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Japan’s craft beer scene: 25 years in the making

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

The secret is long since out: Japan’s craft beer scene is a vibrant place, filled with innovative brewers creating new and interesting beers alongside masterful examples of traditional styles. In nearly every decent-sized city, it’s possible to find at least one bar specializing in craft beer.

Nearly every weekend this summer, it seemed there was at least one, if not several, festivals devoted to craft beer — including the Saitama-based Keyaki Beer Festival, the Tokyo-based Oedo Beer Festival and the Osaka-based Craft Beer Picnic — with fans traveling from around the country to sample beers and meet brewers. The strength of the craft beer scene is truly remarkable when you stop and realize that the Japanese craft beer industry didn’t exist 25 years ago.

It was only in 1994 that the Japanese government softened the strict laws that governed the granting of brewing licenses. Up until then, to become licensed, a brewery needed to be able to produce 2 million liters of beer each year, a feat impossible without an industrial-sized brewery. With the change in regulations, breweries needed only to demonstrate a capacity of 60,000 liters, allowing new, smaller breweries to enter the market. For drinkers tired of the same mass-produced lagers and pilsners on every shelf, and in every bar, the styles produced by these smaller breweries — IPAs, ales and stouts among others — were a welcome relief.

According to Rob Bright, cofounder of BeerTengoku, a website dedicated to Japanese craft beer, while licenses became easier to obtain, other issues nearly killed the industry before it had found its footing. “For one thing, homebrewing is effectively illegal in Japan,” Bright says. “Brewing beer without a license is only legal as long as the beer you brew is less than 1-percent alcohol by volume, which is hardly worth the effort.”

Unlike America, or the U.K., Japan also lacked brewers with experience. When domestic beer production began in the 1870s, many companies relied on foreign brewers to help them set up their operations. “Traditionally,” Bright says, “the Japanese image of beer was that of German beers, so you ended up with a lot of German-style breweries and beers.” This led to most newly opened breweries having “the standard line-up of alt, weizen or pilsner,” many of which weren’t very good. The mediocre product, combined with the monotony of the offerings, was nearly disastrous to the fledgling craft beer industry.

In the first few years under the new laws, companies raced to enter the newly opened market. By the peak in 1997, there were over 300 companies selling what was known as ji-biru, or local beer. Many of the early breweries were started as a way to create a local specialty product, or meibutsu, which might in turn drive tourism, but often these startups lacked essential understanding of the brewing process. This gave rise to the derisive nickname “tourist beers” for ji-biru lacking in quality, or lazily made by adding local produce to an existing brew to create a gimmicky beer.

Lacking the production facilities and access to the economies of scale enjoyed by the big four brewers, ji-biru was also expensive, usually double or more than the cost of a similar amount of macro-brew. According to Bright, “Japanese people are traditionally seen as being willing to pay a premium for quality, but if you’re asking double the price of a bottle of Kirin for a mediocre product, why would anyone buy it?”

By 1999, the initial excitement had faded, and many bars and restaurants moved away from the new beers. By 2009, almost 100 of the new breweries had closed, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the number of breweries began to rise again.

Kei Tanaka, master at Kanda’s craft beer landmark Kura Kura, agrees with Bright. “Without home brewing, Japanese companies didn’t have a pool of skilled brewers to hire, so they hired foreign brewers.” Like Rob Bright, he laments the sameness of the early craft beer offerings, limited to mostly pale imitations of German-style beers.

Founded in Shimokitazawa in the late ’90s, and relocated to Kanda in 2009, Kura Kura is second only to Ryogoku’s Popeye in terms of longevity, with Tanaka promoting domestic craft beer for the past 20 years.

“At first, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge of the craft. With the founding of The Craft Beer Association, and the promotion of beer festivals, brewers had a chance to meet, to share knowledge, and to improve at their craft.” Now, Tanaka says, “Japan’s craft beer industry has come into its own, with the top brewers in Japan able to compete on a global scale. Customers know better, and demand a higher level product.”

This is the first installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.