When most people think of Japanese beer, three names usually come to mind: Kirin, Sapporo, and Asahi. These three brewers all started around the same time back in the late 1800’s and have been turning out the same light flavored lagers for years. Fizzy, yellow, and bland would be a great description of a lot of these beers. The Japanese phrase “日本人の口にあう” (nihonjin no kuchi ni au) literally translates to “Meet the mouth of Japanese”. This phrase is sometimes used to describe the Japanese palate and why they prefer light beers. Since many dishes in Japan use seasonal and traditional ingredients, brewers didn’t want to make a beer that would overpower the flavor of the food. So most big brand Japanese beers end up being just a palate cleansers. As result of this, Japanese beer has had the same reputation as BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors) beers of the US. That is they don’t get much respect. This is the way it was until 1994, that’s when the brewing laws of Japan changed to allow people to brew smaller batches of beer. In the book Craft Beer in Japan, author Mark Meli dives into the history of Japanese brewing and the rise of “クラフトビール” (kurafuto biiru) in a lager dominating country.
The book starts off with a history of brewing Japan going back to 1853 when Komin Kawamoto first brewed beer, most likely after he first read about the brewing process in Dutch science books. The first Japanese brewery was Spring Valley Brewing, which founded in 1869 and then sold off to Japan Brewery Co. which later turned into Kirin Brewing. Sapporo opened in 1876, which was followed by Osaka Bakushu which opened in 1889 and would later become Asahi. An interesting fact about this period in Japanese brewing is that pale colored lagers were being brewed and sold in Japan only 34 years after Josef Groll first brewed them in Plzen in Bohemia in 1842.
From here we jump to 1994 when brewing laws changed to allow a brewer to produce 60,000 liters of beer, which came down from 2,000,000 liters. This led to the rise of “地ビール” (Ji biiru) which translate to “local beer”. Nearly 400 local breweries opened up in the mid to late ’90s, most producing sub-par beer. This trend of not so great beer continued into the 2000’s. In 2010, a craft revolution occurred in Japan. “Kurafuto Biiru” was now in demand and growing in popularity. Numerous craft beer bars and breweries opened up in Tokyo and throughout Japan. Unlike the “Ji Biiru” breweries of the previous decades, these “Kurafuto” breweries truly cared about the quality of their beer.
The rest of the book is a beer travel guide. Meli discusses nearly every craft brewery in Japan and rates the beers they produce. There are sections on Japanese beer phrases, craft beer festivals around the country, and reviews of numerous craft beer bars and pubs. If you are ever going to travel to Japan, I highly recommend this book. Japan is one of the best beer destinations I have ever been too and I can not wait for my next trip back to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Now here are some pictures from my beer trips to Japan. Cheers!