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For many in Japan’s craft beer industry, this year has been one of making hard choices and doing what it takes to keep the doors open.

While the toughest times coincided with the state of emergency in April and May, many bars and restaurants still face challenges. Almost as soon as the downturn began, people in the industry sought ways to keep going, from maintaining connections with fans to finding alternative ways to keep the lights on.

Ise Kadoya, a company in Mie Prefecture, went online, hosting live drinking parties on YouTube to publicize a crowdfunding campaign on Campfire. President Narihiro Suzuki and head brewer Zenichi Deguchi took questions from viewers online and interviewed brewery employees, all while drinking craft beer from their brewery and others around Japan, and sampling food from local restaurants.

After making the agonizing decision to cancel its Snow Monkey Beer Live festival, in early April, Shiga Kogen announced it would donate 10,000 bottles of its IPA to people working in bars, hotels and other affected industries, as well as to essential workers such as hospital staff and supermarket clerks. Asking only that people pay for the shipping, Eigo Sato, head of Shiga Kogen, was amazed at the response. When sign-ups went live, all 10,000 bottles were claimed within four minutes. Sato says that they wanted to do something tangible as quickly as possible, rather than take time to plan out a campaign that, had COVID-19 blown over quickly, would no longer have been needed.

Moving with surprising, and welcome, speed, the Japanese government announced temporary six-month licenses allowing bars and restaurants to sell take-out alcohol, a boon for both chain restaurants and mom-and-pop stores. In late September, many were worried about what would happen next, as the licenses granted in early April would be the first to expire. Fortunately, holders of the temporary licenses began receiving notices from their local tax offices stating that all the special permits would be automatically extended until the end of 2020, with a provision to apply for a further extension until March 31, 2021.

While low-interest loans and other forms of aid to bars and restaurants have helped, it’s clear to those in the industry that they need to pull together for long-term survival. In Tokyo, beer importers Albert Kuwano (managing director of AQ Bevolution) and Todd Stevens (of Beer Cats) realized that any such cooperation would need to help more than just Titans, the bar they jointly operate near Otsuka Station. Working with a group of 10 bars and restaurants around Tokyo, they created Craft Beer Bar Support Tickets, coupons for ¥1,000 valid until the end of 2020, in order to provide the participating bars with an immediate cash infusion. According to Stevens, at ¥3 million, the project “raised way more than we ever thought.”

Local bars outside of major nightlife areas are also experiencing a small, but much-needed, bump in business. “Not being in a big nightlife area has worked to our benefit,” Stevens says of Titans. “A lot of people were afraid to go out in Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro, and the bars in those areas, paying high rent, have been hit hard.”

“We saw a lot of new customers,” Kuwano adds. “People looking to get a beer, but not wanting to get on the train.”

For Titans’ fourth anniversary at the end of August, normally a raucous affair with customers spilling out onto the street, the bar sold tickets for timed blocks, allowing it to limit the number of guests per session.

Mikkeller Tokyo’s Hamiliton Shields took a similar approach this past weekend, on what would have been Mikkeller’s international beer festival. Instead, as part of the company’s Keep Pouring Nippon initiative, a small festival was held at Jinnan House in Shibuya, broken into several sessions with set limits on the number of attendees. Fans and brewers were able to mingle under the tents in a way that felt downright nostalgic. With a mixed indoor/outdoor space, masks, temperature checks and a curated selection from domestic brewers, it was a glimpse of the shape festivals may need to take to keep afloat — more streamlined, and possibly less capable of offering the paid work available at larger festivals.

Looking ahead, it seems increasingly likely that 2020 will be a year without bōnenkai, the traditional year-end parties that many bars and restaurants rely on to get through traditionally slow winter months. But the determination and creative thinking the industry has displayed so far raises hope that they’ll find a way through to brighter days ahead.

This is the second article in a two-part series about how Japan’s craft beer industry needs to adapt to the ongoing lack of industry events.

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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