A common thread in my posts on the first leg of this trip is my fascination and admiration for the Japanese way of achieving nothing less than perfection.
This is seen in every aspect of day-to-day life: from suave, slick fashion across the board through to immaculately clean trains and not a single machine out of order anywhere. This passion for perfection combined with a deep love of food, drink and celebration results in one of the best eating and drinking cultures in the world.
So how does beer fit into this equation? Draft beer is served at practically every tiny izakaya (Japanese tapas bar) and is the most popular form of alcohol sold in Japan. This beer is almost exclusively macro lager but is very well made and always very fresh. I put this freshness down to refrigerated transport and high turnover (Japanese draft beer is packaged in tiny 10L kegs as opposed to our 50L kegs).
In regards to Japanese beer and food, Chris Poel, head of production at Baird Beer and 35-year resident of Japan, says “Yakitori with craft beer is a no-brainer.” Yakitori is a cuisine where small skewers of meat, fish and veggies grilled over open coals and dipped in salty sauces. Chris continues, “Me and my home-brewing buddies were all talking about it for years, then Brian (Baird) opened his Harijuku Taproom where that’s what he served.”
So if Japanese food goes so fantastically with craft beer then why is it not more common to find an izakaya or a yakitori with Baird Rising Sun Pale Ale, Minoh Stout or Nest* White Ale? “These are small Mom and Pop places, they don’t have the space to put in a fridge and craft beer really needs to be kept cold. It shouldn’t be kept warm and just run through a cooling coil,” says Chris Poel, once again showing the understanding but uncompromising nature that I saw from every brewer in Japan.
Another issue that is holding back the spread of craft beer is price. With pints ranging from ¥600-1200JPY (AU $7-14) the price is prohibitive to a lot of people in a country where bartenders take home an hourly wage in this range. It definitely makes craft beer a premium product.** However, the service you receive when ordering craft beer certainly reflects the price you pay. Every beer server I met displayed a passion and love for craft beer and providing it in the best condition possible. Each tap has its own regulator to fine-tune the dispensing of beers with different levels of carbonation. Glassware is specific for beer styles and well cared for – chilled and rinsed before use, scrubbed and washed thoroughly afterwards. Every step is taken to ensure the beer is served and enjoyed in a way that pays respect to the efforts of the brewer.
Chris Hainge of the newly founded Kyoto Brewing says there are two main demographics that enjoy craft beer in Japan. “There are the 35-45 year olds who enjoy indulging in fine food and drinks and don’t mind spending a little extra money on them. Then you have the younger set. University students who like to follow fashions and trends and see craft beer as something that is cool. Once they give it a shot they kind of fall for the flavour and don’t mind spending the extra cash.”
It is obvious that craft beer is definitely alive, embraced by the people that are aware of it and growing in popularity but there is still have a ways to go for it to become an everyday addition to the Japanese way of life.
Hiromi Uetake, a journeyman of craft beer in Japan formerly of Coedo and currently head brewer of Ushitora Brewing, is happy with the growth but says they have some steep hurdles to overcome. He tells me that in Japan home brewing anything above 1% abv is illegal and this causes issues both with having to educate a whole market of consumers while also creating a shortfall of people who dream of turning their hobby into a career and becoming professional brewers.
Hiromi expands: “Much of the brewing knowledge and experience therefore has come from expats and people who have trained internationally and this has clearly shaped the styles of beer that are being made, with German and American styles dominating.”
He also says that expats and Japanese people who have lived abroad are now bringing international beer trends like session IPAs and sour beers into Japan. However, I noticed a new trend that is coming to the front and I love it.
Chris Hainge agrees: “Brewers are trying to create a characteristic Japanese beer. In the same way that IPAs are synonymous with the West Coast (of USA), people want to brew a beer or style that they can call their own. Brewers are using traditional Japanese ingredients like native citrus and spices to make these hybrid styles”
Having tried a few of these beers featuring yuzu, pepper and even cherry blossom, I think this trend is here to stay. Also, with the number of passionate people I met who are making and serving great beer, I’m confident that there are only great things in store for the future of beer in Japan.
If you ever visit Japan make sure that you seek out some of this awesome beer culture. You could do as Chris P. suggests and buy a beer from a store and drink it while people-watching by Kyoto’s Kamo River, take heed from Chris H. and match great beer and amazing Japanese bar food, or follow Hiromi’s advice and go to one of the many brewery tap rooms that are popping up around the country. Whichever you do, you will experience the passion and love that runs through craft beer in Japan.
If you want to read more on Japan, check out the Beer Travel article I wrote for Crafty Pint here.
*Hitchachino Nest beers are one of the most widely imported Japanese craft to Australia but are just known as Nest in Japan.
** These high costs are echo Australia’s exorbitant costs of craft beer and the underlying causes are the same: tax and economies of scale. Japanese brewers are charged ¥220 JPY (AU $2.55) excise per litre of beer produced. On a 50L keg of 5% a brewer in Japan pays approximately $128, in Australia $50 and in the USA $8.