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Kirin's heroic hop specialist helps brewer craft success

TOKYO   Atsushi Murakami, a 52-year-old researcher with Kirin Brewery has been recognized by a German trade association as one of the world's top experts on hops. "Dr." Murakami, as he is called, is one of only six technical advisers worldwide to the German hops research association. 

     At the Spring Valley Brewery in Daikanyama, Tokyo, a craft beer called Hoppy New Year Esashi No. 7 made its debut in January. Three weeks later, the first 600 servings had sold out. The beer's flowery aroma draws people into the brewery.

     The type of hops responsible for this fragrance? Esashi No. 7. The now-celebrated variety had a near-death experience: Nearly 20 years ago, Kirin decided to cancel its crop improvement plans and its entire crop, including the Esashi hops, were to be destroyed. 

The flowery aroma of craft beer draws people into the Spring Valley Brewery in Tokyo's Daikanyama district.

SECRET INGREDIENTS   Enter Murakami, who was working as a researcher at Kirin's research laboratory for beer brewing. Heartbroken by the fate of the discarded hops, he took 20 of the 800 or so plants that were to be destroyed and secretly stashed them away at Kirin's hop control center in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, in northern Japan. He pleaded with the director to cultivate the plants until some use could be found for them.

     Fast forward to the present, where Kirin has tied up with Yo-Ho Brewing in the town of Karuizawa, northwest of Tokyo, to enter the craft-beer market. The boom in microbrews has sparked demand for hops, a key ingredient in adding character to any beer. Murakami saw his chance, suggesting the Esashi variety whenever brewmasters asked for a hop that would offer a more interesting flavor note.

     Murakami employed some unusual techniques in creating the Ichiban Shibori Toretate Hop Beer, a sister product of Kirin's big Ichiban Shibori line. He froze the hops using liquefied natural gas, pulverized them and added them to the beer for aroma. Hops are typically dried at 60 C before they are added to beer to spice it up. Air drying makes the hops easier to handle by turning them into pellets, but the process also oxidizes them and robs them of much of their aroma. Freezing the hops with LNG guarantees freshness. In the 12 years since the product was introduced, Toretate Hop has consistently sold all 600,000 cases of its limited production run every autumn.

Kirin Brewery researcher Atsushi Murakami once maintained a secret cache of hops to save the variety from destruction.

FRUITS OF LABOR   Another beer, Grand Kirin, enjoys novelty status because it is only sold at convenience stores. Since it hit the market in 2012, Grand Kirin has set sales records every year. Its popularity has much to do with its edgy hop accent, but here, too, Murakami's proprietary Dip Hop process comes in handy. The key is delaying the addition of the hops until the sweet wort has sufficiently cooled. The lack of boiling reduces bitterness while keeping the aroma intact.

     In college, Murakami became obsessed with improving the soybean. The most memorable part of that work, he said, was the moment he created a new soybean crop through cross breeding.     

The bitter, aromatic flower of the hop plant (scientific name H. lupulus) is used to add foam and flavor to beer.

     Murakami joined Kirin after graduation, switching his focus from beans to hops, but his specialty, crop improvement, has not changed. He has developed about 1,000 varieties over the years by changing their growing conditions.

     The three decades he has spent working with hops have made Murakami perhaps the world's foremost expert on the aromatic plant. Every September he travels to Germany, where all of Europe's hop harvest goes. He selects about 100 varieties a day, purchasing only those of top quality. As for the varieties he rejects, Murakami briefs the middleman on why he turned them down that year. That helps growers come back the next year with a better crop.

     In the 1970s, Kirin dominated the beer market in Japan with its overwhelming brand appeal, boasting a 60% market share. That has dropped to about 30% in recent years, and Kirin has lost its earlier momentum. That has put new pressure on the brewer to come up with new products. "There's still a lot more for me to do here," said Murakami. 

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