What’s up, Cheers Charlotte? This is Brian F. Sanford, the East Asian Correspondent, writing to you from Tokyo. Today I’d like to give you a primer on beer culture in Japan.
When most people think of Japan and alcohol, the first thing that probably comes to mind is sake (pronounced ‘sah-kay’, not ‘sah-key’). But like most modern countries, beer is the most popular and important alcoholic beverage in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Suntory- beer in Japan
The Big Four
There are four major breweries in Japan: Asahi and Kirin, which are in a constant battle for the top spot, along with Sapporo and Suntory which spar over third place. Like most major brands across the world their core beers are pilsner-style lagers: Asahi Super “Dry”, Kirin Ichiban, Sapporo Black Label and my personal favorite, Suntory The Premium Malts. Of these, The Premium Malts is the only one to win any kind of awards.
The most unusual aspect of the Japanese beer market is its segmentation into three tax categories. The Japanese government taxes the malt in beer so the beer companies responded by producing low-malt brews, called happo-shu, which they could sell more cheaply. The government later raised taxes on these low-malt alternatives and the beer companies came out with another line of cheap beer-like beverages that contain soybeans and other ingredients in lieu of malt. These not-quite-beers are popular among working people because of their low cost but since they make Budweiser actually taste like the King of Beers, you couldn’t even pay me to drink one.
All of the major beer companies offer brewery tours, seven days a week throughout most of the year. Every hour, on the hour, the immaculately dressed tour guide—always an attractive woman in her twenties—takes a group on a carefully orchestrated 40-minute trip through the facility. The tour begins in a small theater where a video introduces the basic ingredients and explains the brewing process. Next, the group proceeds slowly past the whirling machinery as it malts, mashes, and ferments the beer with the tour guide offering insights all the way to the packing floor. When the tour is over, she leaves the group in a small beer hall where everyone is given 20 minutes to drink as much as they like—and it’s all free!
Beer plays an important role in Japanese business culture. All work-related parties begin with a toast, or kampai—a salutation meaning “empty glass” which urges everyone to down their beers. It’s customary to pour the beer from 1-liter bottles into small glasses. Coworkers pour one another’s glasses and junior members of the company make the rounds and pour for more senior coworkers, their boss and other higher-ups. When someone offers to pour for you and you still have a full glass, you are expected to quickly make room for more. Many start with a few beers but then move on to wine, sake and cocktails—there’s no expression like ‘beer before liquor…’ in Japanese. After a couple of hours, every one is drunk and oblivious to how much alcohol they have consumed. Also, like their Asians cousins, most Japanese lack a certain enzyme needed to properly digest alcohol and tend to become inebriated after just a few drinks. Put all of these factors together and you begin to understand why it’s not uncommon to see a drunken businessman (or woman) doubled over vomiting on the side of the road or passed out on the train platform on a Friday or Saturday night.
Japanese Beer Festival
Beer festivals are popular in Tokyo, with an ‘Oktoberfest’ held somewhere in and around the city every few weeks from the spring to the fall, complete with sausage, pretzels and German folk music and dance. A number of craft beer festivals featuring local and foreign breweries are held throughout the year at indoor locations. Generally costing around ¥5,000 (~$50), a ticket gets you a glass and the chance to sample small amounts of the myriad offerings.
The craft beer scene in Japan is made up of a growing number of bars and restaurants serving a wide variety of foreign and domestic beers. Most of the offerings are from overseas (predominantly the US) and come in bottles, but there’s always at least a few Japanese and international beers on tap. Recently, Stone (US), Delirium (Belgium) and BrewDog (Scotland) have opened up their own branded bars in Tokyo. Craft beer bars are increasingly becoming more mainstream in Japan, but the service tends to be less personal than you would expect from a similar place in the US.
The largest Japanese microbrew is Kiuchi, which is located just north of Tokyo in Ibaraki Prefecture. They make a line of beers called Hitachino Nest which is recognizable for its distinct owl logo and commonly available in high-end department store supermarkets. Kiuchi was the first microbrew to export from Japan.
Another major player is Minoh Beer out of Osaka. Known for their experimentation, they have won numerous international accolades and are a mainstay of Japanese craft beer bar menus and craft beer festivals throughout Japan.
Not far from Mt. Fuji is microbrewery Baird, started by an American and his Japanese wife. They own and operate a small chain of restaurants in Shizuoka and Tokyo called The Taproom, featuring their signature brews alongside others, with each restaurant specializing in a different food like barbecue, pizza and yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers). Their beer is available at many other craft beer bars where sometimes they also provide the original house beer.
My favorite place for craft beer so far is DevilCraft, which makes Chicago-style pizza and has an ever-changing selection of twenty craft beers on tap. Started by a trio of American craft beer enthusiasts, this place has the most American vibe of any craft beer bar I have been to in Japan. Also of note is the legendary Popeye, which is famous its every-changing selection of 70 different beers on tap.
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Charlotte, I’d love to here from you. Have ever been to Japan or tried Japanese beer? I’m eager to hear your stories. Please message me with your comments or questions. Thanks for reading. Cheers!