First snow had yet to fall in Sapporo, but it was still bitterly cold, a fact that we definitely hadn’t missed when we’d gone looking for the Benson Bubbler in Odori Park the previous night. The bubblers are an iconic Portland feature, and one we decided to share with our sister city, Sapporo. Unfortunately, all my research on the bubbler yielded no results as to an exact location, and we’d wandered the park for a good two hours in the bitter cold with no luck. (We would have better luck later—have some GPS coordinates!: 43.0610733 N, 141.3539886 E). Although the sun was up now, it seemed hardly warmer as we walked from Naebo station to the Sapporo brewery.
Outside was the first of many interesting exhibits: a stack of sake barrels that had apparently been used to ferment the beer. They were written on with what appeared to be random characters, yet at the same time I sensed there was a method to the madness. We later learned from the museum information that the method was top-to-bottom, right-to-left writing, which Japan did regularly right up to the Meiji Period. Read properly, they said “Wheat and hops combine to make the alcohol called beer.”
We decided to tackle the museum before trying out the tasting room, so we bought our tickets and walked up and up into a huge open area with several exhibits, beautiful woodwork, and a giant copper fermenter in front of a stained glass window featuring wheat shining in the sun. The exhibits here were mostly history, both a short version of how Japan came to colonize Hokkaido, as well as a longer version of how William Smith Clark decided that he wanted to brew beer, and how Seibei Nakagawa carried on that legacy. There was much about his methods, his research, and his connection with Munich, Germany, but unfortunately not a lick was in English. Although I’d been able to manage for us through most of Japan, I met my match in these unfamiliar brewing terms. I stumbled through as best I could, but mostly just cursed about the myriad sentences that I was two or three words from translating, those words never, ever being in my dictionary.
As we wrapped around the history section, there was more on advertising and techniques, and Shannon came into his own here. He knew some of the tools from his own general-purpose knowledge of brewing techniques, and the ads explained themselves, often painted kimonoed women smiling directly at you, “Sapporo Beer” emblazoned large at the top or bottom in katakana, sometimes a closed bottle of beer near at hand, but not always. There was also a tiny diorama of people smaller than my pinky finger gathering wheat and hops, brewing beer, and throwing a party. Although we couldn’t glean an understanding of why this thing was here with the history, we were entranced and watched the tiny people go about their delicious, bubbly business for several minutes.
We walked downstairs past the giant fermenter and the beautiful stained glass, then on to a dark hallway that promised information about the secrets of Sapporo…which I of course couldn’t actually read. Something about America? It was infuriating to be so close to the information without being able to absorb it. We wound up walking quickly past, and instead walked into a small bar area absolutely plastered with Sapporo ads in order from oldest to newest, and real taps on the bar where apparently you can get special tasters of limited edition beers if you sign up. We hadn’t, and so couldn’t, but it was closed anyway. Besides, the ads were much more interesting here. Around the 1930s the women traded their kimono for pretty and practical silk blouses and the closed bottles for frothy pints. Among them were ads for Ebisu and Union, Sapporo’s subbrands, although at this period in history they weren’t as distinctly branded as we would expect today.
Starting in the 50s and 60s the ads became more abstract, then in the 80s and 90s they became practical. My favorite was a map done all in greys, a thick red line connecting Sapporo with Munich and Milwaukie, straight and flat. The copy was clear: there’s a magical connection that runs along the 45 North latitude line, connecting these three great beer-crafting cities. It struck me as strange and wonderful too, being as how Portland is on the 45th parallel! But we got no mention at all on the ad. Thanks for nothing, Sapporo! Only a sister (city) could be that cruel.
We finally arrived at the end of the museum portion and came into the part we’d all been waiting for: the tasting room! Although there were no tastes in the way that we’re accustomed to the in the States other than a tasting set, they did have Sapporo Classic, Sapporo Black, and Standard Sapporo on draft, as well as a signature soda and a few Ebisu options. We all got ourselves something to drink, Shannon opting for the full tasting set and me going for a Sapporo Black and sneaking tastes of Jason’s soda.
Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of most Japanese beer. I find them boring, flat, and unimaginative, which I believe marks me as an insufferable Portlander, a charge to which I am definitely guilty. That said, Sapporo Black is surprisingly good. Much like the Minoh beer back in Osaka, it wasn’t anything that blew my mind, not the sort of thing I’d pick up from the store over a tastier, localer brew, but definitely the kind of thing I’d buy to subversively get good beer past my dad’s lips without him complaining that it doesn’t taste “right.” It was a tiny bit bitter, but very smooth. Since it was on tap anyway, the brewery had made the excellent decision to put it on nitro, which gave a silky texture to that very smooth flavor to create an exceedingly sessionable stout.
Beers drunk, it was time for us to be getting on—we still needed to see whether it was feasible to ski at Sapporo Teinei, the famous skiing grounds used for the 1972 Winter Olympics. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. As I mentioned earlier, first snow had yet to fall, including on the mountains that ring the city. We had to wait until the next day for first snow, but by that time we were on our way to Hakodate…)