Beers all round!


Vast quantities of it have been consumed during the World Cup, but thousands of liters more will be drunk as the heat and humidity of summer kick in. Nothing beats a cold beer on a hot summer day.

Forget what you’ve heard about sake being Japan’s national drink. By any reckoning, it’s beer. By far the most popular alcoholic beverage, beer is served in a wider range of establishments than any other tipple. And that’s not even including sake, which is technically a beer as it is brewed from a grain (rice).

Perhaps modern Japan’s embrace of this alien and globally popular brew made from malted barley, hops and yeast is simply because of its flavor. Better than sake, beer matches the wide variety of foods now comprising the national diet. From sushi to spaghetti, stir-fry to steak and couscous to camembert, beer is consumed with them all.

Commercial brewing began here in 1870, when an American called William Copeland founded the Spring Valley Brewery in the Yamate area of Yokohama to provide beer for the growing foreign settlement there. It is believed he brewed ale, since techniques for lager production were not widespread in either the United States or Japan at the time. Two years later, Shozaburo Shibutani opened a brewery in Osaka, followed by the establishment of what became the Sapporo Brewery in Hokkaido in 1876. A year later, Tokyo’s first brewery was founded by the Nippon Brewery Company near what is now JR Ebisu Station. Their brand? Yebisu, of course, whose home remained in Ebisu until 1988, when production was moved to Funabashi and Yebisu Garden Place was built on the original brewery site.

Meanwhile, by the 1890s, the beer industry in Japan had entered an era of strong growth. Seizing on the trend, the government began taxing beer in 1901, and in 1908 enacted regulations requiring brewers to produce at least 1.8 million liters annually — up from 180,000 liters — to qualify for a license. As a result, a number of small brewers were forced out of business as the industry consolidated. In 1959, no doubt to the delight of Japan’s by then entrenched beer oligopoly, this requirement was raised again — to 2 million liters.

Back in the 1910s, meanwhile, the widespread consumption of beer began to take off, with beer halls proliferating in major cities. At these new establishments, with their exotic foreign decor (usually German-style), drinkers sat together at long tables quaffing from large steins. It was at this time that beer began to be heralded as Japan’s first “democratic” drink, enjoyed equally across all strata of society. Interestingly, the Lion Beer Hall in Ginza 7-chome (operated by Sapporo) dates from this era, and is worth a visit for its original, antiquated interior.

No doubt fueled by the social upheavals brought about by World War II and the millions of Occupation troops who passed through Japan in the years that followed, beer finally became a mainstream alcoholic beverage during the era of high economic growth in the 1960s, finally outpacing sake as the drink of choice. Consumption then continued to climb year on year until the 1990s, when it finally leveled out.

Although Japan is now the world’s fifth-largest beer producer, it ranks only 25th in per-capita consumption, at 56 liters per person per year. This compares with the top tipplers of the Czech Republic, whose citizens put away 160 liters a year, followed by the Irish, who sink an annual 152 liters, and the Germans, who down 127 liters. By contrast, U.S. and Canadian consumption ranks 12th and 19th respectively, at a mere 84 and 68 liters.

Nevertheless, it is easy to get the impression that the Japanese love their beer. It is served practically everywhere — in expensive Ginza clubs and cafe bars, as well as at cheap tachi-nomi(stand bars), sidewalk oden carts and vending machines. Since the early 1980s, too, imported beer has steadily been gaining popularity, and by the end of that decade it wasn’t unusual to see brews from Belgium, England, Germany, Ireland and the United States on the shelves of department stores, high-end retailers and trendy bars.

Of particular note is the popularity of Belgian beer, primarily among young drinkers in major cities. By the early 1990s, Tokyo had at least five Belgian beer specialty bars, with bottled Belgian beer sold in many leading department stores. This was quite a remarkable development, as Belgian beers are the complete antithesis of Japanese beer. Belgian beers, particularly the brands made in Trappist monasteries, are sweet, heavy, high in alcohol and rich in idiosyncratic flavors due to the old and unusual strains of yeast used to ferment them. They are as different from mainstream Japanese beer as processed cheese is from ripe goat’s-milk cheese — and Japan’s urban drinkers in their 20s and 30s, particularly women, are enjoying the difference.

Even though Belgium is scarcely larger than Kyushu, it produces more types of beer than the rest of the world combined, making for a staggering array of choices in a typical Belgian beer specialty bar. Bois Cereste in Akasaka, for example, offers more than 130 different Belgian beers. Yet this is a mere fraction of the nearly 1,000 now brewed in Belgium.

There is also slow but steady growth in the import of beers from small breweries in Britain and the U.S. Traditional-style English ales such as Old Speckled Hen, Abbot Ale, Ruddles and Wychwood Hobgoblin are being served in Tokyo along with American counterparts such as Anchor Steam, Redhook, Rogue and Wolaver’s Organic Ales.

From the early 1990s, pubs modeled romantically after ones in England and Ireland began opening in Tokyo. Among the first were the Barley Mow in Ebisu (now closed) and Paddy Foley’s in Roppongi, followed by The Fiddler in Takadanobaba and What the Dickens in Ebisu. A common feature of these places is still Guinness, Bass Pale Ale and other ales on tap, served using nitrogen gas (rather than the carbon dioxide normally used) to give the pints a characteristic soft, thick head and smooth texture.

When the trickle turned into a trend, Sapporo (importer of Guinness) stepped in with their Dubliner’s Irish theme-pub chain. English and Irish theme pubs can now be found near practically every major station in Tokyo.

Adding to this already heady cocktail, in 1994 government regulations were changed to ease the minimum requirement for a brewing license from an output of 2 million liters a year to 60,000 liters — allowing small local breweries and large-scale brewpub operations to return after a century of oligopoly maintained by the bureaucrats and major brewers. Although Echigo Beer in Niigata and Ohotsk Beer in Hokkaido were granted the first brewing licenses (on the same day), Echigo was the first to put its brews on the market, in January 1995.

However, microbreweries experienced a host of problems. Outside of the four existing major brewers, practically no one in the country knew anything about brewing beer, so operators of these startups had to hire experienced microbrewers from overseas. Most came from Germany, while a few came from the U.S. and other countries.

A typical pattern was to hire a brewer from overseas for a short period of time to make the beer while also training Japanese workers how to do it. What the owners didn’t realize was that it takes not months, but years of training to make beer good enough to sell. Invariably, beer quality went downhill with the departure of the foreign brewmaster. Reputations suffered, many of these startups stopped, and unfortunately many Japanese microbrew drinkers were left with a poor impression, never having had the chance to enjoy good examples.

While there were nearly 300 in 1999, fewer than 220 microbreweries are still in operation. The decline is expected to continue.

Fortunately, the microbreweries that have been making decent beer are getting better at it, with some of the best now on par with their U.S. and European counterparts. Among these are Tokyo Ale, the Fishmarket Taproom (Shizuoka Prefecture), Ginga Kogen Beer (four breweries throughout Japan), Hakusekikan (Gifu Prefecture), Hitachino Nest Beer (Ibaraki Prefecture), Nasu Kogen Beer (Tochigi Prefecture), Minami Aizu Brewing Company (Fukushima Prefecture) and Yona Yona Ale (Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture).

Now that the novelty’s worn off, and media attention has moved away from microbreweries, let’s hope that those surviving despite the influence of the Big Four brewers will thrive by catering to the growing number of beer enthusiasts whose thirst is quenched by the rich and distinctive flavors of traditional styles of beer.

Cheers! and Kanpai! to one and all.