It seems you can hardly step out on a Tokyo street these days without encountering a craft beer bar. Enter a café or restaurant, and it’s sure to have at least a couple of craft beers on tap or in bottles. Even supermarket shelves routinely stock premium imports and craft beer.
The rush of players entering the industry shows no sign of slowing down. “We are almost constantly booked out,” says Mike Grant, co-owner and operations manager of Tokyo’s DevilCraft pubs. With locations in Kanda and Hamamatsucho, DevilCraft’s eclectic lineup of Japanese and imported craft brews (and deep-dish pizzas) have been a hit with consumers since August 2011. “It’s only a matter of time before we add a third location to meet demand,” adds Grant.
It’s a story repeated all over town and across the country. In Kyoto, Gastro Pub Tadg’s is an Irish bar and restaurant that went “craft” several years ago. Owner Tadg McLoughlin explains: “We built a great rapport with some of the early Japanese craft breweries and had a constantly changing lineup with 25 taps. We currently have nine taps featuring the best Japanese craft beers.”
Good Beer Faucets (GBF) in Shibuya — with its slick chrome and wood interior, a 40-tap craft beer lineup and inspired food menu — has been a raging success since co-owner Teruya Hori opened in mid-2011. When Hori launched another outlet in late 2013, he looked west to Fukuoka city, Kyushu. GBF’s general manager Dede Bri explains: “After seeing the craft beer industry booming all across Japan and in places like Osaka and Kyoto, we thought that Kyushu would be a nice addition, especially as it was already something of a food destination for people from all over Asia.”
The retail success of craft beer is clearly reflected on the production side of the equation. New craft breweries are opening and existing ones expanding — often assisted by GBF’s Hori, who is also an industrial engineer. The owners of DevilCraft recently commissioned a 400-litre brewery in Tokyo’s Ota ward, from which they will supplement the DevilCraft beer lineup with their own original brews. “We all come from a home-brewing background,” says co-owner Jason Koehler, “so having our own brewery has been a long-held dream. With craft beer booming, there could be no better time to open our own brewery.”
Baird Brewing in Shizuoka recently underwent a major expansion, moving from a 1000-litre system in a former fish-processing factory in Numazu to a purpose-built 6,000-litre brewery in Shuzenji. It is a far cry from the tiny 30-litre batches that founder Bryan Baird started brewing in the back of his taproom in 2000.
“We’ve traditionally grown our operations by retailing as much product as possible through the Internet and our taprooms,” says John Chesen, Baird’s director of Sales and Business Development. “With the new production brewery, we are selling a lot more of our product wholesale, and are exporting to locations as diverse as the USA, Australia, Europe and China. This makes a more complex and mature business, and keeps us all very much on our toes.”
The birth date of craft beer in Japan is considered to be 1994, when taxation laws were relaxed to allow smaller brewers to obtain brewing licenses. Many changes have taken place in the years since. Without a tradition of home brewing — as in the USA, Australia and New Zealand — or traditional craft-scale brewing — as in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe — Japan’s nascent craft brewers struggled to achieve quality, consistency, or any semblance of originality. For the first decade, most Japanese beer drinkers still knew nothing other than mainstream lager; and those who were exposed to ji-biiru, as Japanese craft beer was originally dubbed, were typically underwhelmed, or worse.
But the true believers persevered. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a loose collective of Japanese and foreign craft beer enthusiasts — concerned about the state of the industry but passionate about its potential — began to champion quality and innovation. A new generation of breweries started taking cues from the energetic craft beer scene in the United States, in addition to the traditional brewing roots of Europe.
Later in the 2000s, Japanese craft brewers had improved, but there were arguably still not enough really good breweries and distribution channels to sustain a large and vibrant craft beer scene. Latent demand remained untapped. The main catalyst of the boom we see today was the entry of a slew of specialist craft beer importers like Andrew Balmuth of Nagano Trading. “We imported our first kegs of craft beer from [San Diego-based] Green Flash Brewing in 2007,” he says. “As a long-time craft beer enthusiast and businessman, my aim was to introduce the best of American craft beer in brewery-fresh condition to Japanese beer lovers.”
Other importers quickly followed Balmuth’s lead, aided also by the innovation of one-way disposable plastic kegs that did away with the added burden of having to return the stainless-steel kegs. In only a couple of years, American and European craft beers, once rare or unseen in Tokyo, became readily available, often at prices only slightly higher than locally brewed craft beers.“
Nowadays, it seems everybody wants a piece of the pie. Even the big four brewers have dipped their toes into craft beer waters. In 2015 we have seen the release of mainstream seasonal brands seeking to capitalise on the cache of popularity built up by smaller craft breweries and premium European imports. Suntory released several varieties under its Craft Select label. Asahi has its Craftsmanship series, and Sapporo its Craft Label pale ale.
Where will the industry go from here? Nobody has a crystal ball to see into the future, but if the experiences of Baird Brewing, Nagano Trading and the craft bars are anything to go by, the future looks bright. And with craft beer’s burgeoning availability, robust competition, and ever-rising quality, Japan’s lovers of good beer will definitely be the winners as the industry matures.© Japan Today