News and Tall Tales

William Copeland

January 10, 1834 - February 11, 1902

Church records in Tromoy, Norway note the baptism of Johan Bartinius Thoresen on 18 May, 1834. It is thought that his middle name got mistyped along the way, from Bartinius to Martinius; misspellings were quite common for decades.

Thoresen was a shoemaker’s son who started his career at the Arendal Brewery. Prior to 1864 Johan Martinius Thoresen travelled from Norway to America, where he became a citizen and changed his name to William Copeland.

In 1864 he headed West, and determined to go further then the others, did not settle down until he reached the Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun. When 30-year-old Johan Martinius Thoresen arrived in Japan in 1864, he found a country recently opened up to the West and desiring to catch up to the rest of the world technologically.

Thoresen settled in Yokohama, one of the very few cities where foreigners were allowed to live. In his first years in Japan, Thoresen worked in a dairy. In 1869-d in a dairy. In 1870 he discovered a spring and established The Spring Valley Brewery.

Though he started production at this very early stage, his brewery was not the first of its kind. One of his early competitors, Emile Wiegand, was already established. Thoresen’s competitors, however, had misunderstood the Japanese beer market and were producing beer the way foreigners were used to producing it. But Thoresen understood that the Japanese wanted a less bitter beer, one that was more palatable to Japanese tastes.

His business grew rapidly, fueled by equipment and raw material from California and the good water he had discovered in that Yokohama valley. In 1872, the Spring Valley Brewery was on the Bluff near Yamate.

After the 1880s, Japan’s economy became weaker and competition from new breweries made life difficult for Thoresen. His letters became more and more desperate as he pressured debtors for money and thanked creditors for their patience. But he could not make it. In 1884, he went bankrupt, and the brewery was taken over by the Japan Brewery Company. Four years later the brewery company combined with Meiji-ya to market Kirin Beer for the first time.

Tracking his steps

In 1872, Copeland went back to Norway and married 15-year-old Anne Kristine Olsen. They returned to Japan, but life was hard on the young woman and she died seven years later in 1879. In April 1880 Copeland had sent her belongings back to Norway by steamboat.

Ten years later William Copeland married again, in 1889, this time to Umeko Katsumata, a Japanese woman. He still experienced much difficulty economically, and the couple made a living by immigrating first to Hawaii and then to Guatemala and selling goods from Japan. But a certain amount of luck and the will to survive never left him. He continued to just scrape by before ultimately returning to Japan in 1901, where he died 11 February 1902.

He is buried in Gaijin Bochi - The Foreigner's Cemetery, Yokohama, Japan. His tombstone, provided by the Kirin Brewery Company, is inscribed: “Brewery pioneer in Japan and owner of Spring Valley Brewery Yokohama 1870 1884.”

North China Herald, February 12, 1880

The Spring Valley Brewery has been sold by public auction, under a decree of the U.S. Consular Court, to Mr. Copeland, one of the late proprietors, for $12,000.

London and China Telegraph, September 22, 1884

The following items of news are from the Japan Gazette of Aug. 16:

The property known as the Spring Valley Brewery was sold on July 29 by the U.S. Marshall by order of the U.S. Consular Court, and realized the sum of $11,500. The property is estimated to have cost the late proprietor over $60,000.

North China Herald, April 1, 1885

The Spring Valley Brewery on the Bluff, Yokohama, was destroyed by fire on teh night of the 13th ult. The plant and buildings were insured for $8,000 in the Lancashire and the City of London Insurance Companies.

(There is a memorial to the Norwegian-American adventurer on the original grounds of the brewery. The water spring that Copeland discovered is now a water fountain where children play.)

Spring Valley is now a beer restaurant inside Kirin Beer Village near Namamugi, a station on teh Keihin-Kyuko Line. At Spring Valley, there are 8 types of beer to choose from. Their traditional beer is also called Spring Valley, the same name that Copeland chose about 150 years ago. His contribution to Japan’s economy is honored on 11 February each year at his grave site. The grave is maintained by Kirin Brewery Company, which owes its biggest selling product to the vision of this unlikely immigrant.


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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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