Kirin Brewery Company is Japan’s largest brewery and a member of the Mitsubishi group of companies (keiretsu). The forerunner to Kirin Beer was the Spring Valley Brewery founded in Yokohama in 1870 by William Copeland, a Norwegian-born American. The brewery originally produced beers designed to satisfy demand among foreign residents, but it later made efforts to produce beer more favorable to Japanese tastes.
After several shifts in management structure, Copeland ended up selling the brewery to a group of investors, and in 1885 the Japan Brewery was established. Three years later, in 1888, the company released a German-style lager under the Kirin brand, named after a mythical Asian animal that resembles a dragon. The popularity of this product grew so well that in 1907 the Japan Brewery was renamed the Kirin Brewery. The company continued to expand and introduced their Kirin Lemon soft drink in 1928.
The brewery’s operations were adversely impacted by World War II, but throughout the 1950s and 1960s the company was expanding into a variety of food- and beverage-related businesses, such as soft drink vending machine operations. In 1972, the Kirin-Seagram Co. was established to produce spirits, with this company later becoming Kirin Distillery.
In 1990, Kirin introduced Kirin Ichiban Shibori, a lager similar in flavor to the original Kirin Lager except that it was not pasteurized but rather microfiltered. This began a shift in flavor in both products, which were gradually made lighter and less bitter. Fans of the original Kirin Lager became increasingly displeased with the product, so Kirin launched Kirin Lager Classic in response. However, Ichiban Shibori has become the brewery’s main mass-marketed product. A dark version named Kirin Ichiban Shibori stout (although it is a lager) has been released recently, becoming a replacement for the venerable Kirin stout, an 8% alcohol by volume foreign export-style ale that had been brewed for nearly a century.
Currently, Kirin has a wide array of beer products, including several low-malt “happoshu” brews, and also handles such brands as Budweiser, Heineken, and Guinness in the Japanese market.