THE CRAFT BEER SCENE IN JAPAN
As some of you know, last August I was traveling around Japan. During three fantastic weeks I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka with my wife, and it meant a unique opportunity to deepen my knowledge of the craft beer scene in different parts of the country.
But before sharing some of my experiences, in order to share some background I thought it would be useful to make a brief introductory post about the birth of craft beer in Japan [The main source that I consulted to was the book "Craft beer in Japan: the essential guide” by Mark Meli (Bright Wave Media Inc., 2013)].
THE BIRTH OF CRAFT BEER IN JAPAN
Ji-Biru literally means "beer of the land", and is the Japanese term that corresponds to "micro beer" or "craft beer" in English. In recent years, however, the name that is often used by brewers and enthusiasts seeking to differentiate those beers that pay a special attention to detail and quality in its preparation is kurofato biru (“craft beer”).
Ji-Biru was born in 1994 due to a change in the legislation that allowed those with a capacity to produce 60,000 liters per year or more to obtain a brewing license. Prior to the deregulation, the required volume was set at 2 million liters per year, an impossible requirement for any brewery that was not fully industrialized.
LEGAL CHANGES AND EXPLOSION OF BREWERIES
After this important change in the law a large explosion of micro-breweries took place. Many breweries appeared throughout the territory, and some of them just focused on obtaining great benefits without caring about the most important factor: brewing quality beer. Many people jumped on the bandwagon; sake brewers, restaurants, museums, hotels, and so forth. All of them with the same idea: attracting customers, saving costs by making their own beer and making money. But the truth is that the vast majority of them had no idea where they were going.
As a consequence, at the end of the 1990s, 400 microbreweries coexisted in Japan, many of which were forced to close. The problems with these businesses were several, but it seems that the main reason was that the beers left much to be desired.
In spite of this, some of those breweries - especially those with sufficient economic resources - decided to hire foreign experts to elaborate for them, or at least, to train their employees in the brewing industry. Others opted to directly finance their brewers to travel abroad and to learn brewing techniques. Those that did it well, survived.
YEAR 2010: THE NEW CRAFT BEER REVOLUTION ARRIVES IN JAPAN
By the year 2010, a new revolution arrived. Craft beer became a popular drink in certain social circles. Although in 2013 it still did not occupy more than 0.35-0.40% of the total consumption on the domestic market, during the last years it has grown exponentially until reaching the 2% (data extracted from the report dated August 31, 2018 and prepared by USDA'S Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN)). The remaining 98% is distributed among the four big ones: Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo.
Dozens of new craft beer or Ji-Biru bars open their doors in Tokyo every year, but this trend is not exclusive to the capital, as it has also spread to other cities such as Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya, among others. In addition, there are more and more bars and non-specialized restaurants that have craft beer taps or bottles. Every day a new brewery is emerging, and among them, some small local brewpubs that fight to elaborate quality beer despite the many regulatory difficulties they come across along the way.
It is of great significance that some of the best brewers are investing heavily in the business and expanding their structures. What also is worth mentioning is the fact that it is nowadays easy to find a good variety of local craft beers in the shelves or refrigerators of any supermarket, which in a certain way denotes consumer interest and maturity in the field.
There is still a long way to go, and it is clear that the country does not have enough prestige yet in the area in order to be considered a main destination for craft beer lovers. But despite our lack of information due to the distance and the language barrier, Japan has sufficient potential to achieve it.