Japan's burgeoning microbrewery scene
You don't hear much about the Japanese craft beer scene on this side of the Pacific, but the recent International Beer Competition held in Tokyo uncovered many sudsy, hoppy delights. (Craft Beer Association)
Jay R. Brooks
For the Contra Costa Times
TOKYO -- If you've been to a Japanese restaurant, you've probably encountered three of Japan's "big four" beer brands: Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. Only Suntory is not imported to the United States. They all taste pretty much the same. Each of their most popular beers are European-style lagers, which isn't too surprising when you learn that all four breweries were founded in the late 19th century with the help of German brewmasters.
In 1908, Japanese lawmakers set the minimum amount a brewery must produce to qualify for a license at 18,000 hectoliters, or slightly more than 15,000 barrels, a move that kept smaller breweries from being a viable part of Japan's brewing industry. In the United States, a microbrewery is defined as one producing less than 15,000 barrels a year. Japan raised that benchmark even higher -- to 20,000 -- in 1959.
Everything changed in 1994, when the Japanese licensing standard was finally lowered to 600 hectoliters or roughly seven barrels, allowing smaller breweries to compete for the first time. Today, there are about 270 breweries in Japan, many making very flavorful and distinctive beers.
At the end of August, I was invited to judge beers at the annual International Beer Competition in Tokyo, which has been sponsored by the Japanese International Craft Association since 1996. It was my first trip to that country and a perfect opportunity to taste Japanese beer, some of which are not yet available in the United States. In all, we judged 450 beers from 14 countries, most in Asia, but some of those beers were American brews that are exported to Japan. Beers from AleSmith, Ballast Point Brewing and Bell's won awards during the competition.
One of the first craft breweries in Japan, and still one of my personal favorites, is the Kiuchi Brewery, which makes the Hitachino Nest Beers. It was founded by Mikio Kiuchi, who inherited his family's sake brewery in 1950. When the law changed to allow smaller breweries, Kiuchi started making beer as well as sake. A number of his beers are U.S. imports. The company's White Ale is a great twist on the Belgian style, brewed with flaked oats and orange juice, in addition to the traditional coriander and orange peel. Its Red Rice Ale is also a tasty and unusual beer, which uses red rice to add additional flavor. Other Hitachino beers worth seeking out include a wonderful Espresso Stout and XH, a Belgian-style strong ale.
Naturally, the rise in craft breweries has brought a rise in the number of good beer bars throughout Japan, especially in Tokyo. In addition to providing an outlet for many of the new local beers, these bars are also heavily focused on craft beers from the U.S., Belgium and Scandinavia. As a result, many smaller Japanese breweries are making beers that emulate those country's styles, but they're also putting their own unique stamp on their fare by using a far wider range of unusual ingredients. Some of the award-winning beers at this year's competition were brewed with red peppers, pineapple, plums, limes and local herbs and spices.
The number of Japanese microbrews exported to the U.S. is still small, but keep an eye out for them. Japan's microbrewing scene got a late start, but they're working hard to catch up.
Contact Jay R. Brooks at BrooksOnBeer@gmail.com. Read more by Brooks at www.ibabuzz.com/bottomsup.