When Fernanda Ueno, Maíra Kimura, and Yumi Shimada decided to launch a gypsy brewery, they could not have been more similar. All three are young Brazilian women of Japanese descent, and they each share a deep passion for beer.
“With so many things in common, our relationship was predestined,” Ueno jokes. She says the idea for the brewery came about by chance when she and a brewmaster friend—both of them part of Brazil’s Japanese diaspora, known as Nikkei—posted a photo together on Instagram. “Many people started tagging other Japanese descendants who also operated in the beer industry, and so we realized we could set up a team."
That apparent coincidence, however, is hardly coincidental in Brazil, a country that boasts the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Nevertheless, that first casual meeting birthed what would become Japas Cervejaria, which takes its name from the Brazilian slang term for a person from Japan.
In the beginning, there were five members of an informal group. At a brewing meetup, they made the first experimental Japas beer: a 5.5% ABV American pale ale with Japanese Sorachi Ace hops, with wasabi added during the fermentation process. They named it Wasabiru, and it turned out so well that they decided to introduce it to beer drinkers at a pop-up inside a brewpub owned by some friends in São Paulo.
The feedback was so positive that they realized there could be a bright future for Japas: It was time to go one step further, start a business, and get all the licenses needed to begin production. Of the original five, only Ueno, Kimura, and Shimada chose to remain to found Japas.
Lacking brewing facilities of their own, the trio now produces its beers at Dádiva, one of the most acclaimed breweries in São Paulo. Since the brand’s official launch in 2016, they have developed more than ten recipes, such as Gohan, an imperial porter made with rice, and Oichi, a witbier with ginger and orange zest.
They made the decision to produce in Dádiva because it already employs many women, from the brewery floor to administrative positions. "People think it is curious that we are three women making beer. But the fact that we are women should not be a distinction. There should be greater equality in the market, something we are luckily witnessing more and more,” Shimada says. “We are a small company, so we take care of shopping, the brewing process, sales, financial. We share so that we don't overload anyone, since we still keep our day jobs.”
Outside of Japas, Ueno is a brewmaster at Cervejaria Colorado, one of Brazil’s pioneering craft breweries, located in the city of Ribeirão Preto; Kimura is a brewer and partner at 2cabeças, a brewery based in Rio de Janeiro; and Shimada works in an advertising agency, in addition to creating labels for many breweries.
Although they all live in different cities, they remain connected through technology. “I think this is good, after all, so we have different references and experiences with different audiences,” says Shimada.
With a typically Japanese eye for detail, they take every step of the production process very seriously. "We will never create a beer or even a label that doesn’t have a good reason behind it. Everything we create has many studies, deep research,” says Shimada.
When the Japas team decided to create a beer celebrating 110 years of Japanese immigration to Brazil, for example, they named it after the first Japanese ship that docked in the country, the Kasatu Maru. In the course of their research process, they also discovered that immigrants introduced the dekopon citrus—a kind of Japanese mandarin orange—to Brazil, and that it has since adapted very well to the Brazilian climate, just as the immigrants themselves have. The beer, a New England IPA, is brewed with the fruit.
For the three partners, inspiration comes in different forms: from history to beer styles to ingredients. “I look at a lot of old East Asian references, always keeping an eye on what I can take from the ancient images to update them into something new, contemporary. We try to avoid stereotypes—geishas, dragons, etc. We are third-generation, so we understand that we have to bring a modern approach,” Shimada explains. “And three Japanese women making beer is something quite new.”
The beers are clearly a hit with Japanese Brazilians. “People come to talk to us, and they want to taste our creations. Our beers always run out very fast. And this is very gratifying for us—it means we are on the right path," Ueno says.
The search for products and producers of Japanese origin brings the Japas founders even closer to the immigrant community. "What helps in this process is that we are always in touch with suppliers of Japanese ingredients, who are most often descendants trying to keep these products alive in the memory of other members of the Japanese colony,” Ueno adds. In addition to that, Japas beers are now being distributed by a Brazilian importer of Japanese products that works with sushi bars, izakayas, and other Japanese restaurants.
While the Japanese community is a focus for the Japas founders, they also nod to their Brazilian identity. “As we are a mix of Japan and Brazil, we try to create our beers taking into account this Brazilian side as well, expanding the possibility of interpreting what beer is for us,” Kimura says. Kohi, for example, was a double New England IPA brewed in collaboration with Dádiva, made with Japanese dekopon and Brazilian coffee.
Now, Japas has its sights set on the American market. Earlier this month, the brewery participated in Boston’s Extreme Beer Fest, hosted by the Beer Advocate and Dogfish Head. There, the brewers featured two versions of a Russian imperial stout: one with a hiratake, a Japanese mushroom with a nutty aroma, and the other with kombu.
"We were the only brewery outside the United States invited to this festival, which is super exclusive. It was amazing, because in 2019 we are internationalizing the brand. We have already started to produce in a gypsy way in the United States, in New York State, at the facilities of Great South Bay [Brewery]. It is an important step for our brand,” Kimura says.
Beyond that, the trio is also looking for investors in order to open a brewpub with an izakaya atmosphere in São Paulo—a place where they can not only attract new customers, but also other Japas like themselves, continuing to celebrate their two cultures through the shared language of beer.