To explain the concept of ‘kurafuto bia,’ Japan’s craft beer, it qualifies most easily as the product of commercial operations that sprang out of beer deregulation in Japan in the 1990s. Many Japanese recognize any brew that is not the product of any of the five major corporate beer manufacturer labels as craft beer. In effect, the trend of starting up a craft brew operation has become something of an exciting economic explosion, a recent but ongoing phenomenon that involves beer enthusiasts, home brew hobbyists, and private business such as pubs, bars, and eateries who trade in various formulations and sample each other’s love for ji-biru, local beer.
Brief history of beer in Japan
As the Brewers Association of Japan (est. 1953) explains, the first brewing of beer on the island was attributed to Koumin Kamamoto in 1853, instructed from a Dutch book. In the 1870s, beer began to be manufactured for the first time and sold, qualifying for government regulation by 1876. In but a single decade, imports were overtaken with in-state production, until from out of its economic boom emerged a national tax in 1901.
Japanese craft beer, or ‘ji-biru,’ has only been available since the legal deregulation. Previously, Japan’s entire beer industry was a government-regulated oligopoly of four or five brewers.
Already adept in the science of carbonation from their many years of offering sparkling saké, a number of “saké-only” breweries responded to deregulation by concocting their own craft beer, typically by expanding into both brew forms. For those companies, making saké differed little over that of making beer and was to make for an obvious addition of craft brew. Since, other establishments have also seized on the opportunity, at the least to offer more choices to patrons. Eventually came the move to recognize new production efforts as something of an artisan occupation pursued throughout Japan. Thus the phrase “kurafuto bia” entered the popular lingo to recognize the uniqueness of crafting that may not be limited to the beer, but extend to the label and even to the marketing.
Saké, it shall be important to distinguish, refers to alcohol in both a general as well as a specific sense for the Japanese. The equivalent “craft brew” in matters of rice-based saké, as distinct from ji-biru, goes by the name ‘jizake.’ Some microbreweries, such as Hitachino Nest, incorporate special fermentation of rice in with their malted portions, so don’t be surprised to find saké in any style of alcohol whatsoever.
Bryan Baird, quoted in the Washington Post, introduces the business nature of ji-buru as it was from its inception. “When ji-biru started, it was at least 50 percent German-style.”
At the onset of deregulation in 1994, 175 craft beer breweries emerged between 1995 and 1999. By 2005, another 100 entered the vie for kurafuto bia popularity. The number eventually rose to over 300 and then fell dramatically due to a major number of bankruptcies to the present estimate of 250 craft beer brewers.
Kiuchi Brewery represents one of over 300 new craft beer breweries to spring up by the year 2000 prior to dwindling to the present estimate of 250. Its production was 250,000 gallons in 2010 with earnings of about m$8. And as sales of saké have dived, the company has increased its operations by as much as 40% in recent years.
Slate reports that as much as 40% of kurafuto bia purchase occurs by shipment. And according to Wayne Gabel of ‘All About Beer Magazine’;
“…[A] road trip is about the only way you’ll be able to sample the handiwork of most of this country’s small-scale brewers.”
Visit a definitively Japanese home brew site on the Web, if you read Japanese, to get a sense of what ingredients that craft brewers can purchase in Japan.
Too soon to say whether the future of Japan’s beer could be blowing in the wind in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and its contamination. Whether or not a groundwater threat exists at present, breweries have been storing water in the meantime and in many cases shipping the water to regions of the northeast most in need. Other sources claim that reverse osmosis can be one way to render contaminated water pure again through use of graphene, an allotrope of carbon one atom in thickness. If filtration is the only issue then Japan’s microbreweries can possibly bounce back from this disaster practically in a flash.
The Japanese have otherwise long enjoyed an abundance of high quality spring water to brew with. The Fushimi region of Kyoto Prefecture illustrates this importance of water to brewers. And these waters have attracted more than thirty various brewers of saké and craft beer there.
Water sources are known by name, such as “Fusui water source,” and have been chronicled as matter of public record in a top 100 list. If you want to locate some breweries, refer to this list. Swan Lake Brewery, located in Niigata Prefecture, uses pure Niigata spring water and has earned World Beer Cup awards in various categories.
Japanese craft breweries
As of 2010, only three food dispensaries in Tokyo, Japan operated their own in-house breweries. the bar, Craft Beer Moonlight; dock-side pub and restaurant TY Harbour, and Tokyo Disney Resort restaurant Harvestmoon, reports ‘Beer in Japan.’ Craft Beer Moonlight, a thoroughly Japanese bar, serves homebrew quantities straight from the keg in multiple varieties, the regular beers selling for 300 yen apiece and special brews from 500 – 800 yen. Menus in the English language were reported to be on the way. Also of note was that the bar sells homebrew supplies, the only source in the city apart from the Tokyo Hands chain store.
At the south end of the island, 250 miles west southwest from Tokyo, Dining Room You of Horikawa serves up some Japanese microbrews, including Angry Boy Brown Ale (by Baird Brewing Co. of Numazu, situated 35 miles due southwest of Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula).
Japanese craft beer gatherings
A considerable number of craft beer festivals and competitions can be found in any given year throughout the major cities of Japan. Parties at bars such as Akasaka’s international brew exhibitor, BierVana (in Tokyo), also offer a way to get together and try brews of any origin while highlighting local craft brews. Online sources such as IBU and JCBA cite some of the key annual kurafuto bia fests:
• Craft Beer Festa Kyoto
• Great Japan Beer Festival, hosted in prefectures Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama, hosted by JCBA
• Japan Craft Beer Selection, hosted by Japan Craft Beer Support
• Japan & Asia Beer Cup, hosted by Japan Craft Beer Association (JCBS rival)
• Tokyo Real Ale Festival
• “Grand Biere” Festival, hosted by JCBA
• International Beer Competition, hosted by JCBA
• Tokyo Microbrew Beer Festival
Craft beer vs. craft tax
Taxation controls the economics of beer sales without always determining what brews people choose to buy. In order to qualify for paying less tax, brewers elected to phase out malt quantities from the 66.6% minimum composition designated to define ji-biru to lower than 66.6% for second and third tax sector beers. These types may be brewed with or without malt.
Any consumer can estimate immediate economic destiny, fortune cookie style, by looking at consumption of ‘happoshu’ or ‘daisan,’ the lesser brews. But consider, in terms of brewing, the genuine craft in terms of flavor and food pairing. Being the product of tax code convenience, although certainly not the harpsichords of craft beer, these types should not be altogether ignored as sources for inspiration, critique, or appreciation. Happoshu’s mandatory production minimum holds at 6 kL.
Though Japanese critics, apart from home brew regulations, do not generally consider “near-beer” — what sells in America as “non-alcoholic beer” such as O’Douls at 0.5% or low alcohol content — to be beer in fact, the craft brewer could certainly identify that the distinguishing fact about beer concerns its fact of being brewed with gastronomic purpose, regardless of how tax breaks factor in. Similarly, in America, it is not “beer” but rather ale and “malt liquor” that has a higher alcohol rating, while all of these brews qualify as beer in Japan. So, at least in America, beer amounts to a low-alcohol beverage. Although in Japan, beer occurs on a critic-by-critic basis outside the government’s categorical scheme. Inevitably, the decision will be one of palatable and gastronomic predilection.
Thus happoshu and happosei/daisan brews, beer or not as 2nd and 3rd tax sector concepts, tend to be regarded as “faux beer.” It’s not all bad, but that’s not enough to silence the critics about its proper place in society.
Government regulation & statistics
Japan’s National Tax Agency offers positive insight as to the popularity of beer as a national drunken beverage. The production figures popularity of beer far out-foams that of any other alcohol beverage, double that of sparkling liquor and roughly six times that of saké, going by figures for the most recent year on record. The figures also show the regions that make the most beer (Osaka, Kanto Shinetau, Tokyo) and the prefectures with the most beer buyers, or sales (Tokyo, Osaka).
These findings equate with formal statistics such as established by the Wands Review (2006) that nearly half of Japanese citizens consume beer as their alcohol of favor. International Beers Unlimited claims the figure to be at two-thirds in the nation as a whole.
A brewer’s license of either class, temporary or permanent, can take as many as 6 months to be approved. In Japan, qualification consists of meeting legal requirements for a minimum brew of 60 kL per year, the equivalent of 512 U.S. barrels. Prior to deregulation, the minimum had been 2,000 kL.
Homebrew of craft beers on the rise
In stark contrast to Japan, cities in China and Hong Kong, Seoul South Korea, and Singapore where home brewing is legal in the practical sense have opened their veritable gateway to craft beers. The United States recently saw a decline in home brewing regulations in all states nationwide.
While in Japan’s land of artisans before the corporate dominion, the legality of home brewing remains limited to the 1% alcohol content rule, under law. That’s why home brewing supplies may be readily available throughout the nation. Although freedom to blend, formulate, and share brews freely suffers undeniable restriction. Still, with favorable water and its gratifying carbonation, any home brew concoction can be shared as long as it does not exceed 1%. Home brew carbonation typically occurs in-process, whereas many breweries dilute using carbonated water prior to bottling. While home brewing is not Japanese craft beer per se, it’s still only a license and 80 kL dream away, in a year’s mass production, so there should be no ignoring that ji-biru has to come from somewhere local.
For the most part, Japan’s craft beer comes directly from the prefecture supply house where it has been brewed. Japan’s contests and festivals, as well as craft brew operations in bars and eateries, make kurafuto bia most accessible. And then there are the microbreweries themselves and their online shops. Private establishments that serve patrons beer may also elect to carry any number of kurafuto bia varieties. The Japanese craft beer scene makes for excellent opportunities to travel and get out more to socialize in the simplest of ways, beckoning an adventure of discovery in the making.