There is no doubt that the Japanese craft beer movement has gained the attention of the American palate. Throughout the country, beer enthusiasts have become intrigued about the brands coming from Japan looking past the traditional established brands like Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin giants that have satisfied many palates.
It is only natural based on the high popularity of Japanese whisky, sake and the emerging shochu market that the United States is now thrilled about the brews.
The craft beer category in Japan is not a new trend. Breweries started popping up as early as 1995 after the country relaxed its law allowing small production in 1994.
Last week, I attended a Japanese craft beer event held in San Francisco. It was one of many events held by the Japanese Government’s JFOODO extension, directed by Mitsunori Takeda in an effort to promote and educate consumers on this topic.
On this campaign, events were held throughout the West Coast, showcasing a number of producers in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Portland.
They enlisted the expertise of Ry Beville, a prolific publisher, CEO and founder of Bright Wave Media, whose work include Japan Beer Times and Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide. He is co-founder of Sake Today magazine.
“Beginning in 1995, the beer movement in Japan enlisted the help of German brewers who arrived to the country by the dozens sharing their expertise and shaped the craft beer scene in Japan,” Ry said during a seminar he led during the event.
Some of the early pioneers included COEDO brewery based in the Saitama prefecture. During a visit to this brewery in 2017, I fell in love with their style of beer, specifically their Beniaka beer produced with sweet potato.
Another pioneer was Kiuchi Brewery based in the Ibaraki prefecture whose Hitachino beer enjoys wide recognition in the United States.
“Some beer breweries started from scratch like COEDO, an American established Baird Brewing Company in the town of Numazu. Others were sake breweries that saw the opportunity and started to produce beer like Sekinochi Brewery and Kiuchi Brewery,” Ry added.
Although Japanese breweries originally were inspired by German styles, there was a shift in the late 2000s into mimicking and perfecting American styles.
This movement was fueled by the introduction of American craft breweries like Stone Brewing Company, Ballast Point and Sierra Nevada into the Japanese market.
By then, Japanese brewers not only looked after this styles but in true Japanese fashion, they perfected it.
We tasted a number of beers during the event, including COEDO Ruri, a refreshing Pilsner with hints of lemon, stone fruit, cream soda and a touch of honey.
Kanazawa Hyakumangoku Pale Ale from Waku Waku Brewery delivered a floral note with a nutty layer and a balanced bitter aspect.
Cyonmage Pale Ale from Yamaguchi Hagi Beer Co. had layers of toasted hazelnuts, almond brittle and a Smokey tone reminiscent of a German Rauchbier.
We also enjoyed Kiuchi’s Hitachino Nest White Ale, an homage to Belgian style beer full of white pepper, orange peel, coriander and ocean breeze with a dry acid-driven structure.
And Sorry! Umami IPA produced by YOHO Brewing under the Experimental Adjunct IPA category. One of the curious ingredients in this beer is Katsuobushi or dried bonito flakes (dried fish), which add a certain excitement delivering a rich, round and smoky component with a mandarin zest note.
The Japanese craft beer movement has had its ups and downs. “The Japanese craft beer bubble busted in the late 2000s, causing a crash in the industry later to enjoy a healthy and steady growth after 2011,” Ry said. “We experienced a renaissance with new bars celebrating the beer lifestyle backed up by new breweries in 2011 and 2012.”
Currently, Japan, a country of about 130 million people, has 400 small breweries, a number growing at a generous pace.
Although a loose and not heavily regulated term, “craft” in Japan refers to a smaller production operation, meaning smaller than the industry giants.
Cheers! Be curious, try it and enjoy!