Biiru o Nihon Onegaishimasu! (Two Beers, Please!): Exploring Japan’s Budding Beer Culture

Feature by | Jun 2015 | Issue #101

The draft and bottled beer list at barBAR Tokyo. | photo by Tyler Rice

Late in the evening inside barBAR Tokyo, a noisy, tiny, crowded pub within the city’s vast train station, a room of Japanese enjoys pints of craft beers from all over Japan. The laminated menu shows what’s on tap or in bottles, where the brews originate, the alcohol content, and a few words describing what to anticipate. After making a selection, patrons enjoy their beer with bar snacks like grilled octopus or yakisoba (fried noodles).

At barBAR and other bigger and better-known craft beer bars in Tokyo and Osaka—places like Goodbeer Faucets, Craft Beer Market, Swan Lake Pub Edo, Beer Belly, DevilCraft and Craft Beer Works Kamikaze—microbrews include an array of styles, from Kölsch to IPA and other full flavored brews, which means that customers are enjoying something their sake-drinking dads never dreamed of. While many beer bars carry US imports—Lagunitas is popular here—Japan’s craft brewing revolution has led to a terrific array of first-rate beers that are beginning to demonstrate broad, international appeal.

“More competitive pricing for Japanese craft beers is a welcome trend,” says Robb Satterwhite, an ex-New Yorker, who runs an English-language website on where to eat and drink in Japan called “When the industry started, microbrew beers were identified in Japan as ‘ji-biru’ or regional beers, and they were ridiculously overpriced for the most part, and often marketed as special souvenirs when traveling to a different region, rather than something for everyday drinking. Bars like Craft Beer Market in Tokyo have gone a long way toward changing that perception.”

Twenty-one years ago, Japan had four big breweries: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. In 1908, the Japanese government passed a law requiring a brewery to produce at least 1,800 hectoliters (about 1,500 bbls) annually. By 1940, that number had become 18,000 hectoliters. Then, in 1994, perhaps in response to a sluggish economy, a new law allowed breweries to produce a minimum of 600 hectoliters per year. Microbrewing in Japan was born.

Many businessmen saw opportunity. Japanese in the economic downturn hoped that a microbrewery would be the ticket to wealth and success. Over 200 microbreweries sprang up across the country in a few years. Today that number is half of what it was. Yet the beer culture in urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka is twice as strong.

Intriguingly, among the producers are many former sake brewers. Sales of sake are down in Japan. It’s expensive compared to beer. It’s also associated with the previous generation. Sake has been consumed for centuries in Japan, and still is, for Shinto rituals, festivals and wedding ceremonies. Beer? Beer is rock and roll, a way to fuel laughter, affiliate with the West, and enjoy one of Japan’s latest food crazes: pizza.

The successful microbreweries in Japan, while still only claiming 2 percent of the domestic market, have carefully defined their brands, developed sound business plans, and set up reliable distribution networks. More and more are available in the US. Beer’s rising popularity has even led a few luxury hotels to collaborate with breweries.

“Sankt Gallen Brewery produces a beer that is especially crafted for Park Hyatt Tokyo,” explains Mark de Leeuwerk, executive assistant manager of food and beverage. “We have a summer promotion each year, and in 2015 we are not only offering Sankt Gallen, but will also have beers from Otaru, Minowa, Kiuchi, and Yatsugatake.”

I visited several breweries in two prefectures, Niigata and Kyoto, to learn first hand about the current state and future potential of craft brewing in Japan. I chose carefully: One lays claim to being the first craft brewery in Japan. Another exemplifies the trend of successful business people from other fields trying their hand at making beer. And the third happens to be the most idiosyncratic brewer I’ve ever met—a genius-mad scientist of sorts. Remarkably, for a reputedly conformist nation, the beer from one kura (brewery) to another varies wildly.

First Among Equals
“Echigo was the first microbrewery in Japan,” says Toshiro Fujiwara, a sales manager. “Echigo is the ancient name of Niigata,” he says from a conference room in Niigata prefecture after the two of us toured the company’s plant. On the table are two dozen of their beers. Like most beer in Japan, it’s packaged in cans. The brewery, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in February, was the brainchild of Seichiro Uehara. Originally a relatively large-scale sake brewery, the company turned to beer when the laws changed.

“Uehara-san’s wife is German,” Fujiwara says, “and she brought someone over from Germany to help at first. That’s also why the style of some of our beers are German. Such as our Pilsner and our White Ale, which carries on its label the German saying, ‘Hopfen und Malz Gott Erhalt’s!’”

The Germans were right: hops and malt never do get old. But companies can if they aren’t careful. Branching out from its roots, Echigo now produces a Red Ale, a Stout, a Kölsch in summer, an IPA in the fall, and its most popular brew: Koshihikari Echigo Beer. The Koshihikari, a rice-based lager, is unique to Japan and meets a consumer demand for a rice-like taste that is more familiar to the Japanese diet. It is also the brewery’s biggest seller. All of the Echigo beers are relatively low in alcohol, between 5 and 7 percent, and pair well with light food.

The Cautious Opportunists
“We were in the business of putting on weddings and funerals,” says Toshihiro Furuta, who along with his father and identical twin Shuei own and operate Swan Lake Brewery. “We still do that. But when the laws changed regarding microbrewing in Japan, we decided to try our hand.” We’re inside a small, private dining room of a restaurant attached to his brewery, deep in the countryside of Niigata. Rice fields surround us for miles.

“It was 1997,” Furuta explains between bites of cold tofu, yuba (tofu skin) and anago (sea eel). We are drinking Samurai Barley Ale, a heady, English-style Barleywine. “We traveled to the West Coast of the US: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. We met with Ed Tringali [a brewer] and invited him to Japan for consultation. So he came here for five months and he taught us how to do it!”

Originally, Swan Lake produced five beers: an Amber Ale, a Weissbier, a Pale Ale, a Stout and a Golden Ale. They’ve since added a Porter and a Koshihikari. They also produce a Black IPA made with roasted malt, the aforementioned Barleywine and an Imperial Stout. And the latest project? “We’re aging beer in imported oak,” says Furuta, taking me into a small building near the brewery. “We’ll see.”

Samurai Brown Ale has hit the US market, he explains, and it’s already sold in some Whole Foods stores. At 9 percent, it’s a lush, full-bodied ale with a long finish that’s sweet at first and then slightly bitter, almost peppery, with an herbal bouquet reminiscent of drying moss.

The Mad Scientist
To reach Niigata Beer, Ken Usami’s tiny operation, you have to venture deep into the hilly countryside outside of Niigata city center and drive up a dirt road, past pens of goats, pigs and cows, and through a cherry orchard. In his studio overlooking the Sea of Japan, we eat his home-cured pancetta and sausages. “I don’t like beer,” Usami says, laughing. “I only like my beer!”

A former research scientist, Usami worked in patent analysis for an American pharmaceutical company where he developed a number of patents for cancer medication. Having profited, he had the luxury to take his knowledge of science and creative outlook on life and apply these to beer. In fact, the inventive approach of a patent scientist who pursues a goal without regard for immediate profitability became fundamental to his brewing philosophy.

“I make a hundred types of beer,” he says. “I’m the only person in the world to domesticate white truffles and from that I’ll be making truffle beer. I plan to launch the truffle beer in New York City later this year.”

That plan aside, his current brews include traditional styles like Weizen and Kölsch alongside other truly unusual creations like a sparkling ale made with Indian mangoes and a wasabi beer. Two that make a big impression are Red Eye and IPA. The Red Eye is low in alcohol, about 3 percent, and each case of beer is made with 24 tomatoes. The IPA, at 7 percent, greets your senses with a piney aroma, and is initially sharp on the tongue, followed by a full and pungent flavor and a rich, thick mouthfeel.

Two decades in, the brewing revolution in Japan is far from over. With prices lower, a greater selection readily available and a healthy number of established craft breweries, it seems likely that drinkers will continue to demand more flavor, variety and distinctiveness. And who knows? Some of them may end up as the brewers of tomorrow.

How about a couple of beers while we wait?