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The past—and future—of Japanese craft beer

Listen up, America: Japanese brewers have hit their stride.
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A woman samples beer at a festival in Tokyo.

A woman samples beer at a festival in Tokyo.

Compared to America’s craft beer scene, Japan’s is still a teenager. As of late 2014, Japan was home to 215 craft breweries; America has more than 2,800. Japan didn’t deregulate its beer industry until 1994, when it passed a law massively lowering the annual output needed to obtain a brewing license from 2,000,000 liters to 60,000 liters (approximately 511 barrels). Hundreds of breweries opened in the years following deregulation, but inconsistent quality led many to shutter in the early 2000s, according to data provided by Japan’s Craft Beer Association. Finally, the market has stabilized. New brewers are better trained and are producing beer that is both delicious and distinctly Japanese. They have a careful watch on what American and European brewers are doing, too, with some Japanese brewers training here in the States.

Few people have a better ear to the ground of Japan’s craft beer scene than Ry Beville, founder and editor of The Japan Beer Times. After living in Japan for 12 years beginning in the late 1990s, Beville (an American), now lives in California but travels frequently between the two countries. Here, he distills what’s most exciting in Japanese beer now—and why Americans should care.

DRAFT: How does today’s Japanese beer drinking culture compare to America’s?
Beville: I think America takes it for granted that you can get craft beer almost anywhere you go. There’s a bigger base of knowledge, I think. In Japan, you’re still educating quite a few people. It really just did kind of explode the last few years and it’s really exciting because people are still in discovery mode. They’re still like “Whoa, what is an IPA?” It’s a little more mature in America.

How would you characterize Japanese craft beer as a whole, if that’s even possible? 
I don’t think that’s possible anymore. It used to be that German styles tended to dominate in Japan because when the laws changed, after deregulation in 1994, most of the businesses that threw in their hats had no idea what they were doing. There were something like 60, 70, 80 German brewers in Japan in the late ’90s teaching the Japanese how to brew beer and it was all the same three German styles. Luckily, brewers have started to branch out and you’ll see more styles. But there’s still quite a bit of German influence.

What happened after deregulation in the mid-’90s?
There was widespread deregulation in Japan in the mid- to late-’90s, in all sectors. Until then, to get a license to brew beer, you had to brew a ridiculous volume of beer. We’re talking multi-million dollar operations, like the size of Sierra Nevada. Then it changed so that everyone could get into the game. It was nuts; places that had no business making beer threw their hat in the ring. Very few people actually got it. People thought, “We’ll make beer and it’ll be a great tourist attraction and people will come out to our village or our theme park.” There was some really really atrocious beer put out there. It killed it. There were bankruptcies just two years after. For the most part, the beer quality was horrendous and made a really bad name for the industry. Around 1999/2000 was a real low point. No one was drinking craft beer. In 2005, there was an uptick in overall craft beer production volume, simply because breweries were refocusing on quality. The sense of what craft really is took off around the mid-2000s. That’s when things got excited. People were making quality beers. It was brewer-owners, not just companies that came in and hired some German brewer off the street.

What has America’s influence been on that resurgence? 
Not all the [Japanese] brewers learned from Germans. A few of them learned from Americans and Canadians. During that initial brewing, there were some brewers doing American styles of beer. Baird Beer started around 2000; the brewer is American and married to a Japanese woman, so there were seeds planted for the popularity of American beer. As craft beer was picking up, naturally they were interested in what was going on in America. Also, imports really started picking up. Rogue was an early import. Rogue might have even been around before the big craft beer boom in the mid-90s. That was certainly getting into bars and I think some brewers were drinking that. Other craft beer started coming into Japan around 2009, things like Stone and Lagunitas certainly made a big impact. Brewers started drinking these and it made people rethink quality. There was that competitive aspect. I remember one brewery being blown away by Ballast Point’s Tongue Buckler. More and more [Japanese] brewers were entering beers in World Beer Cup and actually traveling there to see what was going on, so there has been more and more exchange of information between Japan and America. Ballast Point has collaborated with Coedo; Baird and Stone have done a collaboration beer. Garrett Oliver has been to Japan several times; he’s done some collaborations with [Kiuchi Brewery, makers of] Hitachino Nest. [Kiuchi] is actually the contract brewer for Brooklyn Lager in Japan.

Which Japanese breweries excite you now?
Baird Beer is hands down one of the best breweries in the country, no question. They’re super ambitious. They kind of started the idea of seasonals. We take it for granted, but in Japan, people had their standard beer lineups. Baird is poised to become the biggest brewery in Japan; it’s not there yet. Their new brewery could put them on top in terms of capacity and they’re already top-flight in terms of quality. Shiga Kogan, up in the mountains, I think they’re excellent. They’re doing fantastic stuff with hoppy beers and local ingredients like blueberries. That’s originally a sake brewery and they branched out in to beer.Fujizakura does primarily German styles of beer, but I’ve never ever had a bad beer from them. One other story I want to point out is Minoh Beer. I’d like to point that one out because it’s a really good brewery with a very young female brewer. Her dad was in the alcohol retail and distribution business and he was one that threw in his hat early on in the deregulation days. He picked up his daughters and drove them by the brewery and was like, “I just bought this.” They had no idea what they were doing, but over the years they got better and better. She makes pretty good beers. Her stout is fairly well known, even internationally.

Are there more women involved in Japanese brewing than in American brewing?
There are more women in craft beer in Japan, which is strange because Japan in general is a male-dominated society. Craft beer is not an industry where you’d expect such a high percentage of female brewers, but the percentage is way higher in Japan. The Minoh brewer is one of about a dozen [female brewers] I can think of off the top of my head; these are head brewers. Then, of course, there’s lots of female assistant brewers and women in positions of power.

Why?
Who knows? It’s just that the way craft beer started was different in Japan. It wasn’t that drinkers became homebrewers who became brewers. In Japan, it’s more of a business opportunity. Some breweries just had female employees and said “Hey, it would be cool if we had a woman’s perspective.”

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Author
Kate Bernot is DRAFT’s beer editor. Reach her at kate.bernot[at]draftmag.com.

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5 Comments

  • Ry Beville says:

    Thank you for the interview, Draft Magazine! I’m proud to draw attention to one of the world’s fastest growing craft beer cultures.

    On reading this over again, I feel like Coedo deserves greater highlight. The brewery is definitely a driving force in Japan’s craft beer industry and it has evolved dramatically over the past few years, partly due to collaborations with the likes of Ballast Point (as you mention) and Coronado. Its uniquely flavored Beniaka is an excellent example of a Japanese craft beer using native ingredients– sweet potato in this case. Kyara, meanwhile, is an India-style pale lager which took silver at the last World Beer Cup in the American-style amber category, showing that the brewery also excels in more standard styles. I further wanted to bring attention to Coedo because it is now much more widely available in the U.S. via an importer bringing it in cold directly from the brewery. I expect this brewery to make enormous inroads in the U.S. I’ve already seen it make quite a splash even in competitive Southern California.

    In the end, though, beer fans should really visit Japan to best enjoy the riches on tap. A beer tour would certainly be worth the time and money.

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  • Steve says:

    The Japanese beer scene is cool, I’m hugely impressed by the quality of the Sankt Gallen beers.

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