Japanese Microbrewery Beers
Home >> Japanese cuisines >> Exploring J foods >> Japanese Microbrewery Beers

Japanese Microbrewery Beers

The Japanese word for microbrew is ji-biru, meaning "regional beer," and in the past few years small breweries and brewpubs have indeed sprung up in every region of the country. This past November, 23 of these local brewers gathered in Tokyo at the second annual Tokyo Microbrew Beer Festival to show off their wares, exchange brewing tips, and see what the competition was up to. The four-day festival also offered the public a chance to measure the progress of the two-year-old Japanese microbrew industry and, at the same time, drink a lot of different beers.

For the past several decades the "Big Four" Japanese beer makers (Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory) have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on domestic beer sales, and while competition for market share among them has always been fierce, almost everything they produced fell into the same narrow range of similar-tasting, standard lager-style beers. For a bit of variety, each brand also produced one "black" beer.

But in 1994 government regulations were liberalized, and sake brewers, wine makers, and anyone else who wanted to could finally open up their own small brewery. Many of these companies went all out and hired brewmasters from Germany to oversee operations, and the Big Four, not wanting to be left out, started opening their own, predictably blander, specialized mini-breweries and brewpubs. At the end of 1996 there were about 50 independent small brewers operating throughout the country, with a few dozen more scheduled to receive licenses in 1997.

Japan has always shown a keen appreciation of the subtle pleasures of jizake, or "regional sake" brands, and pubs and restaurants specializing in jizake can be found all over Tokyo. The equivalent bars specializing in ji-biru haven't appeared yet, though, so the four-day festival was the first chance to sample a lot of these microbrews without traveling all over the country. Organized by the Japan Travel Bureau to promote "beer tourism," the event was a bit short on ambience (a rather sterile convention-hall space with piped-in German music), but it made up for it in the variety of beers available.

Many of the brewers represented at the festival have opted for traditional German kolsch and altbier styles, and the majority of these were a bit too timid - obvious attempts to appeal to perceived "Japanese taste" while offering something just a bit different for the sake of novelty. I preferred the more adventurous ales and some of the weitzens that I found.

My personal favorite was Yamato Brewery from Nara; their Waoh (pronounced "wow") brand beers included a weitzen, a pale ale, and two amber ales, all of which were excellent. Their amber ales probably came the closest to the somewhat fruity flavor of US microbrewery ales. Doppo beer from Okayama was also very good, especially their creamy dunkel, which had hints of fresh corn in its flavor.

And Csarda (pronounced "charda") brand beer from Kobe Brewery offered a smooth, flavorful bitter made with Cascade hops from the US, while Sankt Gallen from Tokyo had a good, somewhat chocolatey amber ale as well as very tasty pale and dark ales.

Also worth mentioning were the intriguing, slightly caramelly dark ale from Hida Takayama Brewery, the sweetish weitzen from Satsuma Brewery in Kagoshima, and the very Belgian-style, Hoegaarden-like blanche from Shirayuki in Hyogo Prefecture.

While I tried to sample as many different beers as I could (in the name of research, of course), I was definitely outgunned by the group at the next table on the first day of the festival. Four young salarymen and one woman, all wearing suits, stood in front of a neat row of fifty beer glasses, each one clearly labeled. They were taking small sips, chewing on bites of white bread from the loaf they had brought with them, and writing careful notes. Was it the birth of a new generation of beer critics? No, they turned out to be from one of the Big Four breweries (let's just say it's a company famous for its "super dry" beer), and they were here checking out their future competition.