Interview: Japanese Beer Lovers BeerTengoku
Beer might not be the first alcoholic beverage to spring to mind when you mention Japanese booze, so you may be surprised to know that there's a thriving craft beer industry in Japan!
BeerTengoku is Japan's only 100% independent guide to Japanese craft beer bars, breweries, events and more, so where better to look for some inspiration! We hooked up with Rob and Joe (the brains behind BeerTengoku) for a chat. They've also just launched a Patreon so go and check it out here.
Can you tell us about yourselves, and why you launched BeerTengoku?
Rob: I’m Rob and I’ve been living in Japan since 2004. I’ve been drinking beer since longer than I can remember but that could be the beer playing havoc with my memories. I used to home brew in the UK before coming to Japan and have always been interested in both the beer making process as well as the different styles available, besides the mass produced lagers on sale. I remember going snowboarding in Niigata in 2005 and finding a can of Echigo Red Ale and being amazed by Japan having some different beers rather than Kirin, Asahi, and Sapporo among others. Whenever I saw a new one, I bought it and wanted more, yet back then, craft beer was a mere blip in an ocean of lagers. It was on a trip to Oh! La! Ho in Nagano back in 2007 that I began to hunt for more and more craft beers but came across a dearth of information in English, and also in Japanese.
Joe: I’m Joe and I’m from the UK too, and I’ve been in Japan since 2005. I wasn’t really aware of the concept of 'craft beer' or different styles until about 2011; up until then I’d always just gone out drinking Kirin in bars without really thinking about what I was having. But after the Tohoku earthquake I did a lot more drinking at home instead of going to bars, and as a result had a bit more money to splash out on imported beer. I began to take notice of the different tastes, strengths, and styles available. Then it was really no turning back - once you’ve tried an IPA, Asahi Super Dry tastes like soggy cardboard.
Joe: We got the idea for BeerTengoku in 2014, when we were both in full craft beer swing. Rob had come back from one of his snowboarding trips to Hokkaido where he’d tried a 'local beer' that was blue-coloured and tasted like washing-up liquid. He told me about this abomination and we decided that people needed to know that the alternative to Big Beer in Japan is not just “blue beer”, so to speak. We knew there was more to home-grown Japanese beers than the novelty 'local' beers we had found in gift shops. And so we wanted to let other people in on the secret.
How does craft beer in Japan differ from the rest of the world?
Joe: Craft beer is very much a niche compared to other places in the world. It occupies a tiny proportion of the market - less than 3%. Most people have no idea craft beer exists outside of the aforementioned novelty tourist gifts, and they won’t think twice after drinking them. It is slowly becoming more popular though, as more convenience stores and supermarkets stock a few craft beers and occasionally restaurants will offer craft beers. Of course, there are bars opening up around the country almost every week. However, craft beer is comparatively expensive - sometimes 5 or 10 times more than a regular beer - and I think that puts a lot of people off.
Rob: The styles available also differ too. What might be popular in one country, say sour beers or New England IPAs, are not popular at all in Japan - perhaps the Pacific Ocean and the time it takes for things to come over has something to do with it. If a style does become popular, then it’s only a few breweries producing it in small on-draft quantities only. Many of the breweries in Japan have at least a pilsner, stout, altbier, and a weizen as a part of their all-year round lineup; however, some of the new breweries, such as DevilCraft, Be Easy Brewing, Kyoto Brewing Company, and Yorocco Beer are pushing out different styles to drinkers, such as saisons, American wheat, and brown ales.
One of the biggest differences between drinkers of craft beer in Japan is that Japanese drinkers tend to be more polite than their foreign counterparts - the former being less forthcoming with negative criticisms of beer than foreigners, who are more open with criticism while also being constructive about it.
What are some of the most popular beers?
Rob: The big four of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory pretty much have the beer market sewn up, with them commanding over 95% of the beer market. With the prevalence of their beers in supermarkets and stores across Japan, it’s hard not to drink them. Asahi Super Dry is the most popular beer in Japan, followed by Kirin Ichiban; both of them available to drink at home as well as in bars.
However, in terms of craft beer, Yo-Ho Brewing, which are partly owned by Kirin, is perhaps the biggest craft beer producer. It’s also the most readily available across Japan. Their most popular beer, Yona Yona Ale, can be found in both cans and on tap across Japan, and has also just had a revamp as the recipe had been the same since 1994.
Coedo and Hitachino Nest beers are popular too, and can also be found overseas, with Hitachino Nest exporting over 60% of their production. Shiga Kogen and Baird Beer are another two that come highly recommended and produce some interesting draft beers which tend to sell out as soon as they are released.
For anyone completely new to Japanese craft beer, which would you recommend trying first?
Rob: I’d recommend a few from the bigger craft manufacturers as they’ve honed their recipes over the years. Yona Yona Ale - it’s soft, easy-drinking, and not likely to offend anyone as it’s not bitter like an IPA (India Pale Ale - a type of beer that is known for being bitter and citrusy or resinous), but it’s more interesting in terms of flavour compared to lager. Baird Beer Cool Breeze Pils is a great summer beer that is light and flavoursome without being too citrusy either.
Joe: I’ve thought about this a lot - should you give someone a great example of something they’re familiar with, or something unique and interesting that could potentially put them off? Something that represents craft beer or something that showcases Japan? Coedo make a great Indian Pale Lager, anything by Hitachino is always a hit, and if you really want to knock their socks off you could give them W-IPA - a Double India Pale ale - from Minoh Beer or a Sakura Gose - a kind of sour beer that uses salt - from Shonan Beer.
Do you have 5 favourite beers? Or 5 favourite bars?
Rob: My favourite beers really do depend on the season - I don’t like to drink heavy beers in summer, while in winter I like something that sticks to my ribs and warms me up. If push came to shove then I’d have to say in no particular order:
● Aooni IPA - it’s pretty widely available and a reasonably priced Japanese IPA at about ¥270 a can. It does what it says on the can.
● Baird Beer Red Rose Amber Ale - Ambers are often a hard to find beer in most countries, even more so in Japan but this is a nice drinking beer that I’ll often get at a Baird Beer bar.
● Shiga Kogen The Far East - a beast of a double IPA that is matured in Ichiro’s Malt whiskey casks - at 11+% it’s a sipper for the winter months. Complex flavours make it an explosion on the taste buds.
● Minoh Imperial Stout - another large beer with this one but it has a strong body to it that is warming and full of roasted coffee, chocolate, and a slight bitterness to it.
● Kyoto Ichigo Ichie - one of Japan’s newest breweries and specialists in Belgian style beers. If I see this on tap, I’ll always get a pint of it as one of the few in Japan that show off how refreshing saisons are.
My top 5 include a few on Rob’s list- they’re there for a reason!
● Yo-Ho Brewing’s Aooni IPA is the go-to-beer for most craft beer folks in Japan. It really is great.
● Coedo Kyara is a crisp, hoppy lager that I really found refreshing this summer.
● Shiga Kogen The Far East, as Rob says, is a very special barrel-aged beer that’s only brewed once every couple of years. Enjoy it like a wine!
● Yo-Ho Brewing’s ridiculously-titled “Sorry! Konomi Nante Kiitenaize” series is different every time, though 2 years ago they made a low-alcohol summer ale with yuzu peel and sea salt that was so popular they made it again this year too. I bought 2 cases of it!
● Hideji Hyuganatsu Ale - A great beer made with hyuganatsu oranges. Tastes like honey and lemon.
I’ll leave the bar recommendations to Rob as I don’t get out much- I heartily recommend Baird Beer’s Bashamichi Taproom in Bashamichi, Yokohama, though. Craft beer and barbecue go very well!
Rob: It’s hard to try and pick five of my favourite bars. There are lots of choices in Tokyo - with Popeye’s being the most famous and most well-known but the most memorable ones for me have been, again in no particular order:
● Bungalow (Kyoto) - this had a cool, chilled out vibe with plenty of selection. I was on a conference at the time and wanted somewhere to drink. Great place to do people watching, or sit in as the rain pounds down while you eat some stout cheesecake and sip on some porters.
● Beach Muffin (Zushi) - Slightly off the beaten track but another cool, chilled out place but one that offers a real homely vibe as well as some cracking beers from Yorocco Beer - in fact it’s their taproom. They also have delicious vegan food as well, with some of the best potato wedges I’ve ever eaten.
● Craft Beer Market (Otemachi) - This is part of a chain of craft beer bars that has taken Tokyo by storm, offering cheap beers with a wide variety of beers on tap. This branch is my favourite as they have a huge outside drinking area - something I sorely miss from the UK, especially during the warm Japanese spring and autumn.
● DevilCraft (Gotanda) - If you like pizza, and let’s be honest who doesn’t, then this needs to be on your list of places to go. Huge pizzas and reasonably priced beers with a wide selection of beers. The only problem with DevilCraft is that it does get busy so you need to book in advance.
● Shinshu Osake Mura (Shimbashi) Perhaps a strange choice but this reminds me of the little places in the UK where you rub shoulders with people from all walks of life and drink cheap beer. Great selection of craft beer from Nagano and cheap to boot as well.
Can you tell us about some of the breweries you've interviewed?
Joe: Once you’ve seen the inside of a brewery you’ve seen them all (lots of big aluminium tanks, very noisy, smell of beer), but the sheer variety of locations, beers and people are what make them interesting. We’ve interviewed breweries in the middle of the countryside and in a tiny building in the shadow of the Asahi headquarters, in small towns, industrial districts and in former sake distilleries.
Brewers come in all shapes and sizes. The majority are Japan-born, but there are a few westerners who are really spearheading the scene as well- Bryan Baird of Baird Beer in Shizuoka and Scott Brimmer of Brimmer Brewing in Kawasaki. There are also some female brewers, notably the three Ohshita sisters who run Minoh beer in Osaka, and also Sonoda-san at Harvestmoon. There are huge operations that employ twenty or so people, and a few breweries that consist of just one or two dedicated maniacs.
Homebrew is technically illegal in Japan so many Japanese brewers instead have a microbiology degree and some background in miso or sake production. Workers at the older breweries will have some years of studying beermaking in Germany or Belgium under their belt too. All this adds up to a high professional standard of quality and people who are eager to talk passionately about the finer details of the process, which is perfect for Rob (he’s a biology and chemistry teacher in real life) but tends to go over my head!
Rob: The larger craft beer breweries we’ve interviewed, such as Baird Beer, as Joe said have been interesting but also more similar to ones we’ve seen overseas. The smaller breweries, such as Songbird Beer and Kazekami Brewery have been more DIY than the larger ones, with a lot of their equipment sourced from places that the general drinker can buy from.
I’ve spent countless hours on trains (Outsider Brewing), on buses (Songbird Brewery), and on foot (Atsugi Beer), but on the whole, I’ve enjoyed the smaller breweries and seeing how so much of the process of making beer is very much a hands-on experience. With that comes funny stories and terrifying moments of almost having to get rid of a batch of beer (300L) but being saved at the last minute.
Is there anywhere in the UK where people can try Japanese craft beer?
The best place in London to try Japanese craft beer is a small little restaurant called Beers and Buns. They specialise in steamed rolls filled with different insides, such as pork belly, prawns, and so on. Along with this, they offer beers from Hitachino Nest, Coedo, and also Niigata.
If you want beers to drink at home, I noticed on my last trip home that Hitachino Nest is now sold in UK supermarkets, such as in ASDA and Tescos. Moreover, sites such as BeerHawk also offer a small range of Japanese craft beer.