Craft Beer in Japan – Part 1
Konnichiwa Beer Bitches! This little piggie went to Japan and discovered that the craft beer scene over there is alive and well. I went for a break from the rough and tumble of the Big Smoke – the perfect opportunity to suss out what’s brewing in the land of the rising sun. This is the first part of what I found.
I remember when Kirin became popular on tap and all the lads would stand around and nod their heads approvingly over pints of this foreign and seriously overestimated beverage. This is an activity mirrored by salarymen all over Japan. The Japanese love their dry lager made by the giants of brewing – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. To get some sort of indicator of how big these companies are you just have to look at their offices. The Asahi building looks like a gigantic pint, complete with a frothy heady, gleaming in the sunshine on the Tokyo skyline. Just look at it, it’s ridiculous and amazing at the same time.
These brew mammoths cast a dark and oppressive shadow over the craft beer scene in Japan. Craft beer, or Ji Bīru (translates to ‘local beer’), is a fairly new phenomenon in Japan. Before 1994 you had to brew at least two million litres a year in order to get a licence. They’re not too keen on grassroot movements over there. When the law was relaxed they made sure to keep any sort of innovation to a minimum by capping the amount of beer allowed to be brewed by smaller breweries to a feeble 60.000 litres a year. With these kind of restrictions I can’t see craft beer brewing going mainstream in Japan any time soon. Despite this fascist regulation, and the fact that Japan hasn’t been brewing beer at all for very long (apart from the Dutch traders making a heroic attempt at it in the 17th century), there are now over 200 small independent breweries up and down the country. How they all started out is still a bit of a mystery, as it’s illegal to home brew any beer above 1% alcohol. Thankfully someone is breaking the law somewhere.
Talking about breaking the law. We landed at Narita airport early in the morning. I was tired and confused, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I had to have a chat with the border control constabulary. They just wanted to tell me that overstaying my visa last time I was here was illegal. They take these things seriously. They photocopied my travel itinerary for half an hour before turning me loose on their country, and their beer.
My hunt for a brew made by someone other than a giganto brand started in a department store. They do department stores well in Japan. Shop after shop, hosted by the most polite people you’ve ever met in your entire life, showcasing the shiniest, brightest and latest items necessary for any sort of real happiness. The basements of these chapels of consumerism are filled with the most delicious and spectacular food you can imagine. Want to buy some whale bacon? You got it. Fresh wasabi? No problem. Deep fridges full of the sexiest sushi you can imagine line the walls. It’s brain meltingly good. This is also where you’ll find the fancy booze department – where they keep the more delectable brews.
In the basement of Daimaru department store, right underneath Tokyo Station, I stumbled upon a shop that sold the good stuff. The first thing that struck me was the amount of craft beer available in cans. There’s something down to earth and nice about beer cans. I wish more breweries around these parts of the woods would stick their brews in cans. To my knowledge it’s only the Punk IPA from BrewDog that’s currently doing it here, along with some imported ones from the US. More cans please brewers. The other thing I noticed was that I didn’t recognise a single beer on offer. This made me feel both excited and anxious. In the end I settled for a stout by Echigo (one of many breweries claiming to be the first microbrewery in Japan), the Aooni IPA by Yaho Brewing and an amber by Oh! La! Ho Beer, a brewery with one of the best names I’ve heard in recent times.
Back at the hotel it was time to dive in and see if Ji Bīru was up to scratch. First up, the stout, 7% alcohol. Cracked open the can, a little sniff, nothing special, a small sip – Brutal Buddha! It tastes Japanese! This could only ever been made in Japan. It was light and dry, which was something I would come across several times on this journey, and with a hint of liquorice and soy sauce. Instantly I thought of Evil Twin’s ‘Even More Jesus’, but this was much lighter and quaffable. My second thought was “I need to get me some of this for me fridge”. Next was the amber and this too was pretty darn up to standard – nice little caramel tingle and on the fruity side, not too bitter and none of that horrible stale pub flavour you find in some ambers. So far my experience of Japanese craft beer had been overwhelmingly positive. This euphoria was turned down a notch by the Aooni IPA, which was just ok, minus. Drinkable but boring.
Another good stop for a beer thirsty gaijin is the Konbini (yes, it’s a transliteration of convenience store). These shops are filled with quick snacks, brightly coloured candies, dried fish, chicken nuggets, vacuum packed bread, anime magazines and of course, beer. Although they’re usually well stocked in the piss coloured conglomerate secretion department, you might be lucky and find something slightly more drinkable. The most likely suspect is a weiss beer by a brewery called Ginga Kogen. It’s not the best beer in the world, by a long shot, but it’s a pretty decent tipple and usually easy to find. If you’re really lucky you might find their pale ale or American IPA, which both not only passes the tasty test, but excels in it. They all come in cans and they all have a pair of jaunty and happy reindeers on the label. That can only be a good thing.
I had done some research before coming to Japan and had discovered that there’s one bottle shop that can’t be missed – namely Hasegawa Liquors. It’s also located underneath Tokyo Station and it took me two trips and a lot of walking back and forth, looking at maps and bumping into people, in order to find it. But if you’re a beer fan it’s worth the treasure hunt. Ye shall be rewarded. Originally a whiskey shop where you can sample hundreds of different whiskeys for a couple of hundred yen a pop, they also have a couple of fridges packed with sweet sweet Ji Bīru. It’s about half and half with imported and Japanese brews. I bought a good few bottles to bring back home, amongst them a buckwheat ale and one made in collaboration with Nøgne Ø. They’re all in my fridge, having survived the twelve hour flight back, waiting to be sampled in an all Japanese tasting session in the near future. If you happen to find yourself in Tokyo and want to find this shop just send us an email and I’ll give you a detailed description on how to find it, it’s way too boring and complicated to write here.
That’s it for the first part. Check back in a couple of days when I hit up the biggest craft beer pub in Tokyo and go inaka (that’s local for countryside), where the really good shit is. Until then, Kanpai!