Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan, but you might not know it from the nation’s drinking scene. Now, three Japanese-Brazilian women are bringing their influence to the industry. Launched in 2014 by Yumi Shimada, Maíra Kimura, and Fernanda Ueno, craft brewery Japas Cervejaria combines the cofounders’ Brazilian and Japanese heritages through flavors, techniques, and designs that represent both cultures. Infused with ingredients like jasmine, matcha, and kumquat, Japas Cervejaria’s brews are now available in 10 markets across the United States. Here, the co-founders chat with VinePair about their inspiration, the Brazilian beer business, and why their company name is so important.
1. How did you each get started in the beer business?
Yumi Shimada: I have a background in design and marketing. But in 2012, I attended a beer sommelier program with my boyfriend, and I was hooked. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding about the beer marketplace in Brazil because craft beer was very new at the time, and I had so much to learn. After that program, I started designing labels for other brands and creating art for beer magazines.
Maíra Kimura: Beer has always been my go-to beverage, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I realized one could actually homebrew. After some research, I made my first homebrew batch and just fell in love with the entire process. In 2011, I went to England to learn how to brew professionally, took a technical course at Brewlab, and, in the same year, obtained a brewer certificate from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. After that, I went back to Brazil and started one of the first contract brands in the country, worked in distribution, and learned a lot about the market before we launched Japas in 2014.
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Fernanda Ueno: My dad instilled in me a passion for craft beer. He loved buying craft beer for parties and barbecues, and I would go with him to our hometown brewery to pick up kegs. I started studying food engineering because I was particularly interested in the production process, but I also loved learning about food science and brewing. During my studies, I started to hone in on fermentation, and that’s when I started to homebrew. In 2009, I got an internship at the same brewery that my dad would bring me to, became a certified beer sommelière, and in 2015 I did my Master Brewers Program at UC Davis/IBD. I worked at Cervejaria Colorado for about 10 years, one of the most awarded Brazilian craft breweries, where I started as an intern and left after a few years as the head brewer.
2. How did the three of you meet and decide to partner up?
Fernanda: In 2014, we were some of the few Japanese women in the Brazilian industry, and our similarities brought us together. We were always together at beer festivals and bars. One day, we decided we wanted to make a beer to honor our origins, so we chose four different Japanese ingredients to test, brewing a pale ale as the base beer [with] homebrewing equipment. When the beer was ready, we went to Yumi’s place to taste it, and everyone’s favorite was the version with wasabi. We posted on our social media, and we got invited to brew this recipe at Cervejaria Nacional, a brewpub in São Paulo, with a 700-liter batch. The release party was on a Monday and the brewpub was super full. The beer was sold out in two to three days and it was an absolute success. We were super happy with the result, and decided to take Japas to the next level by opening a company together.
Yumi: Actually, our latest news is that now we’re a team of four. We have a brand new business partner that we just officially announced, Tânia Matsuoka.
3. How did you meet Tânia?
Fernanda: Tânia was already friends with Yumi and they met when they both worked for advertising agencies. Tânia used to go to all [our] Japas events, and she invited us to organize an event together — Kurafuto, our Japanese-Brazilian fair — which has already had three editions and is a real success.
We recently went through a phase of re-thinking about Japas and what we want for our future, and decided to ask Tânia to join the team because she complements us so well. Myself, Maíra, and Yumi are very creative, but we felt that we needed more support to carry out the operations and accelerate our development in a strategic and tactical way in order to achieve our goals more efficiently.
4. Explain the significance around using the word ‘Japas’ for your company. How do you think it’s helped to bring awareness and redefine the word?
Yumi: In Brazil, “Japas” is slang that refers to those of Japanese descent, which should be used carefully to refer to someone, and only when the permission is clearly given. In harnessing the word and bringing it into the brand name, we are re-signifying and reappropriating “Japas” to showcase our pride, our origins, and mixed cultures, and translating that directly into our beer.
5. What hurdles have you come across crafting beer in Brazil, and how have you overcome them?
Maíra: The craft beer market in Brazil is still extremely small. The price of the final product on the shelf is very high in a stratified country where the majority of the population does not have access to this type of product. The production costs of artisanal beers are much higher compared to mass beers, which have a large presence in Brazil — not only in terms of sales volume, but also in terms of political strength and tax incentive facilities that are not extended to the smaller companies.
Fernanda: When we started working in the brewing industry in Brazil, it was still very rare to have women working as brewers and on the shop floor in general. Today, the reality is quite different, and we have many girls working as brewers and in all the different areas in the breweries: occupying leadership positions, growing, and gaining prominence in the market. We are still a huge minority, but we work so that the beer industry is increasingly filled by women and underrepresented groups.
6. You work with contract brewers. Can you explain how that process works? Why did you decide to do that instead of buying your own brewery?
Maíra: We work with contract brewing in Brazil and in the U.S. with different breweries. Basically, we brew our beers at a third-party brewery by paying for their services. There are several different contract brewing models, and we are exploring some of them. For us, it is very important to find breweries to brew our beers with the best quality, and also that we can have a very good follow-up routine on everything we have in process from brewing to packaging. Buying our own brewery was not yet an option because we would need a big investment, but also because it is easier for us to explore and test different markets by contract brewing.
Fernanda: It does bring us flexibility in our working routines — we all live in different places — making it possible to have our beers in different countries at a better price than exporting, which is more environmentally friendly.
7. How do your Japanese and Brazilian heritages influence your flavors?
Maíra: We like to combine Japanese ingredients and concepts in our recipes. We are passionate about gastronomy, and we really enjoy visiting restaurants and markets in our daily lives and during our travels, especially when in Japan. We take the opportunity to try the most diverse ingredients and combine them with the most different styles of beer. Sometimes, we create a beer inspired by a Japanese concept but won’t necessarily use the ingredients, adopting some Brazilian-Japanese concepts instead.
Yumi: It is very important because it became a discovery of the past for all of us. In our research of ingredients, we ended up learning about the history of immigrants that are directly linked to the farms where the Japanese came to work more than 100 years ago. They grew fruits, vegetables, plants, and flowers in the lands that were believed to be prosperous in Brazil, in the hope for a better future. Knowing all this, we begin to better understand about our ancestors, why we were born in Brazil, and how all this impacts who we are. We have better clarity about not only ingredients but habits, concepts, and traditions that we were never aware of, even though we were descendants. This deep dive into the past brings us — in addition to [knowledge] — pride in how our people fought and survived in a land so different from theirs. That’s why our mission is to keep this flame lit and show how this Japanese-Brazilian mix can impact and bring new creations to the public, uniting the past with the contemporaneity of the new generation.
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