Coedo’s beers are locally inspired, but internationally celebrated. Rising to such prominence as Coedo has cannot come on the merits of good recipes and able brewers alone. Beer, even if it is craft, is still a business that requires a certain amount of acumen and leadership for it to grow. Coedo owes much to its current CEO, Asagiri Shigeharu.

Asagiri is surprisingly young for his role, but his youthful energy and international perspective quickly make it clear Coedo’s success is no fluke. Asagiri is fluent in English and readily admits, “I’m a producer, not a brewer.” We’d also say he’s a good marketer. If he lacks anything, it’s a mature craft beer industry as in Europe and America. Thankfully, Coedo is helping build that by pushing their products into mainstream markets and public consciousness.

Coedo beer had a seemingly unlikely start in 1996. It was an agricultural company specializing in vegetable distribution. Explains Asagiri, “The connection between beer and agriculture is simple: ingredients. Wine is agriculture, isn’t it? We thought beer should be the same, using quality agricultural ingredients—our company handled them already.” One of those key ingredients was Kintoki, a sweet potato famous in Kawagoe.

During the Edo era, the sweet potato was especially vital to the region as a high-calorie vegetable. Asagiri notes that in these more modern times, they sometimes couldn’t sell vegetables that were too big or small. Inspired by shochu makers, they thought to make beer with the undesirable sweet potatoes.

Asagiri laughs, “When we started out, we didn’t even know if you could use sweet potato, but our company had an employee with a PhD in biotech and process engineering who said it was possible in theory. Yeast needs sugar and sweet potatoes have plenty of starch. We just had to add a certain enzyme.”

Because they were using sweet potatoes, the tax office made them get a happoshu license (alcoholic drinks with ‘additives’) rather than a beer license. They were also told to study more about beer culture and the business side of it. After those initial hurdles, they launched their first beer in 1996, a sweet potato lager that was a prototype very different from the Beniaka they make today.

Says Asagiri, “We went through a lot of trial and error with that beer. Should we bake the potato? Boil it? Grind it up? We finally found a recipe and process that worked.”

Business began growing rapidly in 1997 with the craft beer boom, and Coedo finally got its beer license. They hired a German brewer who, during his five year tenure, trained Coedo’s associate brewers in making true beer styles. Asagiri jokes, “Because of German beer purity tradition he couldn’t publicly say this, but he liked our Beniaka.”

The boom market was not to last, however, and Coedo began to drift. Asagiri admits, “We starting making cheap happoshu for ¥130 because of the economic downturn. That didn’t work out for us.”

Asagiri became vice-president in 2003 and, moving from another division, got his first look at the company’s beer business. “Until then, I didn’t know we were failing,” he says. “Our attitude and technique were fine, but our message and approach wasn’t. I decided to rebrand and started thinking about design and sales. I also said that we shouldn’t think of our beers as souvenirs. Permanence is important. In April of 2005, we relaunched Coedo with a new look, a new philosophy and new beers. We tried to create beers more suitable to Japanese palates. We started with the color for the names and used traditional Japanese colors. Our simple message was ‘beer beautiful.’ Six months later, we realized we had hit it. I said to our staff, ‘We are not ji-beer makers. We are craft beer makers.’ I wanted to wipe away the bad image of ji-beer and put craft into practice.”

Shortly thereafter, awards starting coming in. Coedo won the Monde Selection Grand Gold Award which was well known in Japan, ironically, because Suntory Premium Malts had won it and used it in their commercials. Then, in 2010, they won silver at the World Beer Cup for their Beniaka, behind Baird Brewing’s gold for Kabocha Ale. “We were very proud,” says Asagiri, “because we had proved, like Baird, you could use a local crop.”

Although Coedo will increasingly export bottles, their cans have allowed them to penetrate supermarkets in Japan and Asagiri states that they are still very much focused on developing the domestic market. “I want our beer to be a choice for you wherever you are. We’re looking at restaurants, cafes, any place that serves beer. I want the presence of craft beer in Japan to expand.” And who doesn’t want that? Cheers, Asagiri.

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This article was published in Japan Beer Times #9 (Winter 2012) and is among the limited content available online. Order your copy through our online shop or download the digital version from the iTunes store to access the full contents of this issue.