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Orion beer quenches Okinawa thirst

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-07-22

There’s only one full-size Okinawan brewery, and Orion Breweries churns out 72 million liters of fresh beer each year to please the palates of Okinawan beer drinkers.

Orion’s five beers, plus a non-alcoholic beer as well, are brewed in a modern, computer-controlled factory in the heart of northern Okinawa’s Nago City, where 200 employees diligently toil to create the fresh draft taste tens of thousands of beer lovers love. Another 100 Orion employees are involved in administration, sales and management, many at the company’s corporate headquarters in Urasoe City, but all are committed to the task of making the company’s Pilsner-type beers ‘The Beer of Beers’.

Mountain spring water—Orion’s water comes from springs beneath the mountain just behind the brewery—is one of the vital elements in the Okinawan-produced beer’s arsenal of ingredients and techniques that make it special. Virtually all beers are made from beer malt, hops and water, with the brewmasters applying their special expertise in varying those ingredients to produce each beer’s unique taste. Orion goes a step farther, choosing only the highest quality beer malt grown primarily in Germany, and selecting hops grown in the Czech Republic’s Saaz and Germany’s Hallertau region. Those hops are nurtured a step further, as they’re fully ripened during the controlled production process to bring out their full flavor.

Orion beer goes in one million bottles each year, but that is just the tip of it! Orion officials say that for each bottle of beer, the company produces three kegs of draft beer or six cans of an Orion product. To accomplish that, Orion bottles 19,200 bottles each hour, along with 72,000 cans of Orion and 720 kegs per hour. That’s a lot of taste going into Orion Draft, Southern Star, Orion Special, Mugi Shokunin malt beer, Orion Rich and Zero Life, the non-alcohol offering. In addition, Orion Brewery began producing Asahi Super Dry, after Asahi bought the company in 2002. Okinawans consume 90% of the Orion beers produced, with the other 10% being shipped to mainland Japan, Hawaii and other international destinations.

For those interested in doing more than simply drinking Orion beers, Orion Breweries offers tours at its Nago production facility. There, visitors can see the raw ingredients as they’re first fed into the mashing chambers, where malt is crushed and placed in a boiling pot where starches break down into sugars to create a wort. The wort is filtered, then transferred to a wort pan and the hops added. The fermentation process begins with addition of yeast, causing the sugar in the liquid to break down into alcohol and carbon dioxide over the course of several weeks. The newly brewed beer is kept at 32F/0C for several days as it matures to produce a balanced, smooth flavor.

Orion has a half-dozen beer storage towers that can hold more than 10 million liters. That’s a lot of beer! How much is in one tower? Well…if you drank one beer a day from a single tower, it would take you 1,500 years to consume it. As the beer matures, it’s put through a computer-controlled filtration machine that clarifies the transparent amber color of Orion Draft Beer. Once filtered, the beer’s off to bottling or canning machines, or into kegs, then readied for inspection and shipping. Orion beers are inspected one bottle at a time in a strict quality control process. After the inspection, the approved beers head into beer cases by an automatic caser, then sent to the trucks for shipment to market.

Founded in 1959, Orion Breweries prides itself on being a responsible, environmentally correct company. Recycling is a byword at Orion, with everything being allocated a second life after the beer’s been brewed. Hops, yeast, malt and grains mash are recycled as fertilizers or animal feed, while glass beer bottles are cleaned and sterilized and used an average of 20 times. Even the old, worn plastic beer cases are ground down and remolded into something else.

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