The ORION Brewing Company

Nago, Okinawa
Founded: 1957 by
Sosei Gushiken

The Orion Brewing Company began in 1957. The Japanese have been brewing beer since the early Edo Period, during the 17th century, when Dutch sailors first introduced beer to the island.

The name Orion was decided by a contest. A committee of judges narrowed it down to “Sun” and “Orion”.

Born in 1896 he dropped out of Shimajiri Agricultural College in 1918
and returned to Okinawa to join the Okinawa Prefectural Police Unit.
Prior to World War II he was the governor of Miyako.
In 1950 he started up a soy sauce factory

Orion Beer is the brainchild of Sosei Gushiken, a man who was deeply concerned for the general welfare of the Ryukyuan people. His philosophy was “one must break eggs in order to make omelets”. The title of his autobiography, translated, means “What the Hell!”.

The money, 50,000,000 “B” yen (at an exchange rate of 120 yen/$US) was his original start-up cost and was obtained entirely on Okinawa – no “outside” investors. He obtained the money from Ryukyu banks and from the Ryukyuan Development Loan Corporation (U.S. tax-payer money) and set up shop in Nago. Nago was selected because of its abundant clean fresh water.

His first bottling machine came from the U.S.A. and he got other implements such as a Brew Master from Germany and other equipment from Denmark.

As the first public corporation on Okinawa, Orion had in 1958 454 shareholders and employed 209 people working a 48-hour week. Through hard work and dedication Orion introduced its first beer to the public in May of 1959.

....... It was supported by the Government of the Ryukyu Islands and the U.S. Civil Administration, which helped to initially introduce Orion beer into the local market. Although total beer sales during that first year in 1959 amounted to a dismal 797 kiloliters, hard work mixed together with an intense sales campaign gradually achieved a loyal following among local beer drinkers.

Researchers were able to develop a smooth tasting beer that suited Okinawa's hot and humid climate, and consumer demand began to increase year after year.

The plant produced 180,000 units of 12-ounce bottles per day – or 5,000,000 gallons of beer per year! His enterprise set the pace for advertising and promotion – the naming contest, baseball caps, billboards, and spot ads on Radio Okinawa.

In 1997 sales topped the 63,000 kiloliter mark, making the 40-year anniversary of Orion Breweries Ltd a true success story.

The brewing process begins with fine, imported malt from Germany and Australia, which is carefully boiled and made into a malt base. Later, imported hops from Hallertau, Germany and the Saaz area of the Czech Republic are added. Orion's cereal agents are rice, corn grits, and corn starch. A computer controlled system blends these main ingredients through a series of machines, before the fermentation process begins.

Fermentation occurs with the addition of yeast and takes place in two phases. The first stage lasts for seven days, while the second maturation period takes from 50 to 60 days. After filtration and quality control, the end result is Orion's renowned draft beer.

Over the years Orion has expanded its product line to include Orion Lager, Pils, Dry Draft, and Black Beer. Aroma Tone, which contains a lower percentage of malt, was released to compete with less expensive imports and cheaper mainland beers. Orion Draft, however, still holds its place as the favorite among islanders.

In order to meet one of the highest per capita beer consumption rates of all prefectures in Japan, the Orion plant brews approximately 45 kiloliters of beer eight times a day. It fills up to 200,000 bottles of beer daily, and its canning machine can fill 84,000 cans per hour.

Since its formation, Orion Breweries has employed thousands of workers, and has also supported countless jobs in the distribution sector. It sponsors many large events on the island, and has contributed to the development of the Okinawan economy. Amazingly, it has been able to continue as one of the most widely consumed local products on the market today.

While Orion continues to do business and remains an entirely Okinawan enterprise it does distribute its beer to the rest of the world through the Asahi company. In return the Asahi beer is produced by the Orion brewery.

Okinawa: a Tiger by the Tail, M. D. Morris ©1968
Personal recollection from brewery tour, Geri Payne
Okinawa Air Force Guide
A look back at Okinawa's own "Beer of Beers", Kenny Ehman, Japan Update, 1999-08-20

posted: 9-19-2015 S. A. Mick McClary