Sake and whiskey might be the international pinups of the Japanese alcohol world, but beer is the local favorite. It is by far the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the country, making up 31 percent of all alcohol consumed yearly in Japan, according to a 2013 report by the National Tax Agency.

Beer was introduced to Japan in the 17th century by Dutch merchants, but local brewers didn’t start producing it themselves until the early 19th century. Since then, the market has been dominated by three mega-breweries: Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi. All three produce nonconfrontational lager-style brews. They’re thin on the palate and easily consumed — it’s a style of beer local drinkers have become accustomed to.

Microbreweries that offered alternatives only sprung up after 1994, when the government relaxed taxation laws and restrictions on the lower limit of beer production. A single brewery was required to produce 2 million liters of beer each year, but after changes to the law they could legally produce as little as 60,000 liters.

It took time for Japanese microbreweries to figure out how to scale up production. Unlike their American and European counterparts, local small-scale brewers hadn’t been refining their techniques with home-brew kits. The first microbreweries on the scene, such as Niigata’s Echigo Beer, were experimental and the quality in most cases was unpredictable. But as their ranks grew, microbreweries worked tirelessly — in typical Japanese form — to perfect their craft.

According to The Craft Beer Association, as of 2015 there were 241 microbreweries in Japan and there has been a compound annual growth rate in production of more than 18 percent since 1995.

These figures clearly stacked up at the Japan Brewers Cup Festival, a three-day event held in Yokohama at the end of January. In the main hall of Osanbashi Pier, 30 craft breweries pulled more than 200 specialty varieties of beer for an enthusiastic crowd. The brews were judged by an expert panel and awarded prizes in three categories: IPA, pilsner and dark beer. But participating in the festival wasn’t about winning awards for all the breweries.

“(We’re) not just brewing for the beer geeks,” says Kenji Sakamoto, president of August Beer, which has been in business for 11 years. Sakamoto is targeting restaurants, and more than 20 in Tokyo carry his beer, many as their house offering. He recognizes the growing sophistication of beer drinkers and their desire to pair food with unique brews. At Michelin-starred restaurants across the world, craft beers are being offered in addition to wine for food pairings.

First prize in the IPA category was taken by Outsider Brewing from Yamanashi Prefecture for their Enigma IPA, a beer with a strong malt bitterness and a tropical fruit finish. Owner Mark Major, attributes the win to his use of the Australian Enigma hop, which has a flavor profile most locals would not have tasted — Outsider Brewing is the first in Japan to use it.

Major believes the key to cracking the Japanese craft beer market is producing well-balanced beers with an emphasis on the malt profile rather than the hops. He uses a dry-hopping technique with the Enigma IPA that involves adding hops to the keg after fermentation, which doesn’t alter the flavor of the beer but enhances its hoppy aroma.

When asked to comment on the rise of craft beer in Japan, brewmaster Toru Yoshijima of Hakone Brewery put it most eloquently: “The Japanese heart is best matched to fine craftsmanship.”

Local craft beer brewers are certainly passionate, but the rising popularity also has to do with consumers learning to appreciate the skill and intricacies involved in producing artisanal beer.

Yoshijima’s brewery is family owned and located in Hakone, a hot-spring resort town at the base of Mount Fuji. Its beers are only sold at the Hakone brewery and their connected restaurant, but making the one-hour trip from Tokyo is well worth it — especially now that Hakone Brewery was awarded first prize for its Pilsner, a crisp well-balanced beer with citrus notes and subtle bitterness.

First place in the dark beer category went to Nasu Kogen Beer for its Royal Stout, a richly flavored beer that tastes of burned coffee and dark cherry with a slightly sweet malty finish. However, the second-place winner — Preston Ale’s Irish Ale — was just as deserving.

“We are making English-style beer for Japanese tastes,” says brewer Norimitsu Kajiyama. Their Irish Ale is exactly that. Its roasted-coffee aroma is followed by a rich savory taste reminiscent of Japanese dashi. Perhaps this familiarity with the Japanese palate was key to the Irish Ale winning its award.

The Japanese penchant for craft beer is seeing no signs of abating. The number of breweries continues to increase along with specialty bars and craft-beer-friendly restaurants. So much so that the three beer giants are trying to grab a piece of the market by releasing their own “craft” brews.

What the Brewers Cup shows is a new generation of beer drinkers in Japan who are seeking more aromatic and artisanal beers — confrontational brews that aren’t afraid of flavor.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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