Orion: The National Beer of Okinawa

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I’ve attended only one professional wrestling card in my life, but what an event. A few years ago, Okinawa Professional Wrestling conducted its debut set of matches. Relying on physical comedy rather than traditional sports-entertainment hooks, the characters were quite goofy. For example, one “heel” was an extremely effeminate anthropomorphic pineapple whose key move was pinching the asses of his opponents.

Let’s just say that it wasn’t politically correct, or even good manners.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We get it; you lived in Japan. Now write about beer, Matto-san.

But in an odd way, the most funny-yet-uncomfortable wrestler was a guy named Menso-re Oyaji, who was basically a mainland Japanese person’s minstrel-show stereotype of an Okinawan. Acting drunk, wearing a shirt associated with the islands, sporting a mask that featured a stylized bowl of noodles and sipping a can of Orion beer, Menso-re Oyaji sauntered into a tag-team match after his partner slammed down the pineapple. He didn’t pin the prostrated foe or even play to the crowd, but he half-ran to his opponent, realized he still held his can of beer, scrambled to a neutral corner and gently placed his drink down on the mat, slammed the pineapple and then retrieved his can and resumed sipping his Orion.

(Another instance of Menso-re Oyaji performing with an Orion can be found here. )

Perhaps some of you who shop at Trader Joe’s or have eaten at the odd Japanese restaurant have come across Orion. While this won’t serve as a review of the brew, a basic light lager with a little extra flavor, I will give you a few facts.

“A few facts”? C’mon, this is The Beer Connoisseur. Tell us about mouthfeel and lacing and how you savored the drink for a full five minutes before deciding if the undertones you tasted were caramel, toffee or dulce de leche.

First, pronounce it “oh-ree-on,” not like the constellation.

Second, it hails from Okinawa, and that’s important, since the island group sits hundreds of miles south of the Japanese mainland. With their subtropical climate, Chinese-influenced culture and American presence from the U.S. military, the islands feel almost like a separate country than a part of the Tokyo-run country. Indeed, Okinawa existed as the semi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom for nearly 500 years.

Orion matches the region’s scorching summers and wet, England-like winters. The Okinawan diet utilizes a wide range of influences such as "goya champuru," which utilizes the bitter melons of Southeast Asia, tofu and canned meat such as Spam. Another oddity of the Ryukyuan cuisine comes from taco rice, which is basically a 1970s-style taco with rice substituted for the shell. And you may know of the “Okinawa Diet” – excuse me, the for-profit “Okinawa Diet”– that accepts major credit cards. Actual Okinawans are suckers for junk food, eating canned pork, ice cream, hitting A&W root beer stands and the like. The older islanders who lived through decades of famine and food shortages boast long life spans, but forget about their descendants – they’re too busy eating pizzas topped with mayonnaise.

Someone’s got food-related anger-management issues.

This food, a bit like soul food to the mainlanders, goes great with Orion. The beer cuts through those hot days spent snorkeling in the incredibly clear waters like a Carib on a night in Trinidad. While reviews in the U.S. match Orion with Americans’ versions of Japanese dishes such as sushi or Teppanyaki, try it instead with some spicier foods.

Finally, Orion holds a strong place in the Okinawan psyche. When the American military controlled the islands from the end of World War II until 1972, the brewery developed its own following, switching from a higher-grade brew to a more traditional lager. Once tax breaks intended to boost the islands’ industry expired, Orion sold 10 percent of its business to the Japanese giant Asahi. The transaction exchanged access in Okinawa for space on the mainland, giving Orion a cachet equivalent to that of the Rocky Mountains with Coors in the 1970s and the Mexican coast with Corona in the 1980s.

Heck, even Orion’s drinking song became a popular roots-music number:

Gee, Mr. Tour Guide, anything else to add?

Yes. Okinawa produces a few microbrews. If you ever take the 12-hour flight from the East Coast to Tokyo or Osaka, followed by the 150-minute flight south to the main island, check out Helios Brewery in Naha. It’s just a few blocks from Okinawa Professional Wrestling.

-- by Matt Gottlieb