Food & Drink | Cultivating Craft

An ongoing evolution: 25 years of craft beer in Japan

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

This year marks a quarter century since the advent of craft beer in Japan. After peaking during the initial ji-biru (local beer) boom in the early ’90s, within the past two years the number of licensed breweries has once again surpassed 300.

Although the current boom continues apace, unfortunately there are some breweries and bars that won’t see what the future holds.

On Aug. 3, Kei Tanaka shuttered his venerable Kura Kura, a 20-year landmark of Japanese beer. Citing a shift in the scene towards 30- or 40-tap strong casual pubs, as well as his own age, Tanaka decided to close Kura Kura, with its throwback style of waiters and bartenders in bow-ties, rather than force it to become something it wasn’t.

Even after closing his bar, Tanaka feels optimistic about the future of Japanese craft beer. “There will be waves, and the industry will go up and down, but it will never go away,” he says. When asked what he plans to do next, Tanaka says he will be focusing on his role in the Japan Craft Beer Pub Association, a small group of bars aiming to elevate the craft drinking experience in Japan.

The idea of working together to establish a concept of what craft means appeals to many of Japan’s brewers and industry experts. One point of consensus was the country’s need for a cohesive brewery-centered trade association, like the Brewers Association (BA) in America, which recently developed a widely adopted seal for beers that meet its guidelines, or the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), which has successfully lobbied to push regulations that benefit the industry in the U.K.

Rob Bright, co-founder of website BeerTengoku, believes an industry trade group is key to educating both brewers and consumers. “When you pay up to ¥1,500 for a beer,” he says, “you should know that you’re getting a beer that is well-made … it shouldn’t be a crapshoot.” In addition, Bright says, a trade group that educates bar owners on how to best store and serve beer would promote a more standardized consumer experience.

Mike Grant, one of the founders of DevilCraft, agrees. “The industry itself needs a vibrant trade association that will help increase overall quality on the beer side through education and quality training, and work on legalizing homebrewing and other tax initiatives,” he says.

George Juniper, of TDM 1874 Brewery, also points out that the number of experienced brewers in Japan hasn’t kept pace with industry growth. “If Japan had less archaic attitudes towards brewing,” Juniper says, “we would have more talented brewers to feed the industry.”

Chris Poel, former head brewer at Baird Brewing and now in the process of opening Shiokaze BrewLab, a teaching and consulting brewery in Chiba Prefecture, adds that “the lack of educational opportunities for people wanting to become brewers is a huge hurdle.”

While “true” craft beer has failed to make inroads into most supermarkets and convenience stores, shelves are lined with cans and bottles of macro-brews purporting to be craft beers, attempting to piggyback off the reputation craft has re-earned over time. Juniper calls for more transparency, with “craft breweries set apart, and less of macro-breweries … calling their brands ‘craft’ when they’re not.”

Going forward, one of the largest challenges for craft, Juniper continues, is “for breweries to get packaged beer into more stores. Currently, it’s very difficult … to get cans and bottles into supermarkets, department stores or convenience stores without longstanding personal relationships, or the muscle of the big four breweries.”

As Kaori Oshita of Osaka’s Minoh Beer says, “Now, when people drink craft, it’s a special occasion beer. My goal is that someday, people will think of craft as a normal after-work kind of beer,” a sentiment echoed by many craft beer brewers.

The first 25 years of craft beer in Japan were filled with missteps and challenges, and there are no guarantees the next quarter century will be any easier. However, with continued growth and increased sharing of experience and know-how, the future of craft beer is looking better and better.