Tapping into the Japanese beer scene
Many people are surprised to learn that beer (“biiru”) is the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan. The Japanese drink more beer than traditional tipples such as shochu, umeshu (Japanese wine) and sake, with beer an important part of the izakaya experience. They’ve enjoyed beer since the 17th century when Dutch traders stationed at Nagasaki opened a beer hall for sailors working the trade route between Japan and the Dutch empire.
Most of Japan’s beer comes from four major beer producers – big brands Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory – who produce mainly pale-coloured light lagers with an alcohol strength of around 5%. Until regulatory change in 1994, a potential brewery had to demonstrate a capacity to brew 2 million litres of beer each year, making it near impossible for new entrants to get a beer licence.
Once this requirement was lowered the Japanese craft beer scene took off and has exploded in recent years with the opening of numerous craft beer bars in Tokyo and other major cities. Today, there are more than 200 microbreweries in Japan producing various styles of beer including ales, IPAs, stout, pilsner, weissbier, kölsch and fruit beers. Even beer behemoths Kirin and Sapporo have entered the Japanese craft beer market, with both multinational breweries launching craft lines in 2015.
Tap beer in Japan is renowned for being especially refreshing and creamy. There is generally more foam to liquid in Japanese beers for two reasons. Firstly, aesthetics are very important to Japanese people who believe that the more foam, the more attractive and tastier a beer looks. A thick head of foam also creates a sort of “lid” which prevents the beer from losing flavour and fizz.
True to their international reputation as lovers of gadgets, you can even buy a beer glass with a switch that generates a Japanese-style foamy top when your beer is first poured, or even as you drink!
In Japan, draft beer is enjoyed alfresco, particularly in the summer months. Many Tokyo department stores convert their rooftops into beer gardens with a view, adorned with fairy lights and lanterns. Many of these venues allow you to cook your meal on a private table-top BBQ and enjoy bottomless drinks.
There are also countless trendy craft beer bars such as Beer Brain (the brain-child of a group of enthusiasts known as the Tokyo Beer Boys) and iBrew, which promises 30 craft beers on tap.
If you’re a beer lover, it’s an exciting time to explore Japan’s rapidly expanding beer scene. Craft beer festivals are starting to pop up across the country with BeerFes (The Great Japan Beer Festival) now holding annual events in Osaka, Okinawa, Nagoya and Yokohama in addition to the original event in Tokyo. You can taste more than 200 varieties of craft beer, including the award-winners from the International Beer Cup.
If mainstream beers are more your thing, a visit to a big brand brewery could be an excellent addition to your Japanese trip.
Ubiquitous with Japan, Asahi was founded in Osaka in 1889 and currently has close to 40% market share in Japan. Asahi introduced Asahi Super Dry in 1987 – a beer that started the Japanese brewery Dry Wars (“dorai senso”) and is considered to have transformed the modern beer industry. (A dry beer is a straw-coloured, light-bodied beer that has a less bitter aftertaste than a standard beer). Asahi offers brewery tours across eight sites from Hokkaido to Fukushima.
For a more traditional approach, you might like to visit the Orion brewery – the fifth largest beer brewery in Japan – on the island of Okinawa. Around 60% of the beer consumed on Okinawa is Orion – and given Okinawans are some of the longest living people on earth, it’s certainly worth a try! Orion’s brewery beer hall also serves Okinawan specialties including pork, goya (bitter melon) and soba.
Made using spring water from the mountains just behind the brewery, Orion beer was initially a German-style beer but has enjoyed increased consumption since changing its recipe to become more of an American style. It’s gaining a growing fan club in Australia and is now on the menu at some of Australia’s top restaurants.
“I order cases of Orion’s draft beer for freinds,” says Rachel. “It’s also on tap at Hihou, my favourite Japanese bar in Melbourne, and served by the bottle at exclusive Rockpool. While it’s still absolutely delicious, Japanese beer served internationally just doesn’t compare to the creaminess of a chilled, fresh-from-the-tap glass enjoyed in Japan.”