Craft Beer Hunting in Japan

One of the perks of being an academic is the occasional opportunity to travel to faraway places. If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough you’ll know that I try to take advantage of these opportunities when I can. I’ve got a responsibility to my readers after all.  Earlier posts described my efforts to track down Sahti in Helsinki, visit the brewery where Gose was revived in Leipzig, and find the haziest, most aromatic IPAs in Vermont.  My most recent trip took me to the Land of the Rising Sun.  What follows is an account of my beer hunting adventures in Yokohama and Tokyo.

Japanese Craft Beer

A Brief History of Brewing in Japan

It may surprise you to learn that in a country famous for sake, beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage. Among Asian countries Japan is near the top when it comes to beer consumption, averaging 43 L/person per year. While Koreans consume slightly more beer per capita (46 L/person), I can personally attest that the quality and diversity of beer in Korea are no match for what I found in Japan.  The largest Japanese breweries, Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi, were all established in the late 1800s.  (Interesting factoid, both Sapporo and Budweiser were both founded in 1876.)  At the most recent World Beer Cup Japan took home 9 medals, which is the same number as South Korea (1), China (1), New Zealand (0), Australia (2) and Ohio (5) put together.  Hops are even native to the northern island of Hokkaido.

For most of the 20th century, tax laws made it very difficult for small breweries in Japan to get off the ground.  Until 1994 breweries could not get a license unless they produced at least 2 million liters (17,094 barrels) per year.  A volume similar to what Central Ohio’s largest brewery, Columbus Brewing Company, made last year.  Fortunately for Japanese beer lovers, the threshold was dropped to 60,000 L (512 barrels) in 1994, making it feasible for small breweries to enter the market.  One of the first small breweries to crop up was Kiuchi Brewing, a venerable sake brewery that ventured into the world of beer with their Hitachino Nest line in 1996.  Another early entrant to the craft beer scene was Baird Brewing Company, which started as a tiny brewpub in 2000. Both are discussed in more detail later in this story.

At present Japan has approximately 200 breweries.  When I spoke to the American-born manager of the Basamichi taproom, he told me the craft beer scene in Japan was exploding.  That may be true but at the same time most of the Japanese people I spoke to struggled to name a local craft brewery.  If they want a special beer they are more likely to seek out an import like Chimay or Weihenstephaner  than a Japanese craft beer. In some ways, the current beer landscape in Japan looks much like it did in the US back in the early 1990s.

Japanese Macro Lager – In Search of the Super Dry

While I was in Japan, Sapporo made news by purchasing what many consider to be America’s oldest craft brewery, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing.  Last year Kirin Brewing purchased a 25% share of Brooklyn Brewing, which in turn recently purchased a minority stake in California’s 21st Amendment Brewing and Colorado’s Funkwerks.  Since the tendrils of Japanese big beer and US craft beer are becoming increasingly intertwined, a few words about Japanese macro lager seem warranted.

The leading beer in Japan is Asahi Super Dry.  You may be wondering what exactly does it mean for a beer to be super dry?  You can read what the marketing team at Asahi has to say about “the secrets of Super Dry” at this link.  The short version is that they claim to (a) use a special strain of yeast that is highly attenuative, (b) use “lavish” amounts of expensive hops to obtain a clear, elegant bitterness, and (c) mash in such a way to produce a highly fermentable wort.  As an amateur brewer that makes sense to me, they’re trying to push the final gravity as low as they can, while at the same time balance any remaining sweetness with hop bitterness.  Interestingly Asahi does not comment at all on the use of adjuncts like rice or corn, nor was I able to find a definitive statement anywhere on the internet on the question of adjuncts in Japanese lagers.  The closest I came was a different Asahi webpage that states they use the best quality ingredients—yeast, malt, hops, maize and rice.  Though I can’t confirm it, I’m going to assume that some level of adjuncts are part of the secret to super dry beer.

Between dinners, conference banquets, and airplane flights, I had many opportunities to sample Asahi Super Dry.  Though I was predisposed not to like it, I must concede it’s a well-made product.  It’s pale gold in color with excellent clarity and two fingers of snow white head.  The fermentation is very clean, the mouthfeel almost creamy, and the finish crisp and dry.  There’s not a great deal of flavor in there, but that’s the point isn’t it.  The marketing team is stretching the truth a little when they claim to lavish it with hops.  While it’s nicely balanced, the hop aroma and flavor is quite subtle.  Where it stands a little above its American brewed counterparts is the absence of an aftertaste from the adjunct grains, and subtle off flavors such as DMS or acetaldehyde.  Having recently taken the BJCP tasting exam I’d have to say this beer could be considered something of a gold standard for macro lagers.  The equivalent beers from Sapporo and Kirin were pretty similar to my palate.  I’d have to drink them critically side by side to pick out the differences.

asahi-superdry-closeup

Navigating Metropolitan Tokyo

There’s an almost a meditative quality to a solo exploration of a foreign city, a sense that’s heightened as the language barrier increases.  People watching takes on a different dimension when you’re on your own, have no access to the internet, and cannot easily converse with those around you. It’s not quite a Jane Goodall experience, but it’s different than hitting the Columbus Ale Trail with a few buddies.

Since I had no cell service in Japan my methods of navigation were positively 20th century.  While still in my hotel room where I had Wi-Fi access, I would use GoogleMaps to look up the best route for going from point A to B, write down some notes and then head out.  The complexity of the Tokyo subway system doesn’t make things any easier. For starters, the sheer number of lines and routes is comparable to cities like New York, London, and Paris. If that wasn’t enough the trains are operated by multiple companies, so no one map seems to have all the routes.  Despite those challenges navigating the subway is a piece of cake compared to finding your way on the surface streets, because in Japan most streets don’t have names. You heard me right, no street names.  Don’t ask me how the Japanese navigate from place to place, apparently they are able to do so. While we are at it don’t ask me to explain things like the popularity of karaoke, or the difference between anime and manga.

Given this peculiar system you might be wondering how people (or computers) give directions in Japan.  It seems to work about the same as getting directions in Licking County, “Just head straight until you see the red barn, then take a left and go for a fair piece until once you pass an old John Deere tractor on the right-hand side of the road, then take a right and you can’t miss that place where they make the beer.”  You think I’m exaggerating, but here are the verbatim directions that Google gives me when I ask how to get from my hotel to the closest brewery taproom:

(1) Head East, (2) Turn right, (3) Take the crosswalk, (4) Take the crosswalk, (5) Take the crosswalk, (6) Cross the road, (7) Turn left then your destination will be on the left.

I’m sure we can agree those directions have all the clarity of a Hoof Hearted DIPA.  The first time I tried to follow this route I missed the first turn and 20 minutes later ended up at a noisy pachinko parlor, another curious Japanese pastime.

Tip #1 – Pick up an English map of the city.  It won’t be enough but at least when you get lost you can recalibrate yourself without finding a Wi-Fi hotspot.

tokyo subway map1
A portion of the Tokyo subway system.

Yokohama Brewery

The city of Yokohama expands outward from the western shore of the massive Tokyo harbor.  With a population of 3.7 million it’s Japan’s second largest city, a fact that often gets lost because there is no distinct divide between Tokyo and Yokohama.  When the US and other western powers forced Japan to open its borders to trading with the outside world in the 1850s, the city of Yokohama was established.  Perhaps because of the strong foreign influence here, brewing has been a part of Yokohama for a long time. The Japan Airlines tourist guide even goes so far as to call Yokohama “Beer City” and justifies that by giving links to a grand total of four microbreweries in the city, almost more than I can count with the fingers on one hand. Two of these establishments, Yokohama Brewing and Baird’s Bashamichi Taproom, were fortuitously located within a half mile of my hotel.

On the second day of the conference I took our lunch break as an opportunity to visit Yokohama Brewery.  Established in 1995, Lonely Planet calls it the oldest craft brewery in Japan, and given the fact that no craft breweries existed before 1994 that claim may well be true.  When I showed up around 1:30 pm a couple of brewers were working among the copper kettles on the first floor where the brewing is done.  There’s a small counter and a cash register on the first floor, but no real seating area or customers, so I headed up to the second floor.  The vibe here was more restaurant than bar, at least on a Wednesday afternoon.  There was not a great deal of ambient light coming in, and no bar to speak of.

Yokohama Brewery Street View
A street level view of Yokohama Brewery.  The first floor houses the brewing equipment and has a small shop for bottled beer to go, while the second floor is a a restaurant/brewpub.

If there is one thing that sets Japanese craft breweries apart from their US counterparts it would be their prices.  At Yokohama Brewing I ordered a flight of five 150 mL beers that included all of their core beers—Pilsner, Alt Bier, Hefeweizen, American Pale Ale, and Yokohama Lager. Back home I’d expect to pay $6 to $9 for a flight like that, but here the price was 1600 yen (about $15).  Surprisingly for a brewpub the food options were very limited, although that may be because I came too late for lunch and too early for dinner.  I pointed at a picture of what I thought was a bowl of Asian noodles, but turned out to be spaghetti with tomato sauces and a few slices of sausage. I’m sure I didn’t catch them at their best, but it’s hard to get excited about a lunch that was roughly on par with Chef Boyardee.

Unlike the food, the beer was solid.  The German styles were well done and mostly to style, with the Hefeweizen standing out as the best beer in the flight.  The American Pale Ale was OK, but there was something earthy in the hop flavor that seemed a little out of place to me.  Curiously the Yokohama Lager was the most bitter of the five, sporting an IBU rating of 50.  Even their own description of the beer seems odd to me, “A scent like muscat and passion fruit, a lager with a bitter citrus taste.”  Could it be that IPLs are a thing in Japan.

Tip #2 – Bring some money if you plan to go craft brewery hopping in Japan.

Yokohama Brewing Flight
Notice the IBU meters below each beer.  The lager is 15 IBU units higher than the APA.

Hitachino Brewing Lab

I had Thursday afternoon off, so I took the opportunity to explore Tokyo.  The journey from Yokohama to central Tokyo takes about an hour on the metro system, but fortunately involves only one change of train.  Being the sophisticated man of culture that I am, I didn’t head straight to the brewery, but first visited the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.  With five different museums, four temples/shrines, and a zoo that features giant pandas, Ueno Park is well worth a visit.

After a couple of hours perusing art and artifacts from Japan and wider Asia my willpower started to break down, so I made my way back to the metro and two stops later got off at the Akihabara stop.  The Akihabara neighborhood is the anime/manga capital of Japan.  There are stores upon stores selling figurines, cards, and posters of cartoon figures with too much gel in their hair, either elaborately or scantily dressed, depending upon their sex.  It’s also known for electronics, with stores featuring everything from cameras to computers to all the parts you need to make a home radio. Akihabara is also home to a curious Japanese institution, maid cafés.  What is a maid café you might be asking?  I didn’t investigate first hand, but this is the description that I found on a Japanese tourist website:

Maid cafes are themed restaurants where guests are served by waitresses that are typically dressed as French maids. In addition to serving food, the maids engage in conversation and games with the customers and treat them with the care and respectful language due to the master of a house.

The site goes onto say that maid cafes are popular with both men and women. I’m skeptical of this claim.

Akihabara from HN Patio
A view of Akihabara looking back over the Kanda River from the patio of the Hitachino Brewing Lab.

Being a reasonably socially adapted, middle aged adult, who already owns a camera and a laptop, Akihabara seemed wasted on me, so I concentrated on finding my way to the Hitachino Brewing Lab.  As I mentioned earlier Hitachino Nest is one of the oldest craft breweries in Japan.  The production facility is located in Ibaraki prefecture northwest of Tokyo, but there are a couple of outposts in Tokyo, this one is the larger of the two (the other is on the roof of Tokyo Station).  Nevertheless, the space is small, with a couple of tables and seats along the wall opposite from the bar.  This location used to be a train station, and it’s easy to envision its past from the layout of the room.

Hitachino Brewing Lab
A laid back afternoon at the cozy Hitachino Brewing Lab.  The copper kettle in the back is where customers can brew their own beer.  The shelves on the left are full of hops, malts, spices and other brewing ingredients.  Interestingly there are no seats at the bar.

It’s called a Brewing Lab because this is a place where you can come in and brew your own beer.  Think of it as the North High Brewing of Tokyo.  The shelves on the back wall contain jars of different hop varieties and other seasonings that are used in brewing (coriander, star anise, etc.). Test tubes show the SRM values for beers that run from pale straw to inky black. There’s even a set of jars containing beers of different IBU levels.  The customer brewing system seems to be a single vessel located at the back of the room under the brick archway.  I asked the bartender if this was a place where you could brew your own beer, to which he replied “No, you brew unique beer here.”  I guess that means you can’t brew from their recipes, but you can make your own recipe and brew it up here.

There were eight Hitachino Nest beers on tap.  You can get a 3-beer flight (150 mL size tasters) for 980 yen ($9).  Over the course of two flights I was able to sample most of their line.  The highlight was arguably the Witbier, which has won multiple medals at the World Beer Cup, but the Hefeweizen was also very solid.  The lager had a distinct citrusy American hop aroma, a little like the lager at Yokohama Brewery.  Maybe that’s the Japanese take on European lagers.  The most interesting beer was the Red Rice Ale, a style like no other I’ve tried.  It was deep amber in color and hazy.  The taste was surprisingly sweet and malty, yet not out of balance.  I was happy to come across an indigenous style.

One beer that was not available in the tasting flights was a sour beer that goes by the moniker XH Barrel Edition.  For the sake of investigative journalism I had to give this one a try.  It sports an amazing funky, balsamic nose. The taste is a complex blend of acidic tartness and toasty/caramel flavored malts, with some underlying dark fruit accents.  It’s a sophisticated Flander’s Red that could hold its own anywhere in the world.

Hitachino Brewing Lab Menu Board
The taplist at Hitachino Nest Brewing Lab.

The Brewing Lab also features a covered patio that looks out over the Kanda River back at Akihabara. It seemed like a great space to sit and enjoy a few beers. I was surprised to see that some customers ordered a beer and then wandered off around the corner.  Later I learned that the Brewing Lab is part of a complex of small artsy shops built into the old train station.  Apparently, customers are free to get a beer and take it with them as they wander the shops.  If your significant other enjoys shopping more than drinking this could be a good piece of information to have in your back pocket. That and a couple thousand yen.

IBU samplers
It escapes me what you are supposed to do with these bottles meant to display different IBU levels.  Which one looks the most bitter to you?

Delerium Reserve Café

When I left the Hitachino Brewing Lab I had intended to head back to Yokohama and visit a very small brewery called Thrash Zone that operates on a one barrel system and claims to specialize in extreme beers.  My Japanese friend Zenji, who like me is a big Orval fan, sent an e-mail suggesting that I put my hunt for Japanese beers on hold to go to his favorite Tokyo restaurant, Delirium Café Reserve.  So I called an audible and did my best to figure out how to get there (fortunately they have free Wi-Fi at Hitachino).  Along the way I took a side trip to see the Nippon Budokan, the famous Tokyo concert hall where recording artists from Cheap Trick to Michael Schenker to Oasis to Ozzy Osbourne have recorded live albums.  Of course I got lost on the way. I eventually found a metro station, but unfortunately one run by the wrong company.  On the way out of the station ticket agent gave me a subway map and pointed generically to the south, and with those two pieces of information I was able to find it.  In the end it was just a building, albeit one shaped like an octagon and used mostly for martial arts tournaments, but having listened to so much music recorded there it was cool to see it with my own eyes.

DSC08220
The Beatles were the first musical group to play the Budokan, apparently it was a big controversy because the venue was meant to be used exclusively for martial arts tournaments.

The next leg of the trip involved getting on the subway at the Kudanshita station and after one change of train getting off at the Akasaka station.  That went smoothly enough and fortunately subway exits into a large shopping complex called Akasaka Biz Tower that contains the Delirium Reserve Café.  When I rounded the corner and saw the pink elephants I knew I’d reached my destination.  Both the beer and the food were excellent.  There were 20 Belgian beers on tap, so I started with a glass of Tripel Karmeliet.  Surprisingly the price, 690 yen ($6.25), was cheaper than the beer at any of the three Japanese craft beer places I visited.  It was time for dinner so I went with what I figured would be in their wheelhouse, pomme frites (fries) and mussels steamed in witbier.  The fries came with a choice of eight different sauces, most of them mayonnaise based.  Let’s just say that samurai mayonnaise is not as spicy as the waitress would have you believe.

Delirium Cafe Pomme Frites

As I was eating my mussels I perused the bottle list, and was elated to see Cantillon on the menu. Surprisingly, the price, 1500 yen, was the same as what I paid for a five beer tasting flight at Yokohama Brewery, so my second beer at the Delirium Cafe was a no brainer. For most of the evening I was the only customer at the bar.  Despite the obvious Lost in Translation vibe, at no point did anyone remotely resembling Scarlett Johansson materialize. Communication with the staff was not easy, but by pointing at the menu it was workable. Toward the end of the night I tried to ask the bartender what was their best-selling beer, and ended up ordering a glass of Lindeman Kriek instead.  After that I decided it was best to avoid attempts at small talk.

Belly full, head buzzing slightly, feeling content, I headed for the metro system for the journey back to my hotel.

Cantillon Gueuze
Elusive in America, I’ve had much better luck finding Cantillon in better beer bars of Europe and Asia.  The lack of distinctive glassware is interesting, does Cantillon come in its own special glass in Belgium?

Baird Brewing – Basamichi Taproom

Baird Brewing was started as a small brewpub in Numazu, a port city not too far from Mount Fuji, by American expat Brian Baird and his Japanese-born wife Sayuri.  They’ve since expanded and in 2014 opened a three story production brewery in Izu city.  In addition, there are two Baird Beer taprooms in Tokyo and one in Yokohama, each specializing in a different kind of food.  The Yokohama location, which specializes in Authentic Kansas City Barbeque, is a short walk from the Basamichi station and was quite close to my hotel. I thought it would be the ideal destination for my last night in Japan.

Before heading to the taproom, after all at Japanese prices I couldn’t really afford to drink beer all night, I took in a baseball game, a showdown between the local Yokohama Bay Stars and the league leading Hiroshima Carp.  The Japanese play baseball in the same way that Americans do, but the atmosphere is altogether different.  First of all, the fans are divided by the team they support.  Yokohama supporters were concentrated in right field, while the red-clad visiting fans from Hiroshima were concentrated in the left field bleachers.  I had a standing room only ticket in the Hiroshima section and when their side was up to bat, fans would start playing drums, a small ensemble of brass instruments would strike up a tune, others would start waving big flags, and just about everyone else would hit small bats together percussively and recite individualized chants for each batter.  The vibe was much more like the Nordecke at Crew Stadium than anything I’ve seen at an American baseball game.  Curiously when the other team was batting they behaved more or less like American baseball fans, checking their cell phones, eating snacks (think edamame and ice cream, not hot dogs and peanuts), and drinking beer.

In Japan the beer vendors wondering the stands are different in two ways from those in America.  Firstly, they are almost all young females.  Secondly, they serve the beer on draft from pony kegs that these diminutive women carry up and down the stairs in backpacks.

beer vendor baseball game

I left the game a little early and headed over the Baird Basamichi Taproom for some dinner and a few beers.  There were a couple of empty seats at semicircular first floor bar, so I planted myself down and ordered a three beer flight.  I must say the selection here was the most impressive of the three Japanese craft beer taprooms I visited.  There were roughly 20 different varieties of Baird Beer on tap, representing a wide range of beer styles.  Aiming for variety I had an British Bitter served from a hand pump, a pale ale infused with wasabi, and an inky imperial stout.  I finished with their Japan Tale Ale, a pale ale brewed with unmalted wheat and ume plums.  Like all of their beers it was well made, balanced without over the top flavors, an approach that seems to be a common thread in Japanese brewing.

The atmosphere was neither crowded nor was it dead.  The music was much to my liking, with songs from artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Soundgarden to Flogging Molly.  I opted for the pork shoulder sandwich and was not disappointed. I think you’d be hard pressed to find better barbeque anywhere in Yokohama.  The manager was an American transplant from San Francisco.  It was a nice change of pace to have a little conversation while sitting at the bar.  We talked about the rapid growth of the Japanese Craft Beer scene, how he felt all beers were better when poured from a beer engine (I don’t subscribe to the same school of thought), Sapporo’s acquisition of Anchor, and how big Japanese brewers like Kirin were trying to get crafty by offering their own lines of “craft beer.”

If you are in the Yokohama area the Basamichi taproom is definitely worth a stop.  I highly recommend timing your visit so you can enjoy some barbeque with your beer.  If you want to bring some beer home they have a pretty good selection of their bottles that you can purchase to go.  If you are in Tokyo instead, keep an eye out for the Harajuku taproom that focuses on meat and vegetable skewers, or the Nakameguro taproom that pairs craft pizza with Baird beers.

Baird Beers
Check out the prices at the top of the page (exchange rate is roughly 110 yen = $1).

Closing Thoughts

After taking a closer look I’ll stand by my earlier impression, craft beer in Japan bears a pretty close resemblance to what it looked like in the US 25 years ago.  It’s still a niche market, but the best breweries are making beer that would definitely pass muster in the states.  There is more emphasis on balance and drinkability, as opposed to pushing the limits of hoppy, hazy, sour, or just plain weird than you find in the US market.  Perhaps that’s because the brewing scene is not nearly as crowded, perhaps it is due to cultural differences.  Some indigenous takes on beer styles are emerging, but it’s hard for me to see if one such style might catch on.  Lastly be prepared to lay down some cash if you want to drink craft beer in Japan.

Until next time, kanpai and sayonara.

Yokohama Skyline Slate
The Yokohama skyline at night.

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