Suntory The Premium Malt’s is the third largest producer of commercial beer in Japan – after Asahi and Kirin, and followed by Sapporo – and is part of the huge Suntory conglomerate that also makes beloved Japanese whisky brands Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki, as well as a wide plethora of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks available worldwide.
And while it runs a number of breweries around Japan, the one in Choshi, Kyoto prefecture is possibly the most convenient one to get to (especially if you’re also planning to visit the Yamazaki Distillery nearby), accessible as it is from either Osaka or Kyoto.
Suntory first started making beer in 1963, when Suntory’s second president Keizo Saji – driven by a shokunin kishitsu (職人気質), or the spirit of craftsmanship – decided to challenge Japan’s beer market and opened its original brewery in Musashino that made Suntory Beer. But more importantly Keizo Saji held a loftier obsession and wanted Suntory to strive for a takumi (匠) spirit, a title given to Japan’s most honourable craftsmen who possess extraordinary skill, uncompromising passion and a deep respect for tradition.
That would result in The Premium Malt’s predecessor, Suntory Malt’s, which appeared in the Japanese market in 1986, an all-malt beer – inspired by the pilsners in the Czech Republic and Germany – in a market with beers that predominantly used some rice or corn in their production. That takumi spirit would not settle for less, and Suntory determined to use the best ingredients – 100% barley malt, along with top quality Czech Saaz and German Hallertau hops and natural water to enhance the purity of flavours.
As for water, the reason for Suntory The Premium Malt’s Chosi factory location is the same as Yamazaki distillery’s site mere kilometres away – access to some of the purest mineral-rich natural underground waters in Japan.
In 2012, however, the recipe was further tweaked and improved with the use of six-row diamond barley in addition to the original two-row barley malt, which Suntory claims to add a richer and fuller taste despite its lower yield. Suntory The Premium Malt’s brewers also uses a double decoction method, where the wort is boiled twice, rather than just once, to create a deep and rich flavour. If you find that Suntory The Premium Malt’s has a stronger aroma as compared to most other commercial beers, it’s because they also do late hopping, where a generous amount of fine aroma hops are added just before the end of the boil to impart an elegant, floral aroma. Interestingly, for a commercial beer Suntory The Premium Malt’s is not pasteurised – it undergoes several filtration processes to ensure all residues are removed and become crystal-clear.
“It has become increasingly difficult and more expensive to obtain good quality hops of sufficient quality in recent times,” Katsumi Oshita, brewmaster at The Suntory Premium Malt’s Choshi brewery (pictured below), shares when asked about the recent hop shortage due to burgeoning demand from breweries. “We’re very fortunate to have good contracts with hop farmers in the Czech Republic and Germany, but even then we try to make regular visits to ensure we obtain the best quality hops,” he adds.
You will learn all this throughout the tour at the Suntory’s Choshi location, and by the end you’re likely to rather thirsty from all that talk about beer. Thankfully as part of the free tour you’ll get a nice cold pint of Suntory The Premium Malt’s along with a small pack of snacks. You’ll also then be surprised with a taste of The Master’s Dream, essentially a highly charged version of the regular The Premium Malt’s.
The tour will answer many questions about Suntory’s approach to the making of The Premium Malt’s, all bar one: why the apostrophe in the name of the beer? If you do visit, do us a favour and ask someone.
* Thanks to Beam Suntory for helping arrange this visit.
Suntory The Premium Malt’s Choshi factory is located at 3-1-1 Choshi, Nagaokakyo 617-0844, Kyoto Prefecture. Free shuttle buses operate from the nearby Hankyu Nishi Tennozan station.