If you’re reading this it won’t be news to you that craft beer is experiencing a tremendous boom right now. But with Japan usually being behind the West in most trends, we’ve decided to create a primer for craft beer in Japan.
First, the business of it. Most estimates have the current market share of craft beer in Japan at around 1% or less, as compared to over 10% in America. However, craft beer interest is high in Japan, with new breweries and new craft beer bars popping up everywhere. Actually, this isn’t the first boom – there was a brief boom followed by a bust in the mid-1990s, when a change in liquor tax laws led to a sharp but short-lived increase in the number of microbreweries. This time, however, the prevailing feeling is that it’s here to stay (which given the rise of craft beer in the West isn’t exactly a bold statement).
Naturally, there are some differences between the market here and abroad. First of all, like most other things here, craft beer is very expensive. For a single bottle of a domestic microbrew, you would generally pay no less than 400 to 500 yen for one bottle, which is equivalent to about 4 to 5 US dollars. Also, Japan as a whole does not really offer bulk discounts, so you won’t find any six-packs of craft beer. There isn’t necessarily a strong correlation between price and quality here – some of the best brewers here offer their beer for relatively cheap, while some craft brewers sell their wares for quite a bit more even if the quality does not necessarily match. As for draft beer, prices vary quite a bit depending on the type of place you’re at – you can find a US pint for as little as 700 to 750 yen, and the same beer at the same size might be 1200 to 1300 yen at another bar across town. American beer is a bit more expensive than domestic beer, and European beer is a bit more expensive than American beer.
In terms of packaging, while especially in America cans have caught on as a lighter (and therefore cheaper) and more effective form of packaging, it hasn’t yet caught on here. There are a couple of brewers using cans, but none of the best are – most everyone offers 330mL bottles. On the other end of the spectrum, as wineification hasn’t really hit the shores here yet either you don’t see many beer in wine bottles. Outside of Tamamura Honten (one of the best breweries here) and Loco Beer no major breweries are offering wine bottles yet. Of course, given that Japan is usually a few years behind in almost all trends compared to the West, it won’t be surprising if both cans and wine bottles become more and more common.
Now let’s get to the beer itself. So we all know the trends in beer styles around the world – sours, saisons, and barrel-aged beers. In Japan, unfortunately, we haven’t seen as much experimentation in the kinds of beer here as we’ve seen in American and Europe. Many of the older breweries here are firmly in the German brewing tradition, and newer ones tend to focus on hop-forward American-style beers (is that you, IPA?). That means that sours don’t exist, barrel-aged beers are exceedingly rare, and saisons crop up now and then but have yet to really gain popularity. This is also slowly starting to change, but you will be disappointed if you are looking for beers that stray from a more traditional definition of beer.
However, you will find a strong community of beer drinkers who are interested in new styles. While many of the specialty beer bars focus on traditional Belgian beers (as an aside, the tendency to use Belgian beer as a status symbol is a bit stronger here than in America perhaps), there are quite a few in Tokyo that focus on American craft beer and Japanese craft beer. And recently, there are also places popping up that are finally starting to focus on the new European craft brewers. The end result of this is that you won’t find a lot of the new styles and foreign beers you’re looking for, but you will find some of them. With a bit of legwork you can still have access to sours and saisons and barrel-aged beers in Tokyo, even if it won’t be quite as ubiquitous as it would be in Europe or the US.
Finally, a bit of terminology – in the past, people here generally referred to craft beer as ji-biru (地ビール), which translates to something like local beer. The idea was that the small-scale brewers were operating on a local scale as opposed to the large breweries, and local beer just wasn’t really available outside of that area. However, as the notion of craft beer began to take hold, the term of choice transitioned to basically using the English term (craft beer = クラフトビール), which is more appropriate in the sense that while new breweries do physically exist in all kinds of locations around Japan, they are aiming to produce the beer that they want to not on just a local scale, but on a scale that will allow beer drinkers all over Japan enjoy their creations.
That wraps up our basic introduction to craft beer in Japan. On this blog we’ll be looking at anything and everything related to craft beer in Japan, so hopefully you’ll find the content interesting and informative. Any and all feedback is welcome – we can be reached at beereastjp at gmail.com, so thanks for reading.