nago - where the brewery still stands today. The location was chosen because of its proximity to clean and fresh water, which is a primary ingredient for any high-quality beer.

The brewing process begins with fine, imported malt from Germany and Australia, which is carefully boiled and made into a malt base. Later, imported hops from Hallertau, Germany and the Saaz area of the Czech Republic are added. Orion's cereal agents are rice, corn grits, and corn starch. A computer controlled system blends these main ingredients through a series of machines, before the fermentation process begins.

Fermentation occurs with the addition of yeast and takes place in two phases. The first stage lasts for seven days, while the second maturation period takes from 50 to 60 days. After filtration and quality control, the end result is Orion's renowned draft beer.

Over the years Orion has expanded its product line to include Orion Lager, Pils, Dry Draft, and Black Beer. Aroma Tone, which contains a lower percentage of malt, was released to compete with less expensive imports and cheaper mainland beers. Orion Draft, however, still holds its place as the favorite among islanders.

In order to meet one of the highest per capita beer consumption rates of all prefectures in Japan, the Orion plant brews approximately 45 kiloliters of beer eight times a day. It fills up to 200,000 bottles of beer daily, and its canning machine can fill 84,000 cans per hour.

Since its formation, Orion Breweries has employed thousands of workers, and has also supported countless jobs in the distribution sector. It sponsors many large events on the island, and has contributed to the development of the Okinawan economy. Amazingly, it has been able to continue as one of the most widely consumed local products on the market today.

If you are interested in visiting Orion Breweries, the Nago plant welcomes guests to their factory seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., where free tours are given every 30 minutes. Visitors can view the brewing process, and later enjoy a few glasses of Orion beer at the factory's Guest Hall. (Tours are conducted in Japanese only.)

Directions: To get to Orion Breweries head north on Highway 58 from Kadena. When you have entered Nago City, turn right at the next traffic signal after passing MacDonalds on your right. After you pass the Sane supermarket, continue going straight and the Beer Factory will be on your right.

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