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Know Your Booze: Special Japan Craft Edition

A brief (read as: “longwinded,” so feel free to just skip down to the list) and incomplete history

Beer! The world’s third most popular drink after water and tea. It has been brewed since (at least) the days of the Egyptian empire. Some speculate even longer. And while wine may have a longer recorded history, it also has a certain “this pairs well with expensive food” quality that crappy beer never will. Enter craft beer and problem solved? Not exactly. But craft beer has been making considerable headway in terms of not only popularity but also fine dining acceptability, as many fine dining establishments in, say, New York often offer an extensive selection of wines alongside an equally wide selection of beers, many of them craft varieties from around the state or even Florida, Colorado, Oregon, and California. Anyways, you get the picture. The craft beer scene is booming in the States, from Maine to Cali and from Alaska to Maui. Craft beer has become a force to be reckoned with.

In Japan, this level of craft beer has (unfortunately) not yet been fully realized. As a result, although the scene is solid and growing, there is still much room for both industry growth and overall acceptance.

japan-beer-vending-machine

Japan certainly loves their booze, but as far as beer is concerned, the working class and the white-collar sarariman (salary men) alike, tend to prefer the “Big Four” of Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo. Part of the problem is that change is often met with resistance in Japan. It took physical force for Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his kurofune (黒船/black ships) to open Japan for trade with the west in 1853–54.

By no means was this the last time western ideas or products were met with resistance. Even beisuboru (baseball) was initially placed at arm’s length by the Japanese, as the sport was viewed as evil and detrimental to young Japanese by such important figures as General Maresuke Nogi and educator Inazo Nitobe (who famously called it a “pickpocket’s sport”). Now, it is one of the most popular national sports, along with that other import, soccer. Whereas sumo—the country’s national sport—has been waning in popularity due to the lack of a Japanese yokozuna (grand champion), as the Mongolians have utterly dominated the upper ranks for over a decade.

Getting back to craft beer, this all means an alcohol industry where the Big Four dominate as drinking buddies, while other Japanese prefer sochu (焼酎), nihonshu (日本酒), or whiskey, all of which are long-rooted in Japanese society. And then there is wine, the preferred adult companion of many at a fancy restaurant or a dinner party. In all of this, craft beer is practically non-existent, the distant cousin you never meet except at craft beer bars, brewpubs, and specialty bottle shops.

goodbeer-faucets-craft-pub

Another hurdle for craft beer in Japan is the de facto national thinking of “the nail that sticks up gets hammered.” The rough meaning being to follow along and preserve the harmony, there is no room for individuality. Well, craft beer is the nail (proudly) sticking up, flipping a multi-billion dollar industry on its head in the United States and breaking rules to show that quality, not quantity, matters. Instead of cutting corners with the primary focus being the bottom line, you have brewers worrying about getting the best ingredients, the brewing process, and the finished product.

Finally, Japan has a very unusual tax process, where beer is taxed differently than other alcohols. This means the cheaper varieties of “beer-ish” hoposhu are extremely popular because they are literally half the price. The Big Four have a seemingly endless variety of these ranging from “calorie off” to non-alcoholic to extra strong (6%+). While all of them taste like what you might expect (if not worse), their non-prohibitive cost is the main selling point. In comparison, while the cheapest craft beer is in the ¥250–300 range (slightly more than the premiums of the Big Four), the typical price is usually quite a bit more, in the ¥500–700 range. Again, this is assuming you can even find it.

All of this leaves craft beer with an uphill battle in Japan. The size of which is practically Mount Fuji-esque. But there is hope. In the last 15–20 years, many smaller ji-biru (地ビール/local beer) companies have sprung up and are often used to attract tourism to their area. Unfortunately, this initially led to some less than appealing beer as the brewers were new to the process and often just tried to make a 5% pilsner or lager beer along with a 5% stout and a 5% pale ale and a 5% wheat beer and and and… you get the point. While most of these beers were handcrafted, they would not have met the typical “craft beer” standard of many craft aficionados.

japan-craft-beer-coedo

That being said, plenty were able to make some very tasty beers which in turn started to create a bit of a buzz, especially in the expat community and to those Japanese who were either well-traveled or just open to new ideas. The problem was and is, when many Japanese tried one of these local brews, even if it tasted only slightly “different” than their usual Big Four favorite(s), they immediately gave up on craft beer, generally lumping them all together in one big beer bucket without realizing not all craft beer is created equally. When in actuality the bottle they bought from some souvenir shop in the countryside was probably old, possibly had been mishandled, or worse yet, was a skunky batch that made its way into distribution from a smaller company that was bending the unwritten craft rules (some of these companies did actually fail, just as many microbreweries have in the United States). Quality is the most important key to success, i.e., profit, went it comes to craft beer.

To be honest, there are still way too many craft “lagers” in Japan even now, as smaller companies cannot get too creative without losing customers who only know one style of beer. Another difficulty is the “Ruination rub,” where an unknowing consumer tries a beer that is honestly out of their league. Whether it’s too hoppy or just a case of unexpected bitterness, jumping straight for an Imperial Stout, IPA, or IIPA is a novice’s mistake… but if they truly are a beginner they won’t even realize their folly and will probably give up on all craft beer.

Luckily, through travel, word of mouth, and better quality products, craft beer started to grow, companies developed reputations, and beer got brewed and consumed. The foreign influx of both bottled and draft craft, and good traditional European brews for that matter, probably had a lot of inspirational motivation for the Japanese. Their foreign counterparts were not only becoming successful, but true masters of their craft—something which actually is traditionally a very Japanese quality.

THE GOOD STUFF
There are now supposedly over 200 microbreweries in Japan, and while most of them are probably worth at least trying, there is—as one would imagine—a huge chasm in terms of quality, creativity, and craft skills. While some companies were mainly started as a “tourist attraction,” others came out of long-time brewer families. In the latter case, it wasn’t beer brewing but nihonshu, which is often called by one of its two common misnomers—sake which usually just means “alcohol” or “alcoholic,” or rice wine. However, it is actually more similar to a beer in terms of brewing process, as the starch in the rice is converted to sugar and then to alcohol (whereas with wine it already has enough initial sugar from the grapes). At the same time, nihonshu also differs greatly from beer, so while it’s a natural starting point for brewers, there was still a lot for them to learn. Furthermore, other breweries were started because of a passion for beer and the business opportunity. The backgrounds of the various ji-biru breweries were different in numerous ways, but as long as they had a love for beer, it gave them a fighting chance.

This also led to much better initial products, which were especially well-received with the foreign community of “good beer drinkers,” who would often search out local beers when out sightseeing on their weekends. Now these same breweries have not only been growing their network of distribution but have also had years to perfect their brewing skills, experiment with different ingredients and styles, and create some amazing beers.

The following is a list of some excellent Japanese craft beer companies to not only keep an eye out for but to actively go out and look for. No, seriously, go now.

Shiga Kogen Beer
Located in the beautiful ski and snowboard area of Shiga Kogen, in Nagano Prefecture, Tamamura Honten has been brewing nihonshu for 200 years and has been brewing beer since 2004. In the Shiga Kogen area you can actually find pints (US) for around ¥500 at some of the hotels and bars, which taste mighty good after a day out on the slopes. There are a few specialty bottle shops that will carry their main brews as well. Both the pale ale and the IPA are exceptionally good. Tamamura is also the main sponsor of Snow Monkey Beer Live, a small(er) annual music event that has grown quite popular.

Yoho Brewing
Also from Nagano Prefecture, but from Karuizawa, it was established in 1996 by Hoshino Resort, Co. In reality it’s pretty amazing how well they have networked their distribution, which in turn helped grow their popularity. So much so that Kirin actually bought a minority 30% stake in the company. Even before that, they were one of the only craft beers to have a near-national network, and were especially easy to find in the Tokyo area. Try Lawson, Seijo Ishii supermarkets, Yamaya, and many other sakaya (酒屋/alcohol shops). Make no mistake, their success was not distribution alone. It was making some of the best beer on the market. Yona Yona (よなよな/Night after Night) is an American pale ale and is hands down their most popular and certainly worth a taste or 10. However, their Aooni Indo (青鬼インド/Blue Devil) IPA at 7% is by far the best beer regularly on the national market. Unfortunately, it is not always as easy to find as Yona Yona. Their Tokyo Black is a fine porter, and they also have an organic blonde ale if that’s “your can of beer.”

Iwate Kura Beer
Sake brewery Sekinoichi Shuzo built Iwate Kura in 1995 (as you can see this is a rather common theme), and since then they have put out quite a few solid beers. It doesn’t get much better, however, than their Oyster Stout. Best served on tap, this creamy dark beer has a nice mocha flavor.

Fujizakura Kogen
Located in Yamanashi Prefecture, near the famous mountain of their namesake, Fujizakura Kogen focuses on German brewing techniques. Sylvans is the name of their brewpub, and it has a nice European style beerhouse vibe, complete with terrace and garden. Their wheat beer is one of the best in Japan, but finding it on draft is a must. Most everything draft tastes better, but this is more imperative for a good wheat. Their claim to fame though is the “rauchbier,” a brown smoky wheat beer, which won an award at the 2012 World Beer Cup. Truly excellent with sausage or pizza.

Swan Lake
From Niigata Prefecture, Swan Lake owns and operates a pub called Edo nearby Tokyo Station, which serves most of their lineup. Its location makes for a convenient stop in for those traveling with limited time. Their barley wine and imperial stout are both at, or at least near, the top of their respective styles in Japan. Note there is an actual cover charge at Edo, which while common at Japanese izakaya (居酒屋/a kind of tavern) and many restaurants, is most certainly uncommon for a craft beer bar.

Minoh
Easily the Kansai area’s best beer, Minoh was established in 1997 by a father who bought the brewery and put his two daughters in charge. They were either naturally gifted or fast learners as Minoh became one of Japan’s best craft breweries. Their stout beer is well above average and their W-IPA (“w” is often used in Japanese restaurants meaning double size, in this case a double IPA), is one of the few regularly produced in Japan.

Ise Kadoya
Located in Mie Prefecture, Ise Kadoya boasts being a true American-style craft brewer in Japan. And while their American Brown and Pale Ale are their two standouts, they, along with most of their other standard beers, are all 5%. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a bit “uncraft-ish.” They do, however, also offer some seasonal beers which are not very easy to find. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, so feel lucky if you do stumble across some.

TY Harbor
Located on the scenic Tennoz Canal in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, TY Harbor a 10–15 minute walk from Shinagawa Station.  Tysons and Company has been brewing craft since 1997, and while their beer is solid and the atmosphere fantastic, the prices are (understandably) high as it’s arguably the most luxurious brewpub in Tokyo. In fact, it’s much closer to fine dining. So either save it for special dates or just stick to snacks and beers. If you go, you’ve got to try the “Boot” because, well, “Das Boot!” Actually, the Boots (1,000 ml/¥1,900) and the pitcher (1,800 ml/¥3,600) are actually the better values, but drinking out of a glass Boot is just hilarious. Try their IPA or if you’ve got the taste buds go for the Imperial Stout.

japan-tyharbor-brewery

Baird
Hands down the best brewery in Japan, and it isn’t even close. The Baird Taproom pub is the best place to get it, and their food is above average and seemingly only getting better. The original shop is in Numazu, Shizuoka, where the brewery is. Due to popular demand, though, Baird opened a Taproom in Nakameguro… then one in Harajuku… then one in Yokohama… and then another in Shizuoka. You won’t be disappointed, and each Taproom usually has their impressive standard line of 10–15 varieties along with some seasonal selections. Along with some excellent guest beers as well, usually imported. As for recommendations, literally everything is worth trying. Especially the seasonal selections, like this year’s collaboration with Stone Brewery and Ishii Brewing, Japanese Green Tea IPA, a surprisingly smooth and uniquely bitter 10.1%. Their The Carpenters Mikan (mandarin orange) Ale and Country Girl Kabocha (pumpkin, actually a variety of winter squash) Ale are always impressive and extremely popular. However, as for their standard beers, Rising Sun Pale Ale is fantastic and if you’re an IPA fanatic the Sugura Bay Imperial India Pale Ale will surely not disappoint. Then there’s Kurofune Porter, cleverly named not just for being a black beer, but possibly as an insight into Baird’s view of the Japanese beer market, with Baird as a modern-day Commodore Perry.

THE REST
By no means is this an inclusive list. It’s simply a place to get you started. There are certainly others that could have made the list but just didn’t, such as Ginga Kogen or Hitachino Nest. At the end of the day, as far as favorites and tastes are concerned, to each their own. Echigo Beer in Niigata or Coedo in Shikoku have a lot of fans as well. All four of these breweries actually have decent bottle/can distribution, but based on taste alone, Yona Yona or Aooni are better, plus they are often slightly cheaper and easier to find.

Some local areas around Kyushu also have decent beer, such as Mojiko Ji-Beer Kobo in Fukuoka and Hideji in Miyazaki.  Mojiko has a fantastic brewpub that overlooks the Kanmon Straits (separating Kyushu and Honshu Islands). Clear days offer a breathtaking view of the sunset, and if you ask nicely they usually let you take a glass outside. Hideji Beer takes advantage of Miyazaki’s famous fruit industry and has two very unique brews, one with mango and the other with Hyuga natsu, a local citrus fruit.

PLACES TO GO
In the Tokyo area, there are four “best of” spots, three of which are Baird Taprooms. The other, Bakyushu Popeye’s, is one of the original craft beer bars in Japan and has arguably the biggest selection. It is located in Ryogoku, an area famous for sumo. Coincidentally, Popeye’s is on the opposite side of the tracks as the sumo arena, and surprisingly (or actually not so) it is all but unheard of by most average sumo goers, save for foreigners. Therefore, when a tournament is being held, don’t expect a bigger crowd than normal, but expect as big a crowd as normal because it’s usually filled on any given night with Japanese beer lovers and foreigners alike. They advertise 70 styles, but on any given day there literally 30–40 worth trying, though making it past 10 would be an impressive feat. Many of them are from craft breweries around Japan, but there are also some international choice picks. Also noteworthy are a few original house brews, made by Japanese breweries especially for Popeye’s, usually from recipes of the owner, Mr. Aoki.

Happy hour offers a half-size snack, when ordering certain beers with crown logo on the menu (these along with the menu change daily). If doing so, while the pint might seem the slightly better value, if you stick to the half-size it still comes with the snack and allows for tasting a wider variety in a shorter period of time. Taster sets are also available.

beer-tap-lineup

The other bars worthy of claiming the title of best are any of the three Kanto Baird Taprooms (Nakameguro, Harajuku, and Basamichi). All are good, but the Nakameguro location is spacious, well-lit and well-suited for a family dinner or solo session, and their pizza is quite good. That and it’s only a short subway or cab ride to Roppongi, which makes for a nice nightcap and actually has had quite a few craft beer bars open in the last five years or so (Pizzakaya is definitely worth checking for its delicious pizza and international craft beers). The Harajuku branch specializes in yakitori (焼鳥/grilled chicken skewers), while the one in Bashamichi has a tasty American-style BBQ. Baird, to reiterate, just has an incomparable variety of truly excellent brews. They also have a deal where you buy 10 beers and get two free, when purchasing the beers upfront with a stamp card.

Popeye’s has the larger variety, especially if you’re with a co-worker who only likes Asahi Super Dry, and the Taprooms usually have better food and are a bit more “craftmosphere.” A final note to help you decide, if you want to try as many different Japanese craft beers in one night, head for Popeye’s. If you want to try as many beers from Japan’s best brewery, go to a Taproom. If there is time, make a daytrip (or better yet a weekend trip) of it and head to Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka for the original Numazu Fishmarket or the newest of their pubs, Brewery Gardens Shuenji in Izu City.

Goodbeer faucets has jumped in with both feet, opening a bar in the popular shopping and club district of Shibuya, and is also making the ballsy move of opening another in Fukuoka (Kyushu), which was severely lacking in decent spots for craft beer. Both establishments advertise 40 beers on tap, and their beers are fantastic (especially their house IPA—Monster C IPA), the food is decent, their tap systems are state of the art, and the staff at both shops are exceptionally friendly and talkative. The Fukuoka branch even has a kickass terrace with a view of the canal that the pub sits on. For food, the rotisserie chicken was exceptional and the buffalo chicken was reordered several times.

goodbeer-faucets-terrace

One popular place that deserves mention is Craftheads in Shibuya. Feel free to go, as many people rave about it. However, some of the other bars mentioned have much friendlier staff (read as: the owner of Crafthead can be nice to some customers and less so to others). On top of that, the food service is slow and the beers are usually a bit more expensive (they “hide” this by just charging prices similar to those of other craft bars while serving in smaller glasses (250–350 ml). Their specialty is actually rare American brews that are hard to find in Japan, some of which get sent straight from the brewer. But there are definitely better options for Japanese craft beer around town.

A bottle shop that deserves mention because of how it really puts itself in its own category is Tanakaya in Meijiro. Other shops definitely have some craft beer selections, but don’t be surprised if some shops literally have nothing but the Big Four. Tanakaya, on the other hand, usually has dozens of selections of many of the above-mentioned breweries along with a wide range of American and international craft beers. They also have some very interesting wines. Whoops, I almost forgot, this is a craft beer article.

If you happen to live in Japan but are outside of Tokyo, you probably have a craft brewery nearby and hopefully some progressive bottle shops as well. Luckily, places like Hiromatsu Shoten (telephone and map only), in Kurosaki, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka are exactly what I mean. Specializing in “world” beer and wine, this bottle shop has a fairly large selection of beers including some international and domestic crafts. Located about 10 minutes walk from the station, it looks like any old (really old) inconspicuous bottle shop with a seemingly connected yakitori takeout shop out front. Hopefully you can find a regular place in your hometown. Surprisingly, Kurosaki also offers the best craft beer bar in Kitakyushu City, Bravo, which is popular for its international beers along with some decent craft selections (especially international bottles), but Friday is international guest beer night and Mondays they usually do a guest Japanese craft beer. Happy hour is 17–19:00 every night. So if you don’t find a place in your area straight away, don’t give up, there are (usually) some out there.

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FINAL NOTES
Basically, most every prefecture you travel to will have a local beer. The quality and tastes will vary greatly, but only a few are actually “undrinkable” when served cold to a thirsty beer lover. At the end of the day, it might not make a top 10, top 50, or even a top 100 list, but it was probably better than rice- and cornstarch-filled malts or fast-food style (oxymoronically named) “premium beer” that was made in 1–3 day’s time.

Got any recommendations? How about some criticisms for leaving out your favorite Japanese craft beer or bar? By the way, it was most absolutely done to intentionally upset you so feel free to vent in Comments below.