Tokyo’s Craft Beer Scene

May 22, 2019


On the topic of craft beers, I’m of two minds. I was still in America in the early 2000s when craft beers really began to take off (I worked at a relatively large liquor store, and we were one of the only stores in my town that consistently carried such beers back then). Over the years, the craft beer scene really took off in America, and the concomitant beer snobbery and hipsterism that also took off were a bit much for me. I knew guys who would only drink the most esoteric beers from the smallest local brewery, and many would look sideways at me when I ordered a Bud heavy at the bar (I was just in America several weeks ago, and now, from what I understand, while the craft beer scene is still strong, many drinkers my age have graduated to craft bourbon and other type drinks). I like craft beers, all the ales, stouts, and IPAs and the like, but sometimes, there are too many choices, and I revert to simple domestic pilsner-style beers.

How about Japan? I remember about five years ago when you started seeing craft beers here and there in some convenience stores and liquor shops, and over the last few years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of craft beer shops that specialize in various craft beers. Last year, on a vacation in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture (the countryside), I even saw a few craft beer shops, which I found indicative of how far the craft beer scene has come in Japan in the last few years.

 

 

Is the Craft Beer Scene Popular in Tokyo?

Yes, I would say it is. You might ask: how popular? Well, that’s a bit hard to say, but in my neighborhood (Shimokitazawa), there are several craft beers shops, as well as several liquor shops that sell a variety of craft beers. Running around Shimokitazawa, Koenji, Nakano, Shibuya, and Shinjuku, I see an increasing number of craft beer shops, so I think they are really starting to catch on. Having said that, however, in many (dare I say most?) izakayas (Japanese style pubs), there are not really a lot of craft beers for sale. Most craft beer shops that serve food also tend to serve western style food (my point is that if you are going out to dine on sushi or some other real Japanese-style cuisine, you may not be able to enjoy craft beers). Also, though I haven’t been to a nationwide chain izakaya recently, I suspect your craft beer options would be pretty limited at these places too. Aside from the increasing number of craft beer shops, there are also a lot of craft beer festivals in and around Tokyo. A quick google search reveals there was a beer festival that just ended several days ago in Nakano, there is a craft beer festival starting this week in Hibiya, and there is another beer festival in nearby Saitama later this month.

 

 

When Did Craft Beer Start Becoming Big in Japan?

Until 1994, it was essentially impossible for new breweries to get a license in Japan. In order to get a license, one had to show the ability to brew an industrial amount of beer, locking out small-time brewers. On a slightly different topic, I’d like to mention why this was the law until pretty recently. Japan is a very protectionist country, and groups that have mutual economic interests often band together to block or prevent competition. When Uber tried to open operations in Japan, the taxi companies lobbied VERY hard and got Uber shut down before it could even start operations. The same applied to Airbnb when the hotel industry lobbied hard to shut such enterprises down. Shoutengais (commercial strips near stations) protect mom and pop tobacco shops by banning or making it a condition that convenience stores near such shops cannot handle tobacco products. In the case of breweries, I suspect this was the same case. The big brewers (Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo) probably lobbied to keep out competition. Even after the relaxation of this law, home-brewing remained illegal (and still remains illegal according to Wiki) and even with the relaxation, the amount a brewer must be able to produce to obtain a brewer’s license remained pretty high, so for years after this relaxation, craft beers were not able to really take off in Japan. I started seeing craft beers in convenience stores and grocery stores around 2013 or 2014 here in Tokyo, and in the last year or two, I have really noticed an increasing number of craft beers shops in more crowded parts of Tokyo.

 

 

Where are the Best Craft Beer Breweries in Japan?

Some famous craft breweries in Japan include (my favorite) YO-HO Brewing, Minoh Brewery, Abashiri Beer Brewery, Kiuchi Brewery, and Echigo. YO-HO Brewing is located in Nagano Prefecture and has been operating since 1996 (an old micro-brewery by Japanese standards). I especially enjoy their Yona Yona line of IPAs and ales. Also, they operate taprooms called YONA YONA Beer Works throughout Tokyo, and from their website, it appears that they are beginning to distribute their products abroad as well. Minoh Brewery is an Osaka-based micro-brewery that has been operating since 1997 (also old by Japanese standards). I think their products are mainly available in the Kansai region, though I have seen some of their more famous products here in Tokyo, mainly in high-end supermarkets and other such places that carry many western suds you cannot find readily in Japan. Abashiri Beer Brewery is a brewery located in Hokkaido that has also been operating since 1998 (are you starting to see a trend here? Many (if not most) of these famous microbreweries are still very young). I have yet to see this brewery’s products in Tokyo, but that is perhaps due to my lack of looking. It is also possible that it is due to this brewer’s reputation for Ji-biru (local beer), meaning many of its products are “local beers” from Hokkaido. Kiuchi Brewery is located in Ibaraki Prefecture and has been producing beer since 1996, though it has been producing traditional Japanese spirits since 1823 (and still does). This brewery’s products are ubiquitous even in Tokyo, and in particular, I particularly like their Hitachino Nest Beer, and according to their website I consulted for the purpose of writing this article, this particular beer is currently exported to 15 countries. Echigo Brewery is technically the oldest microbrewery in Japan (and they proudly write this on their products). This brewery’s products are also ubiquitous here in Tokyo, and I personally enjoy many of their products. I should also mention that I have seen Kirin craft beers and Suntory craft beers recently in supermarkets and convenience stores, suggesting to me that the big boys (Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo) are going to get into this nascent market in the coming years if the demand for such products continues to increase.

 

What Makes the Craft Beer Scene Different in Japan to the Rest of the World?

The following is my impression only. (1) I think the Japanese craft beer drinkers tend to be (a) younger Japanese people and (b) western foreigners. While craft beer drinkers in America (the only other country I can speak about) tend to be youngish, because craft beers took off in America fifteen or twenty years ago, the average age of the craft beer drinker in America is probably a bit older. Also, older Japanese people (and older people everywhere, really) tend to be conservative and stuck in their ways, and I don’t often see many older Japanese people drinking these. (2) Craft beers in Japan, though starting to take off, remain limited in their scope and especially in where they can be purchased. As mentioned above, in the last five years or so in Tokyo, you can find craft beers in convenience stores and supermarkets increasingly, and especially, when going to high-end supermarkets and specialty liquor shops, the selection for these products has gotten a lot better. There is also an increasing number of craft beer drinking shops throughout Tokyo. Having said that, however, when I was home in America a few weeks ago, I noticed that when going to a normal bar (or even airport bars),  most only had two or three traditional domestic beers on tap for five or six local craft beers. Also, when I visited the liquor shop I used to work at as a kid, the ratio of craft beers to big-name beers was almost equal. In nationwide chain restaurants, too, many craft beers were available. In short, in America, the market is absolutely saturated with craft beers, to the point, it seems like there are more of these than traditional domestic beers. In Japan, as mentioned previously, while craft beers can increasingly be found and purchased, the places where you can purchase them are still relatively limited when compared with America. (3) In America, I personally know three people who make their own craft beer, though I do not know any Japanese people who do this. This seems odd to me. Japanese people love doing this kind of thing, and Japanese people are usually quite skilled (kiyou) in such endeavors. I think that because this practice TECHNICALLY remains illegal in Japan (from what I have researched) and that in Japan (especially Tokyo) housing remains limited in terms of space, this hobby has not really taken off in Japan. (4) The level of beer snobbery and beer hipsterism in Japan is non-existent. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of the things I really DON’T like about the craft beer scene in America is the level of beer snobbery and hipsterism consequent thereto. In America, I hear there are many people who refuse to drink anything but the most esoteric IPAs and ales (or whatever) put out by the most obscure basement breweries. I think, by the way, this trend may be ending in America. I have a brother who works in liquor distribution, and he tells me that many of the big brewers in America are swallowing up many of these microbrewers, and as the market is saturated with such craft beers, I think the limit for expansion of such products may have already been reached. I also think a factor that militates against beer snobbery in Japan is that beer has a lot of competition here. While beer is the most widely drunk alcohol in Japan (according to my research), many older people (those having money) also drink lots of Nihon Shu, Shochu, wine, whiskey, highballs, chuu hais, and ume shu (Japanese plum wine). Also, beer tends to be a pretty expensive option in Japan compared with some of these other drinks. That is especially true when it comes to craft beers, which are more expensive than normal beer, which is already expensive, at least when compared with America.

 

The Future of Craft Beers in Japan

I think this area still has a lot of room to grow. As mentioned throughout this article, many of the more famous microbreweries in Japan are only twenty or twenty-five years old, and even with that, it has only been several years since these brews have shown up in supermarkets and convenience stores. As mentioned, Japan is notorious for its protectionism, so many restaurants and izakayas have special deals with the big breweries for kegs of traditional beer, and space being what it is in Japan, most shops physically cannot accommodate any more space for a selection of craft beers. Also, older people, who have money and at whom therefore shops’ efforts are directed, did not grow up drinking these craft beers, so the demand, among older people, remains limited. Having listed all of these factors working against the craft beer scene, however, there are also many factors I think that augur well for the craft beer scene. In particular, Japanese people, when they get into something, tend to go the whole hog. Japanese people who are really into music, REALLY get into music, and the same goes for any hobby you can think of. Japanese people pride themselves on being very particular about the details of things, so when Japanese people get into craft beers, I think they will produce some really quality craft beers.

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