Craft Beer Connoisseur Knows His Suds

Kaufman wears some of the many awards Rogue, one of U.S. craft beers he introduced to Japan, has won over the years at various craft beer competitions.

Written by Eric Johnston for

Domestic and imported craft beers have found an ever-growing number of Japanese fans in recent years, and festivals in major cities and smaller towns have offered the public a chance to sample numerous ales, lagers and porters, as well as a variety of German beers and more exotic concoctions that contain everything from sweet potatoes to oranges and chocolate.

Attend a festival or drop by a craft beer restaurant and it’s likely the owner, as well as the punters, will know Phred Kaufman.

The Sapporo-based American is one of the founding fathers of the domestic jibiiru craft beer movement, but the Southern California native got his first taste of Japan well before he became a jibiiru sensei.

Kaufman first came to Japan in 1971 at age 18 to avoid the Vietnam War draft, like many Americans of his generation who decided to leave the United States.

“I just took off,” Kaufman said. “I didn’t know the difference between Japan, South Korea or China at the time. I landed at Haneda airport and ended up getting a job at an area paper box factory for Â¥1,000 a day.

“After a while, it started to get really humid. Japanese people told me that there was this place called Hokkaido that was cool and not as humid. So I hitchhiked up to Hokkaido and ended up in Sapporo,” he said.

Kaufman’s timing was perfect. It was the summer of 1971, and excitement was building over the Winter Olympics the city would host the following year. Tens of thousands of foreign guests were starting to arrive in Sapporo for the games, and Kaufman found himself inundated with requests to teach English.

He also had his first brush with the beer industry in Sapporo, working at a German beer hall. But as he had arrived in Japan on a six-month visa, Kaufman had to leave the country and was not in Sapporo when the Olympics actually took place.

But he didn’t forget the city, and by 1973 the draft had ended and he returned to the U.S. to continue his studies as a Japanese major at California State University, Los Angeles. The college had an exchange program with Waseda University in Tokyo, where he went to study in 1976.

Two years later, Kaufman’s brother — who also had gone to Sapporo — returned to the U.S. and Kaufman decided to move back to Hokkaido’s capital, where he opened a bar called Mugishutei in June 1980.

At the time, there were very few Westerners in Sapporo, and most were either English teachers, missionaries or diplomats. There also were no bars that really catered to the local expatriate community, and Mugishutei became Sapporo’s “gaijin bar” for foreign nationals in the city.

Kaufman also noticed that compared with Tokyo, people’s attitudes were more relaxed in Sapporo.

“For me, Hokkaido is like California. If you go to New England or the American South, people have been there a long time and have the same roots. But California was always a different mix of people from elsewhere, and Hokkaido is kind of the last frontier as well.

“People in Hokkaido are from all over Japan and are more free and relaxed than elsewhere. They’re also less fussy. Keep it simple, is their philosophy,” Kaufman said.

In the beginning, Mugishutei offered American brands such as Budweiser and Schlitz — which Kaufman described as “pretty horrible stuff” — and the shift toward craft beers was a gradual process.

“In the 1980s, I started to write for an American magazine called All About Beer. One of the columnists was Michael Jackson — the late craft beer expert, not the other one! I started to study and learn about beer, and we got to know each other. Whenever I went abroad, I’d pick up a craft beer I didn’t know and bring it back to my bar.

“I did not open Mugishutei because beer was my passion. Beer became my passion because I opened Mugishutei,” he said.

Today, Kaufman’s Ezo Beer business imports American craft beers from the West Coast as well as from France, Germany, Scotland and Belgium. Rogue, an Oregon-based craft brewery, has a particularly long-standing relationship with Kaufman and uses labels such as Red Fox and Brown Bear for its products, names that reflect Hokkaido’s heritage.

But while Kaufman is known among craft beer fanatics as the man who proved there was demand for foreign craft beers in Japan and paved the way for the domestic craft beer industry to take off in the mid-1990s, he is better known in Sapporo among those far too young to frequent his bar as Santa Claus.

For more than two decades, Kaufman has donned a red suit and visited orphanages in the Sapporo area to hand out toys. It began after he visited a local orphanage and handed the children different kinds of candy as presents. But when one of them looked disappointed that the gift was candy rather than toys, Kaufman decided that the following year would be different.

“After that first year, I really felt like ‘Ketchy (stingy) Claus.’ I went back to my bar and told customers to put Â¥100 in a donation jar whenever they bought a drink. We used the money to buy presents the following year.

“Volunteers helped buy the presents and we put each child’s name on a present and handed it out. I then started going to two orphanages, then three and then four, which meant presents for over 220 kids,” Kaufman said.

Another of his projects helped create scholarships at the Hokkaido International School for students from developing countries. The initiative began after Kaufman noticed the central government was paying stipends to encourage people from such nations to come to Japan to study or carry out research, but that the amount was not enough to cover the tuition for their children at the international school in Sapporo.

So Kaufman helped organize a number of different events, including concerts and beer and food festivals, to raise the money to pay for the tuition.

After last year’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Kaufman and his friends in Hokkaido and elsewhere appealed for donations to help disaster victims. The Rogue brewery sent $5,000 and the Hokkaido International Business Association, which Kaufman has long been involved with, also made a contribution, raising the combined amount to Â¥500,000. He also worked with others in the domestic craft beer industry to help raise funds for disaster relief efforts.

Kaufman also has donated beer or raised money for a number of other charities or causes, ranging from an animal rights group to paying for a patient’s bone marrow transplant.

More than four decades after first coming to Japan, Kaufman says the secret to success is to accept there is more than one way of doing things, but counseled that whatever approach you take, you must be fully committed to it.

“If you have a passion and bring your passion to Japan, you’ll find your path, whether you’re an English-language teacher, a tattoo artist or whatever. The other thing is, you need a sense of humor and can’t be thin-skinned,” he said.

“Finally, always remember that life’s too short to drink cheap beer.”

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