Food & Drink | Cultivating Craft

Homebrewing in Japan: Craft beer's creative foundation

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

When Japan’s beer laws changed in 1994, many companies took advantage of the new opportunities that opened up for them and, in the space of three years, more than 300 new breweries opened in Japan.

However, the initial boom quickly faded, and more than 100 breweries closed between 1998 and 2000. Only in the past couple years has the Japanese craft beer industry rebounded, with 312 breweries registered as of Jan. 1, 2018. Still, craft beer barely captures 2 percent of the total market in Japan compared to the 24 percent market share of the 7,000 craft breweries in the United States.

There is a larger reason for the disparity: Homebrewing beer, legalized in America in 1978, is functionally illegal in Japan, as home brewing is only allowed as long as the alcohol content is less than 1 percent by volume. When the craft beer boom started in Japan, unlike in America, there was no pool of experienced brewers to draw from.

Valuing experimentation: Jason Koehler, one of craft beer company DevilCraft's three founders, poses in front of a DevilCraft booth. | JEREMY WILGUS
Valuing experimentation: Jason Koehler, one of craft beer company DevilCraft’s three founders, poses in front of a DevilCraft booth. | JEREMY WILGUS

“You can set an egg timer from when home brewing became legal to when craft beer sprang up in America,” says George Juniper, head brewer at TDM 1874 in Kanagawa Prefecture. With his parents’ assistance, Juniper began homebrewing at the age of 13. He has been exploring the science and craft of brewing ever since, catching the attention of the head brewer at Dark Star Brewing in the U.K. while still in university. “He preferred to hire someone who had experience with brewing to hiring someone fresh out of university with no practical experience,” Juniper says.

According to estimates, there are just over 1.1 million homebrewers in America. In addition, the prevalence of homebrewing has helped create a wider understanding of beer and beer styles among the drinking public, whereas craft beer in Japan has yet to reach mainstream acceptance.

“Without the homebrewing experience,” Jason Koehler, one of the three founders of Tokyo’s DevilCraft brewery says, “there is a lack of knowledge about the raw materials. American homebrewers can explore the possibilities on a smaller scale, whereas most Japanese brewers, especially in the early days, followed recipes handed down to them.” The barriers to experimentation, he adds, stifle creativity.

“So few breweries in Japan can make a wide variety of beer,” says John Chambers, another founding member of DevilCraft. “The experience that many homebrewers build through practice is illegal, so new brewers have difficulty expanding their horizons.”

In Japan, a solid community of homebrewers has developed where members can share information and, of course, beer. At their most recent get together, more than 300 brewers and enthusiasts shared more than 400 liters of beer, much of it homebrewed. Members of the group include hobbyists as well as amateurs-gone-pro, with more than a few members having managed to open their own breweries in Japan, taking care not to mention their homebrewing past.

“Mentioning homebrewing experience on your application for a brewer’s license can have a negative effect,” says one brewer. “Rather than seeing the positive aspect of granting a license to someone familiar with the craft, the tax office instead chooses to focus on following the letter of the outdated law.”

Many homebrewers reference the negative consequences of laws banning homebrewing, particularly the effects on experimentation and creativity at the heart of craft beer. Many brewers, both foreign and Japanese, started homebrewing out of curiosity, but also because of a strong dissatisfaction with the beer available to them in Japan compared to what they could drink on trips abroad.

Strangely, while homebrewing is illegal in Japan, nearly all of the ingredients needed for brewing are available online, and more than a couple of brewers got their start with a brew kit sold openly at Tokyu Hands. Some brewers, active since the mid-1990s, spoke of the difficulty in finding information in the pre-internet era, requiring homebrewers to find help through message boards or directly emailing brewers and suppliers overseas.

While the Japanese government seems uninterested in updating its outdated laws, maybe a different argument is needed. Whereas many homebrewers talk about quality and innovation, it might behoove them to bring up the economic possibilities of craft beer. According to a recent report from the U.S.-based Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association, the 7,000 breweries in America directly employ 70,000 workers, and are indirectly responsible for more than 2 million jobs and over $101 billion (¥11 trillion) in wages, as well as a much wider overall economic impact through sales, construction, shipping and tax revenue.

As it stands now, the only legal way to brew beer in Japan is to work in a brewery, leaving a growing number of breweries scrambling for the relatively few people with brewing experience. The reality is a growing industry with no established labor pool to draw from. Most new employees need to be taught the very basics of brewing before they can do their job properly.

Craft beer in Japan is experiencing a second renaissance, becoming more refined through international collaboration and information sharing. However, many of Japan’s breweries are still trying to catch up to the innovation and skill level of their overseas counterparts.

One can only dream of what Japanese beer could become with legalized homebrewing and the innovation that comes with it.