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Expert laments Japan’s limits on craft beer culture

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Ry Beville’s love of craft beer has developed into an occupation in which he publishes Japan’s only bilingual craft beer magazine.

With the quarterly Japan Beer Times launched in 2010, Beville, 37, from Richmond, Virginia, says he wants to help spread the microbrewing culture in Japan, where craft beer is still not widely recognized by consumers, especially in the Kanto region.

“I want more and more people to get to know about craft beer, and develop the craft beer culture in Japan,” said the Yokohama resident.

The beer magazine runs features and essays on microbreweries around the country and their local history. In the autumn issue, craft beers from Toyama were covered with beers from outside Japan, along with articles on brewpubs — where beer and food are made and served on the premises — in Japan and elsewhere.

A resident of Japan for over a decade, Beville initially took an interest in craft beer when he was living in Fukuoka and tasted his variety at a microbrewery in a hotel just across the street from his workplace.

Later, when he was studying at the University of California, Berkeley, there was “an excellent brewery very close to where I lived,” he said. “I always loved beer. I never thought about doing a beer publication, but I was always connected with beer,” tasting different varieties at pubs wherever he happened to travel to, he said.

The opportunity presented itself when the owner of Popeye, a Tokyo beer bar in Sumida Ward’s Ryogoku district, recommended that Beville, who was already working as a writer, translator and publisher of a small culture/art magazine, start a magazine on the beverage.

“We started drinking and drinking and got really drunk, and I told him, ‘If you sponsor me, I’ll do it.’ And he replied, ‘Yes.’ That’s how it all started,” he said.

The magazine debuted with great success at the Tokyo Real Ale Festival in 2010 and is distributed at several hundred locations across the country.

Today, Beville’s company has three publications: the bimonthly culture/art magazine Ko-e (Voice), the Japan Beer Times, and Yokohama Seasider, which covers culture and life in Yokohama. He works with a multicultural staff comprising Japanese, Americans, a Vietnamese-American and Scottish-Chinese.

During the 18 months or so following the launch of the magazine, Beville says he visited nearly 150 of the more than 200 microbreweries in Japan.

“I traveled all over Japan — from Okinawa to Hokkaido, and I visited breweries and bars, and met as many people as possible,” he said, adding that he has been to almost all the beer festivals held in Japan, which gave him the opportunity to talk with several brewers. Many of them later became sponsors or advertisers.

“When I started the magazine, I had a lot of passion for beer. I loved the complexity and the many flavors, but I didn’t necessarily know a lot about how craft beer is made, so I spent a lot of time studying. I went to talk to breweries, and they would walk me through the brewing process, and I watched them make beer. I tasted it, took notes, and asked questions like ‘How do you achieve this flavor?’ ” Beville said.

“To make good craft beer, complexity and balance are important. For example, take a beer that has an interesting aroma. When you drink it, it has an interesting bitterness. This is because many different kinds of hops are used. But it’s just too bitter, so to balance it, it requires a good balance of the right malts. You can’t have something that’s too sweet, too bitter, too heavy — you want a balance between the various ingredients,” he said.

Beville studied at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he majored in English and Japanese. He first came to Japan in 1995 as an exchange student at Nanzan University in Nagoya where he studied Japanese for a year.

After graduating from Notre Dame, he returned to Japan in 1997 and worked at the Fukuoka International Exchange Foundation for three years, where he was in charge of promoting tourism in Fukuoka Prefecture. He stayed in Fukuoka for another two years, doing freelance translating, mainly at translation schools.

In 2004, he went back to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in Japanese language and culture from the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to Japan in 2006 and has been writing his Ph.D. thesis on Japanese poetry.

A major problem in the craft beer industry in Japan, he points out, is that in order to get a beer brewing license, you have to brew at least 60 kiloliters of beer annually. “The bar is set so high that it’s difficult to develop the brewing industry. If the tax department changes the home brewing laws and also allowed small-scale brewing, it will create a lot of jobs and a lot of tax revenue,” he says.

“America is a great model for that. America is the craft beer capital of the world,” Beville says. People can do home brewing in countries like the United States and Germany, and “if that’s successful, they can grow out, and that creates a grassroots beer culture. That’s impossible in Japan right now,” he says.

“Imagine if every neighbor you went to, somebody was brewing, and more people drank beer. It would create more consciousness about beer, and it would create better-educated consumers. It’s not just happening in Japan,” he said.

Now a Yokohama resident, he says he hopes to promote the city as a beer culture destination in Japan. In September, in collaboration with the municipal government, he launched a new magazine — Yokohama Beer Magazine — that he publishes on an occasional basis.

“I want to see the craft beer industry grow and thrive, because many people in the industry are also my friends. My staff and I — we love beer, and this passion for beer is what makes us different from other mainstream magazines that feature beer,” he said.

When asked whether he would like to be a brewer himself, he said, “Wistfully I dream about it, but I would never do it. I see how difficult it is. I enjoy publishing, and I enjoy drinking beer. I let somebody else make it for me.”

For more information on Japan Beer Times, visit japanbeertimes.com.