Osaka’s beer summit draws microbrewed stately heads

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — If you’re tired of the bland, mass-produced, artificially carbonated barley water that too many companies are pushing as beer, relief will soon be at hand.

In just over a month, Osaka’s annual version of Oktoberfest, International Beer Summit 2000, takes place in the city’s Umeda district.

Hailed as one of the world’s top micro-beer festivals, the summit takes place from Oct. 6 to 8 in the plaza of the Umeda Sky building in Kita Ward. The summit is sponsored by the Japan Craft Beer Association and the Kansai Consular Corps, and will feature about 80 different kinds of beer from 35 breweries nationwide.

Some of the top micro-brewers from Japan and overseas are expected to be on hand, offering a variety of beers at booths. While a few major overseas names, including Foster’s and Labatt’s, are usually present, the Osaka Microbrew Summit specializes in the small labels that, unfortunately, are sometimes not available outside the town where they are made.

The variety is certainly there. Lagers, stouts, porters and wheat beers are just some of the different samples. Although most of the brewers are Japanese, the beers are often based on European, especially the stronger German and Belgian, styles.

Osaka’s hot and humid autumns, and reputation for preferring light, bland food and drink, caused some skeptics to doubt whether such rich and creamy beers would succeed locally. While popular at the summit, it must be admitted that, compared with Tokyo, they are almost invisible in local stores and restaurants and few will be available once the summit is over.

“Osaka is a very difficult market because it’s about three years behind Tokyo in acceptance of new food and drink ideas, especially from Northern Europe or the United States. Look at Starbucks coffee houses. There were something like 40 Starbucks in the Tokyo area before the first one opened in Osaka,” said a longtime Tokyo exhibitor.

Each year, though, always features first-time exhibitors who sense the potential of not only the Osaka but also the Japan market. At last year’s festival, visitors at one booth were greeted by a young German man offering free drinks, only to discover that he was a prince — a descendant from one of the country’s most notable families — and that the beer he was offering was his family’s brand.

“Try imagining Japan’s Crown Prince at a booth selling rice wine brewed at the Imperial Palace,” mused one of the other exhibitors.

A royal presence notwithstanding, the Osaka Microbeer Summit is definitely more proletarian in nature, drawing tens of thousands of local residents, and not only for the beer. There are also food stalls featuring everything from Indonesian sate to Mexican tacos and french fries.

Of course, no Oktoberfest would be complete without singing and dancing. During the early years of the Osaka Microbeer Summit, this meant local German men dressing up in female ballet costumes and performing “Swan Lake.” And they did rather well, at that.

However, more recent entertainment has become more professional, and reflected Osaka’s proximity to the Asian continent. At this year’s summit, a stage in the center of the plaza will feature events ranging from “taiko” drum performances to Balinese folk dancing. The dancers aren’t German men in drag thankfully, but accomplished, and in many cases, professional dancers from various countries.

In the end, the Osaka Microbeer Summit has succeeded because it is a unique event that has turned into something of a festival, a good day out eating, drinking and making merry, as well as, for the exhibitors, conducting important business and meeting with potential distributors. As Japan’s micro-breweries continue to grow and expand, organizers and participants recognize what has become an Osaka institution. Cheers.