Sapporo Breweries’ new hit: blue jeans

TOKYO — Hit by the pandemic, a Japanese brewery has decided to get into the bluejean business.

It turns out that Hokkaido-based Sapporo Breweries had tailor-made raw materials capable of producing denim – malt lees, hop stalks and hop leaves, in other words, waste from the brewing process.

The brewery’s only problem was that it needed more waste to become what its customers now cherish.

“We never imagined that so many people would apply,” said Sapporo Breweries deputy manager Shinnosuke Araki. “The reaction was much greater than expected.”

Sapporo added 30 pairs of pants to its online store in April. Price: 41,800 yen ($310). The brewer received around 1,600 purchase requests.

Why so many requests for a pair of jeans made of material that is often fed to cattle? One answer is upcycling, a way to turn waste into value-added products.

Other Japanese breweries, farmers and specialty food makers who turned to upcycling after being hit by the pandemic are learning that efficiency isn’t the only benefit, that upcycling can also excite customers and strengthen brands.

Black Label Malt & Hops JEANS (Handmade) are produced with the malt lees of Sapporo’s Black Label beer. Sapporo has partnered with Shima Denim Works, a company based in Urazoe, Okinawa Prefecture, which makes clothes from bagasse, the leftover sugar cane after extracting the juice.

Hop lees, stems and leaves are first processed into washi Japanese-style paper, from which yarn is spun and woven into denim. The malt lees have been used for cattle feed, but Sapporo says this is the first time the byproduct has had a second life as pants.

Recycled denim is lightweight and breathable. Sapporo uses ingredients from its dark beer in an effort to attract them to the Black Label brand. “When customers experience one of our brands through a recycled product, that brand becomes part of their daily lives,” explained Aiko Saito, Marketing Representative of Black Label. As a result, “they will become even more fervent fans of the brand”.

Another brewer, meanwhile, recycles food waste into new beers.

Asahi Group Holdings’ new sustainability-focused unit, Asahi You.Us, has launched Sayama Green, a beer made from kebacha Tea stem bark from the famous tea-growing region of Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. Kebacha bark is steeped in cold water, which makes up 30% of the beer, giving the concoction a subtle tea flavor.

Kebacha stem bark gives Sayama Green beer a subtle tea aroma. (Photo courtesy of Asahi You.Us)

Asahi You.Us has partnered with local tea growers to recycle stem barks that are stripped during the tea-making process and mostly discarded or used as fertilizer. Nearly 1,000 tea growers and marketers once operated in Sayama, but there are only about 200 today, according to the company. Asahi said using the stem skin can help reduce food waste and reinvigorate local industry.

Upcycled beer products that emphasize ties to a particular region or community help breweries attract new fans. “We receive inquiries and proposals for new recycling projects from all over Japan,” said Asahi You.Us President Shifumi Takamori.

A fiscal 2017 tax system reform allows breweries to use fruits, spices, coffee, miso and other ingredients as ancillary additives. Products made with items not stipulated in the Liquor Tax Act may be sold as low malt beer as long as they do not exceed certain limits. That’s why small breweries in the countryside are upcycling.

The trend has also spread to food companies.

Sakaeya ​​Seipan, a bakery in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture, which will celebrate its centenary in 2023, counts local department stores and schools among its customers. He makes a lot of sandwiches – and cuts 400 kg of crust from those sandwiches every day. These scraps usually become livestock feed, but are now recycled into new beer, called upcycle.

Number Nine Brewery in Yokohama, Jokun Brewing Lab in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture, and Oriental Brewing in Kanazawa all use discarded crusts from the bakery to produce beer or low-malt beer. “Consumers want food products that have stories,” said Kenichi Yoshioka, the leader of Sakaeya ​​Seipan who hatched the upcycling project. “We thought we had to do something that wasn’t just tasty or appealing to the eye.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the baking industry. Demand for school meals plummeted and department store purchases briefly halted. Sakaeya ​​Seipan used to deliver five truckloads of bread in the Greater Tokyo area every day, then suddenly it was one truckload. Had the situation continued for another six months, Yoshioka said, the company should have considered bankruptcy. As Yoshioka instead began to consider options for business diversification, toast ale, a type of British beer made from bread, came to mind.

The new beer recycling was inspired by British-style Toast Ale and a hint of desperation. (Photo courtesy of Sakaeya ​​Seipan)

He approached breweries across Japan, three of which liked the idea. But Sakaeya ​​Seipan’s beer customers only use 10% of the amount of crust the bakery used to sell to livestock feed producers. As a result, Yoshioka is looking for additional beer partners.

The volume of food that Japan throws away is falling. The Consumer Agency reports that Japanese households and businesses wasted 5.22 million tons of food in fiscal year 2020, down 8% from fiscal year 2019 and the fifth consecutive year of decrease. In fiscal 2015, Japan wasted a record 64.6 million tons of food, or about 132 grams per person per day.

Food waste from retailers and restaurants amounted to 2.75 million tons in fiscal 2020, down 11% from the previous year. This was largely due to pandemic-related restrictions, with the restaurant industry accounting for two-thirds of the decline. Yet 53% of food waste was created by the corporate sector.

As companies strive harder to reduce food waste, upcycling can help. In the city of Tachiarai, Fukuoka Prefecture, strawberry picking was a major tourist attraction – until the pandemic.

Eventually, city authorities teamed up with craft beer maker Jouzo Beer Base in Ana, Tokushima Prefecture, and other parties in a bid to attract tourists. A Kirin Breweries plant in Fukuoka supplies malt from locally grown barley. They developed the Tachiarai Ale made from non-standard strawberries and corn. Beer is sold at local liquor stores.

Japan’s more than 5 million tons of food waste is a treasure trove, which promises a slew of new fans and enhanced brand power – if companies can come up with a recycling concept that resonates with the public.

Freeda S. Scott