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It will shock no one to hear 2020 has been brutal for bars and breweries. During Japan’s state of emergency, many breweries stopped making beer entirely, having no customers to sell to, and most are still seeing sales as low as 30% compared to the same time last year.

As bad as it’s been for long-standing establishments with loyal followers, for new entrants it’s been even tougher. One company, Dig the Line, announced late last year that it would begin importing European craft beers and open a bottle shop and tap room in Kyoto’s new ShinPuhKan shopping and hotel complex. In December 2019, it seemed like a great idea, and the bar was scheduled to open in early April.

When Dig the Line finally had the chance to open its doors in June, it was to a city without tourists, in a country where beer festivals, a key venue for promoting new imports, had nearly all been canceled.

For craft beer in Japan, festivals and events are key to professional growth, giving brewers chances to connect and learn from each other. Without festivals, brewers also lose the chance to interact with fans, a central part of the community building that sustains the industry as a whole.

Most breweries I spoke to say they had planned to attend 15 or more festivals this year, not including other small promotional events. While sales from events make up, on average, less than 10 percent of annual sales, missing out on that still has brewers feeling the pinch.

Eigo Sato, head of Shiga Kogen brewery, had an early glimpse of how serious the pandemic would become. Shiga Kogen was scheduled to attend its first Chinese beer festival in January, but when it was canceled, Sato began thinking about his own event, the popular Snow Monkey Beer Live. With attendees from across Japan crowded into a small event hall needing to shout over the loud music, Sato felt there was no way to safely hold the festival and officially canceled it in February.

For some craft beer fans, Sato’s decision was the first indication COVID-19 was truly a serious issue. Like dominoes, other large-scale events began canceling, with Saitama’s Keyaki Beer Festival, Sapporo’s Craft Beer Forest festival and Iwate’s All Japan Beer Festival each waiting as long as possible before calling things off.

Lost connections: Hamilton Chase Shields, Mikkeller’s Tokyo representative, agonized over canceling the mid-October Mikkeller Beer Celebration Tokyo. | JEREMY WILGUS
Lost connections: Hamilton Chase Shields, Mikkeller’s Tokyo representative, agonized over canceling the mid-October Mikkeller Beer Celebration Tokyo. | JEREMY WILGUS

Despite loosening restrictions on public gatherings, autumn events have fared no better. Hamilton Chase Shields, Mikkeller’s Tokyo representative, agonized over canceling the mid-October Mikkeller Beer Celebration Tokyo. “We have brewers from around the world in a relaxed setting, chatting with some of their biggest fans. It’s a way to feel connected to the world,” he says, adding that it was tough to call off an event based on connections at a time when so many brewers and fans feel isolated.

Knock-on effects of canceled festivals and shortened bar hours compound to hit part-time workers and festival staff — the first to lose hours — who are scrambling to make ends meet without the seasonal festivals that make up the largest portion of their income. The hits keep coming, with the Japan Brewers Cup, held in January each year, the first confirmed cancellation of 2021.

While the health and safety of customers and staff is paramount, bars and brewers worry how much longer they can keep doors open with sales as low as they’ve been. Even as customers start to return, the industry knows that the traditionally slow winter months will put their ingenuity to the test.

A followup article about how Japan’s craft beer industry needs to adapt to the ongoing lack of industry events will run Oct. 25.

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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