The village of Takayama sits in the heart of the Japanese Alps, a six-hour train journey from Tokyo. It was settled centuries before Christ, and it has long been known for its carpentry; many of Japan’s most famous temples are believed to have been built by craftsmen from Takayama. Today the town retains a historic feel; its quiet, winding, pristine streets are lined with striking wooden buildings, constructed in a traditional Japanese style, that house sake distilleries, restaurants and shops.
Most people come to Takayama to take in the architecture, to get away from Japan’s bigger cities, and to eat Hida beef, a rival of Kobe. I’d come looking for signs of Denver.
Takayama is the second-oldest of Denver’s ten official Sister Cities relationships; the municipalities formally twinned back in 1960. Because of that long legacy of friendship, Takayama has also became an economic partner in a pilot program run by the City of Denver and, as a result, the very first recipient of exports from Denver Beer Co.
“There’s been a national and international trend to use these relationships — which are permanent, longstanding and built on trust — to add a business or trade component,” explains Beth Hendrix, executive director of Denver Sister Cities International. “They started out as cultural exchanges, but that’s changing now. Cities are realizing the power behind these ties.”
The Takayama relationship, for instance, was helpful in securing a direct flight between Denver and Tokyo, and the partnership with Ulaan Baatar catalyzed a trilateral trade agreement between that city, Denver and the Navajo nation. In fact, Denver’s pairing with Ulaan Baatar, its newest Sister City, came about partially because of trade. “Wagner Equipment, a Denver-based company, is the largest supplier of construction equipment in Ulaan Baatar,” says Hendrix.
Denver's Sister Cities relationships have been far less controversial than a proposal for Boulder to name the Palestinean town of Nablus a Sister City. They've provided some economic benefits, too.
Recently, the Denver Office of Economic Development wanted to get more of the Mile High City’s companies to export, and so it launched a program in conjunction with graduate students at the University of Colorado Denver business school. “The export promotion program’s goal is to help companies that have never exported to become exporters,” explains Abdul Sesay, the OED’s international business development manager. “That increases jobs in the City and County of Denver, and Denver’s reputation grows abroad.”
The city’s efforts started with the craft-beer industry because “it’s an area in which Denver has significant experience,” Sesay says. The OED reached out to a handful of Denver breweries to gauge interest in participating in the pilot, settling on Denver Beer Co. CU Denver’s grad students analyzed a few different markets for a test run, and decided on Japan because of its growing interest in beer — and Denver’s Sister Cities relationship with Takayama. “When we realized we had a Sister City in Japan, we thought we could leverage that relationship to help promote Denver Beer Co.,” says Sesay. “It gave us an opportunity to expand the footprint in Japan.”
Denver Beer Co. owners Charlie Berger and Patrick Crawford joined Mayor Michael Hancock on his visit to Takayama in November 2015, and the duo brought along plenty of beer. “One of the most fun parts of this was pouring our beer for the mayor of Takyama and city council at one of these foreign dinners,” recalls Berger. “In Japan, dinners are formal for the first twenty to thirty minutes. Everyone does this toast.
Then everyone starts pouring sake and beer. It was a total hit. It was a life experience, for sure.”
Although Berger says that Denver Beer Co. isn’t yet exporting huge quantities to its first foreign market, the pilot was successful enough that the city will soon try again, this time focusing on the medical-devices industry...and sibling markets. “Any opportunity we have to use the relationships with our Sister Cities makes it a sustainable program,” Sesay explains. “We partner as best as possible, even though these relationships were not created with economic development as an objective.”
Back in Takayama, I was hoping to pop open a Denver Beer Co. beer — I was praying for a graham-cracker porter — but I had trouble finding anything made by the company. My first liquor-store stops were a bust, so I asked the staff at the brewery what spot might have some in stock. They pointed me to Center4 Hamburgers, a tiny joint especially famous for its $27 Hida beef hamburger, a draw for foreigners and Japanese alike. It also serves a fairly sizable collection of imported and local craft beer.
Inside the sliver of space, I was excited to see Denver Beer Co. stickers plastered to walls and a cold case — but there was no beer to be had. “I’m sorry, we’re out!” cried the owner. “But I love those guys!”
Giving up on my hunt, I decided to wander Takayama’s labyrinths and soak up Japanese history rather than Denver suds.
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A couple of hours before I was slated to board a train for Tokyo, I ducked into Kyoya, one of the city’s best restaurants, for some Hida beef alongside homemade pickles and tofu. The chef delivered our food, teaching us how to correctly grill the beef atop a magnolia leaf set above a sterno flame. As he finished, he asked where I was from.
“Denver,” I said.
“Denver!” he cried. “That’s our Sister City! We love Denver!”
I may not have found my porter, but I still got a taste of home.