Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: The sun beats down through wind-swept trees as my wife and I mill about on the platform for the “Sagano Romantic Train” in Kyoto. While my wife looks cool and collected I am roasting in Japan’s infamous summer heat and when I spot the small beer-filled fridge sitting on the end of the ticket counter I make a beeline for it like a man possessed. The bottle now sweating in my hand, emblazoned with a photo of the antique train we’re about to ride, is a custom-brewed Kölsch called Torokko Sagano and made by the Haneda Sake Brewing Co.
Being able to buy a bottle of craft beer from a tourist attraction may not seem like a big deal to many people, but just a few years ago it would have been extremely unusual in Japan. Thanks to the proliferation of convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Lawson, and the omnipresence of vending machines, beer in Japan is literally as easy to find as bottled water. Your choices though are limited to drinks from one of the four major beer producing companies in Japan: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Craft beer isn’t quite as easy to locate (I have yet to see a vending machine carrying a craft brand), but its presence is growing in small but noticeable ways. The Oxford Companion to Beer lists Japan as the fourth largest beer market in the world and, as in America, craft brewers are eager to get in on the action.
The taste: While the four big beer companies in Japan produce a range of products, their flagship beers are fairly uniform lagers and pilsners with little to distinguish between them. Sure, every now and then you’ll find a thin stout or something with the word “hop” in the name, but the bulk of the beer is going to be golden, low ABV, and easy to consume in quantity.
These are not terrible beers, but they’re also not remarkable, and you can learn a lot about them just by reading the ad copy. Words like “drinkability,” “smooth,” and “crisp” dominate, which seasoned craft drinkers might frown upon. These companies also produce a strange, low-malt, Japan-specific ersatz beer called “happoshu” which thanks to the convoluted Japanese sales tax structure for alcohol costs substantially less than regular beer. Also: it’s terrible. Do not drink it.
The craft side of Japanese beer is an entirely different beast though. The influence of countries like Germany, Belgium, and the United States is evident, and while lagers are still numerous, light and fragrant kölsch, punchy IPAs, and yeasty saisons are easy to find across craft brands. Things really start to get interesting though when you start sampling beers made with sake yeast, sake rice, and indigenous fruits and vegetables.
While it’s true beers which use rice in their composition have a tendency to be awful, Japan has been using yeast and rice to make flavorful, high quality beverages for hundreds of years, and now those ingredients have made their way into craft beer production. Brewers are also using ingredients such as sweet potato and yuzu, which respectively can produce flavors of sweet richness and vibrant citrus.
Possible gateway: Any of the “big four” Japanese beers are readily found. When it comes to Japanese craft beer, a great, easy-to-find introduction is Hitachino Nest, a family of beers produced by Kiuchi Brewery. One of the most commonly available Hitachino Nest beers is the White Ale, a Belgian-style wit brewed with four types of hops, coriander, nutmeg, orange peel, and orange juice. The beer, which pours golden and cloudy and settles with a white head, is an excellent example of how Japanese brewers have adopted European brewing styles. If you’re looking for something a little more intrinsically Japanese though, try the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale. Made with Chinook hops, barley, red rice, and sake yeast, this straightforward but interesting ale pours a beautiful pinkish-red and has lively effervescence.
Another Japanese craft brand available in the United States is Baird Beer, which is imported to the US by Shelton Brothers Inc. Baird’s lineup is extensive and styles made by this brewery vary widely, but if you can find it the Temple Garden Yuzu Ale is a great choice. Yuzu, a lemon-like Japanese citrus fruit, pairs well with malts of rye and oats to create a beer unlike others which leverage flavors of citrus.
Next steps: This is where things get tricky. A great deal of Japanese beer isn’t exported and if you really want to dive deep you either need to visit Japan or find someone within the country who’s willing to ship some bottles home to you. Neither choice is ideal for the casual drinker who doesn’t have money to burn.
If you’re able to overcome the barriers you’ll find an incredible array of choices await you though. One standout is Yamabushi Saison Noir, brewed by Tamamura Honten Co., a brewery based in Nagano. The Yamabushi Saison Noir is an unfiltered, bottle conditioned black saison brewed with sake rice and aged in oak barrels. Sold only in 750ml bottles it’s a weird, funky, unpredictable beer you’ll want to seek out over and over again.
If going to Japan is something you’re able to do, do some research where the best stores and bars are located. Craft beer bar Popeye in Tokyo is deservedly famous, and the Hitachino Nest Beer’s Brewing Lab (also in Tokyo) is gorgeous and serves a range of beer and food. Yamaoka Liquor Store, which is tucked away in a residential corner of Kyoto is a treasure-trove. If going in person isn’t a realistic option, try to set up an international beer trade with someone in Japan. American beers are extremely expensive in Japan and there’s a real demand for beers from well regarded American breweries.
Talk like an expert: Over the past few years an increasing number of bars and restaurants in the US have begun to carry beers from Yo-Ho Brewing Company, with the Yona Yona Ale and Tokyo Black Porter being popular choices. While they’re solid beers and are worth trying if you’ve never had them before (despite the fact that they often seem to sell for upwards of $8 a can), in Japan these are actually most commonly available in convenience stores like Lawson for the equivalent of a couple of bucks.