Most people who drink can name at least one Japanese beer these days. Products by major breweries such as Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory are now available around the world.
But ask about Japanese craft beer from microbreweries in Japan, and you're more likely to get blank looks.
Since the mid 1990s, the Japanese craft beer movement has steadily gained momentum and recognition in Japan (and beyond). Join us as we explore Japan using Japanese craft beers as our guide...
Japanese Craft Beer: A Beginner's Guide
by Rob Bright of BeerTengoku
Beer and Humans
Beer and humans have a long and storied history.
In fact, historians believe that beer’s history is so long that some of the first writings from Babylon, which mentioned beer in the Code of Hammurabi included laws regulating beer and places to buy beer. Beer even has its own goddess, Ninkasi, who is often praised to be the goddess of alcohol.
Nearly every country in the world consumes beer, and that has made it be the third most drunk beverage around the world – behind water and tea. Whiskey more your kind of beverage? Dekanta has some stunning Japanese whiskeys and they deliver worldwide in a few days.
Japan's Beer History
Japan also has its own history with beer, though not quite as long as the Babylonians.
Beer was first introduced into Japan in the 17th century when Dutch sailors, who were stationed in Dejima, Nagasaki, wanted somewhere to drink. The Dutch traders at the time opened a beer hall strictly for those sailors working between Japan and the Dutch Empire.
Over time, and as Japan became more open to trade, other countries began to import their beer, with Bass Pale Ale and Bass Stout being two of the more popular brands at the time. Despite beer being popular, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the first domestic brewery opened up by a Norwegian-American called William Copeland.
While he might not be well-known, the brewery that he opened was called the Spring Valley Brewery, which later became the Kirin Brewery Company, and in what became a full-circle, later became Kirin Brewery’s efforts to crack the craft beer market.
Japan's Big Four: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory
When you think about beer in Japan, no doubt you will think of one of the big four brands: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Those four beers have dominated the beer scene for so long in Japan that the image of a beer is synonymous with the plump white head of a beer on top of the golden hues of a lager-style beer.
Those beers have become massive hits because they all hit different niches in the market.
Asahi Super Dry with its clean flavour is used to pair against Japanese cuisine, which is light in flavour. Kirin Ichiban has full malt flavour that is good for the first beer after a day at work. Sapporo evokes the image of Hokkaido and German-style pilsners. While Suntory is at the higher end of the beers and is used to show off quality and workmanship.
Some of these beers have become so popular that it possible to buy them overseas, with Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Ichiban, and Sapporo Draft being three examples that can be bought in many countries.
Birth of The Japanese Craft Beer Market
However, since 1994, the craft beer market has been steadily growing and has gone through a variety of changes after the government relaxed the limitations for making beer.
In the past, breweries needed to produce a minimum of 2 million litres of beer per year to obtain a license, well beyond the capacity of all small breweries.
In 1994, the government reduced this limitation down to 60,000 litres per year for a beer license, where only water, malt, hops, and yeast are allowed, or 6,000 litres for what is known as a happoshu licence, where a certain amount of the ingredients have to be non-beer ingredients, such as tea, fruit, or in some circumstances salmon.
Pale Ales and India Pale Ales
The craft beer market in Japan has its focus on beers that are primarily not lagers – why try to imitate the big four brands when they have been doing what they’re good at for years. Moreover, lagers tend to take a long time to make, with anywhere between 3 to 6 weeks for the whole process to be complete.
Craft beer breweries, those who produced smaller amounts of beer than the larger counterparts, have been influenced by both styles that were originally brought over by the brewers employed at the time, with a heavy focus on German style beers, but also styles that are popular in America, so pale ales and India pale ales.
Craft Tasting Notes: Characteristics and Communities
The flavours tend to vary wildly compared to lagers, with pale ales and IPAs focusing on more hops in the beers.
So citrus, tropical, and earthy flavours are more prominent; wheat beers focusing more on the wheat portion so creamy and oat, stouts and porters have a richer, darker flavour profile so chocolate, coffee, and cocoa are often noted.
Then there's the fruit beers using a variety of produce from local communities, so fruits like yuzu, hyuganatsu, grapes, and oranges can be found throughout the year.
6 Japanese Microbreweries You Should Try
If you’re looking to supplement your beer drinking with some Japanese craft beer, here is a list of breweries that we’ve enjoyed in Japan, and can be found across the country. If you can’t get to them, then you can also buy some of their beers online directly from their online stores (links below).
Minoh Beer (Osaka)
Opened in 1997, Minoh Beer started out when the late Oshita-san bought a brewery for two of her daughters, Kaori and Mayuko, and later their younger sister joined in.
Minoh Beer first made news when the W-IPA was advertised in a Japanese newspaper; however, Minoh Beer was known among Japanese craft beer fans before then. Minoh Beer is also a multiple award-winning brewery with some of the wins coming in best IPA and best stout.
Kyoto Brewing Company (Kyoto)
Founded in 2015, Kyoto Brewing Company has been a story of continued success ever since. The three people behind KBC (as they’re often called) are Chris Hainge, Paul Speed, and Benjamin Falck.
The beers from KBC have a strong Belgian influence, from the yeast used, to the style of beer. The hops used at KBC also show a global connection as imported hops from the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Slovenia, and the UK are all used in some of their beers.
Belgian beers have also heavily influenced the styles of beers made too, with Belgian saisons, stouts, and blonde ales being part of the core line up.
Shiga Kogen (Nagano)
Tamamura Honten started brewing Shiga Kogen Beer, like several other breweries such as Kiuchi Brewery, as an offshoot from a sake brewery.
In 2004, Tamamura Honten applied for a license and started brewing in September of the same year. Unlike other breweries however, Shiga Kogen Beer receives 20% of its hops from the local area, produced by Tamamura Honten.
Shiga Kogen are also well known for collaborating with both domestic and oversea breweries throughout the year.
Brewery Songbird (Chiba)
Brewery Songbird, also known as Songbird Beer, is a Chiba based craft beer brewery, located in Kisarazu city, that opened in 2015.
The owners, Kyohei and Monami Nakajima, received their license in April 2015 and have quickly established themselves as brewers of predominantly Belgian style craft beers, while also producing some other styles of European beers.
Songbird Brewery beer’s can be bought and tried at their bottle shop and tasting room or bought online too.
Online store: http://songbirdbeer.blogspot.co.uk/p/web-shop.html
West Coast Brewing (Shizuoka)
West Coast Brewing is a Japanese brewery located in Mochimune, in Shizuoka, Japan.
They operate out of a new tourist facility that was renovated from a building that was previously used as a tuna processing plant. The building stood unused for more than a decade after traders withdrew in around 2005 due to the tightening of international tuna catch regulations.
West Coast Brewing obtained their brewing license in July 2019 and since then, have been focussed on mainly making IPAs and the kind.
TDM 1874 (Kanagawa)
TDM 1874, which stands for Ten Day Market with the year coming from when the original company was founded, is a brewpub located in Tokaichiba, Kanagawa.
TDM 1874 has been brewing since and has already seen interest growing in both its beer and its head brewer, George Juniper. Sales of their beers, which started in their own brewpub, have spread across Japan and can now be found in bars in the Kanto region, Niigata, Osaka and Kyoto.
Japanese Craft Beer Tours
To accompany this article, we've pulled together a selection of tours across Japan, that enable you to visit microbreweries, sample some Japanese craft beers, and to experience the culture that surrounds drinking in Japan...
Explore Tokyo's Nakano area on a local food tour
In this private guided tour, you'll sample three essential types of Tokyo cuisine at super local restaurants, enjoy authentic sake at old-fashioned bars, and learn about the traditions of Japanese food and drink culture all in one trip.
Includes visiting Beer Factory - where you can try their range of home-brewed pale ales, porters, and even a delicious non-alcoholic homemade apple cider.
Hyuga Brewery Beer Tasting at a Kozushima-Island Brewpub (Izu, Tokyo)
Kozushima is an island off the coast of Tokyo, popular for swimming, hiking and snorkelling. Hyuga Brewery on Kozushima is the first craft beer brewery in the Izu Islands.
Book your visit through Voyagin to be received by the brewpub’s English-speaking staff, who will show you around the microbrewery attached to the pub.
Your host will teach you about the unique facets of running a brewpub on a small island and introduce you to their unique beers. Hyuga Brewery distinguishes themselves by using several ingredients that are unique to the Izu Islands, even to Kozushima itself.
Craft beer tends to rotate seasonally, but the unique beers made here include: Angie - made with the indigenous ashitaba herb, Wild Bomber - fruit beer made with ‘yama-budo’ (crimson glory vine) and Akari - a brown ale.
Dogo Onsen Experience and Dogo Beer Bar Drinking in Ehime (Matsuyama, Shikoku)
Relax in the waters of Asuka no Yu, the annex of the famous Dogo Onsen Honkan, one of Japan’s oldest bathhouses and be in awe at the beautiful design. Afterward, have a tasting experience at a nearby standing bar that serves Dogo beer.
Visit a standing bar and try different kinds of Dogo beer made in a 120-year-old traditional brewery. Four kinds of Dogo beer are available: Kolsch (Botchan beer), Atlbier (Madonna beer), Stout (Soseki beer) and Wizen (Nobosan beer).
Daiginjo Japanese Sake & Craft Beer Tasting Sets in Okayama
Okayama Prefecture boasts Japanese sake made from high-quality rice and water along with it's own craft brewery.
Visit Miyashita Sake Brewery (Craft Brewery Doppo Kan) for premium sake and craft beer. Add a fish shabu-shabu meal prepared using fresh snapper from the Seto Inland Sea. Taste two varieties of Japanese sake and three kinds of craft beer.
Miyashita Sake Brewery was founded in Okayama City, Okayama Prefecture in 1915. Very accessible, this sake brewery is just a ten-minute walk from JR Okayama Station.
Miyashita and Doppo Kan produce quality Japanese sake and over a dozen types of Doppo craft beer. In this experience, you can tour the brewery, taste samples, shop in the brewery store, or enjoy a local fish shabu-shabu meal.
Learn More about this tour HERE.
The Real Japan Travel Guide
How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese
One of the major considerations with travelling in Japan is the inscrutable Japanese language.
A seemingly incomprehensible, often kaleidoscopic, barrage of cryptic symbols awaits the foreign traveller who doesn’t speak or read the language.
I’ve been exploring Japan since 2000 and I’ve picked up plenty of tips along the way.
I’ve distilled decades of my experience into this ebook for you.
This practical Guide and Workbook covers all the essential basics you need to ensure your first (or next) trip to Japan is as Amazing as you deserve it to be.
We hope this short introduction to the wonders of Japanese craft beer has whetted your appetite to sample at least some of them. Why not add some of the brewery towns to your next itinerary? (We can help you with that.)
Kanpai literally means "Empty the cup/glass". It's the Japanese word for "Cheers!" when drinking a toast. So, when you raise a glass of your first, or next, Japanese craft beer be sure to say "Kanpai!".
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Some of the websites and stores of the breweries featured in this article are in Japanese. only If you don't speak Japanese simply drop the address into Google Translate and the results should be useable.
Kyoto Brewing Company
Online store: http://songbirdbeer.blogspot.co.uk/p/web-shop.html
West Coast Brewing
Japanese Beer and Food Experiences
The Real Japan Travel Guide
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