Will a brew called Delco find a passionate following in Japan?
We'll find out in about a month, when a cargo ship scheduled to set sail Tuesday from the Port of Norfolk arrives in Tokyo carrying Aston-based 2SP Brewing Co.'s hometown lager and three of its other sudsy creations — 80 five-gallon kegs in total.
2SP will be among the first East Coast craft beers on the market in a country where sake — and, more recently, craft whiskeys — have long been the alcoholic beverage of choice. Until now, the U.S. craft beers that have been available in Japan have been from the West Coast, primarily a matter of proximity.
Just how a Philadelphia-area brewery came to be introducing its beer across the Pacific is an origin story featuring rugby, "a pretty rundown bar," and a friendship that began 10 years ago — eight years before 2SP sold its first cold one.
Bucks County native Michael Contreras (now director of sales and marketing and part-owner at 2SP) met Junnosuke Nakamura (now a beer distributor in Japan) at a rugby practice while they were students at Claremont Graduate University in California. On the field, they were a visual mismatch: Nakamura, 5 feet, 4 inches, 130 pounds; Contreras, 6 feet, 270 pounds. The language barrier between them was significant, too.
So Contreras, a cultural studies/philosophy major, suggested they bond over beer and introduced his rugby mate, a business major, to craft brews in a local bar.
"The thing that impressed us was Jun stayed all night," Contreras, 33, of Queen Village, recalled on a recent afternoon at the 2SP brewery. Nakamura, 42, who now lives outside Tokyo, was there, too, making final shipping arrangements for the maiden beer voyage to Japan.
The two shared a beer as they talked about the start of a relationship that would lead to a business deal so many years later.
At the time, craft beer was "a very, very rare find" in Japan, where beer largely was "versions of Budweiser" that all tasted alike, Nakamura said. His first sips of California crafts impressed him with their range of flavors and origins.
"It seems like each craft beer has some story," Nakamura said. "In Japan, we have a lot of beer, but we never thought about the history or background. It's a commodity. Never thought about the brewer producing the beer."
Working in the beer business was not the plan when Contreras, a Newtown native, first enrolled at Claremont — a Ph.D was. He said his mother suggested a beer-industry job when he told her his heart wasn't in continuing that far in academia. (Contreras had worked at Triumph Brewing Co. in New Hope before heading west.)
As he finished his master's degree program at Claremont, Contreras took a job for a year and a half at Rogue Ales Brewery in Portland, Ore., as a regional sales manager for Southern and Central California and Las Vegas. After working outside the beer industry for a couple of years, he returned in 2011 as the Delmarva regional sales manager for Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery.
Meanwhile, Michael Stiglitz was head chef and operating the Two Stones Pub in Newark, Del. Dogfish was Contreras' biggest account. Stiglitz and his Two Stones partner, Ben Muse, had long had a dream of having a brewery. They opened 2SP in an industrial park along Concord Road, selling their first beer in August 2015, a year after Contreras joined their company.
Since graduation, Contreras had kept in touch with Nakamura, who had returned to Japan with his wife and worked as a mergers-and-acquisitions consultant at Ernst & Young in Tokyo. About two years later, he went to work for a Swedish-based international education school specializing in language, EF Education First, serving as president of its Japanese operation for six years. Yearning to do his own thing, he started his own company, 5GoodImporting, in 2017. And now, he's making good on something he long promised Contreras — that he would import his friend's beers if Contreras ever wound up owning a brewery.
With big beer firms such as Anheuser-Busch and Heineken buying smaller craft-brewing companies, Stiglitz, 2SP's majority owner, said one question in particular looms large: "How does a great craft brewery like ours get that shelf space when we're so small?"
He answered his own question: "We have to look for opportunity." The Tokyo deal, Stiglitz said, "gives us an opportunity to be showcased in another part of the world."
2SP's beer isn't making the journey alone. Also on the ship are 120 kegs from three other East Coast craft breweries that Nakamura has deals with: Captain Lawrence and Industrial Arts, both of New York, and Evolution, based in Maryland.
With shipping costs and taxes — Japan has some of the highest taxes for beer — a pint of Delco is likely to go for $9 or $10, said Nakamura. He estimates that the first shipment of 2SP and the other crafts will last just two months — he has 20 restaurants, bars, and bottle shops eagerly awaiting delivery.
"We have a lot of New York-style restaurants in Tokyo," Nakamura said. "They don't have any craft beers from the East Coast."
How does he plan to explain what Delco means?
"The working-class people," Nakamura said.
Offered Contreras: "It's like Osaka. That Osaka attitude."
And then they took another swig of beer.