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10 Things You Didn't Know About Sapporo Beer

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You probably already know that Sapporo is a Japanese brand*, but did you know that it's actually the oldest? Or that they once concocted a special brew with seeds descended from a batch sent into outer space? We rounded up the coolest facts about this legendary biru (Japanese for “beer”), so sip your next Sapporo with authority and awe.

Sapporo Space Beer
Courtesy of Sapporo

1. They brewed a batch of rocketeer beer with seeds… from the final frontier

In 2006, Sapporo teamed up with the Russian Academy of Sciences and Okayama University to grow barley with seeds that once resided in the International Space Station. The team launched a handful of seeds via rocket, and, upon their return five months later, grew barley with them, and then made a special batch “Space Brew.” A six-pack sold at lottery for 10,000 yen ($84). Far out.

Anime character
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2. When anime characters drink it, the spelling changes

When characters drink booze in Japanese cartoons (anime, magna, etc.), they usually reach for beer. And when the animators want to give a nod to Sapporo in particular (without infringing on copyright laws), the can will read “Soporo,” or something like it.

Sapporo Building
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr</a>

3. It’s Japan’s oldest beer brand

Following the discovery of hops growing wild in Hokkaido, Seibei Nakagawa, a German-trained braumeister (brew master), was the first to brew Sapporo at Kaitakushi Brewery, or Pioneers Brewery, in 1876.

Nakagawa Portrait
Courtesy of Sapporo

4. Seibei Nakagawa faced the possibility of execution

At the age of 16, Nakagawa worked as a servant in a German trading house in Japan. Once Nakagawa saved some money, he decided to smuggle himself to England in search of adventure. At that time, the Japan government imposed a strict isolationist policy on its citizens. Deadly strict. Had Nakagawa not successfully snuck out, he could easily have met his end for his efforts. Undaunted, Nakagawa made moves to England, where he toiled for seven years.

German Beer

5. Nakagawa went to Germany without knowing he’d become a brew guru

Nakagawa left England, tired and broke, for Bremerhaven, Germany. Once there, he befriended a young man called Shuzo Aoki, who was then a Japanese student studying abroad, but would later become a prominent Japanese foreign minister. Impressed by Nakagawa’s work ethic and sharp mind (he was now fluent in both German and English), Aoki took an interest in his future, and suggested he learn to brew beer. To that end, referred him to the Berlin Beer Brewing Company in Fuerstenwalde, Germany. For two years, Nakagawa worked there, and worked, and worked some more, and he returned to Japan a skilled braumeister.

<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Nick Ares/Flickr</a>

6. Sapporo is the most popular Asian beer sold in the US, and has been since 1986

Sapporo USA, Inc. was founded in 1984 and, two years later, became America’s choice beer from the Far East. For some perspective, ‘84 was the same year Sony and Phillips dropped the very first CD players. What’s a CD player? Exactly.

Fizzy beer
<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">N i c o l a/Flickr</a>

7. They tried to take down Big Ginger Ale with their own beer/soda 

Well, that’s not strictly true (but it’s fun). Here’s what happened, on the real: In response to a Japanese preference for low-to-no alcohol drinks, Sapporo released a malt-based soft drink called Super Clear, only available in Japan. Despite sounding like a comic book hero (you know, like with powers of transparency), Super Clear was a light and fizzy beer/soda hybrid. Initially launched in 2002 with an ABV of 0.5%, Sapporo has since revamped its formula, and Super Clear is now just a malt drink with 0% alcohol that was discontinued in 2011, and that nobody (stateside) has ever heard of.

<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Harvey Barrison/Flickr</a>

8. The word “Sapporo” actually means something in Ainu, an ancient language 

“Sapporo” is derived from the Ainu words Sat – Poro – Pet, which translates to “dry, great river.” Why would you describe a body of water as dry? Ah, yet another ancient mystery, which means the best answer, is probably aliens.

Sapporo bottles
Courtesy of Sapporo

9. That world famous Sapporo star means something, too

Unlike your friend Tessa’s Japanese character tattoo, the symbol on each of these Japanese beers is no mystery: it’s the North Star, a pioneer’s symbol for the pioneers of Japanese beer.

<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Luke Ma/Flickr</a>

10. Sapporo was (sort of) almost called Tokyo, but they needed too much ice 

When Sapporo was founded, Tokyo was the first choice for the brewery. This posed two problems: one, Tokyo has a subtropical climate, and two, ice back then was stupid expensive. Fortunately, Nakagawa convinced the powers-that-were to allow for the construction of his first brewery in Sapporo, which provided a chiller climate and a cooler name.

*Sapporo products sold in the U.S. are brewed in the U.S. and Canada