Aussies love beer and love to travel. When they do travel they usually want to have unique authentic local experiences. What better drink to have in Japan than a Japanese craft beer then? Made with local ingredients by locals, it’s the ultimate local experience.
About ten years ago I started seeing craft beers here and there in Japan. Some were in the kombini, or convenience stores, and others were in bottle shops, and over the last five years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of craft beer bars have been popping up. Two years ago, on holidays in Gomyo, Kagawa Prefecture (way out in the sticks), I even saw a craft beer brewery there, which shows how far the scene has come in Japan in the last few years.
Is Craft Beer Popular in Japan?
In some cool neighbourhoods like Shimokitazawa, there are several craft beers bars, as well as several bottle shops that sell a wide variety of craft beers. The most impressive craft beer selection is at Kitazawa Konishi along with an awesome Stars Wars treasure trove. Other trendy areas, like Koenji, Nakano, and Shibuya also have more than one craft beer place each. Now there are also some in business centres like Marunouchi, Ginza, Shinagawa and Gotanda. They are becoming so mainstream that I’ve ever seen one in Shinjuku!
Although craft beer’s popularity in Japan keeps growing and growing, in many izakaya, or Japanese style pubs, there are not really a lot of them for sale. The same goes for sushi and ramen bars. So, if you are going out for sushi or some other real Japanese-style cuisine, you may be limited sake, shochu and beer from the big producers. Most craft beer bars tend to serve only western style food. The logic seems to be that burgers, hummus and pita toast go better with the deeply interesting craft beers. Yakitori, ramen and edamame on the other hand have matched beautifully with sake, shochu and mainstream beers for centuries. They don’t want to mess with that.
Festivals for Craft Beer Fans
Aside from the increasing number of craft beer bars, there are also a lot of craft beer festivals in and around Tokyo. A quick google search reveals BeerFes, The Great Japan Beer Festival, Oedo Beer Festival and The American Craft Beer Experience plus lots of smaller festivals. Most of them are annual, some of them even happen two or three times a year and they all offer a wide range of craft beer plus tasty beer snacks. They will give you lots of different craft beers for your beer bucks.
In the regional cities such as Osaka, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Kobe and Nagano, there are also a craft beer festival or two per year.
What Are Some Good Japanese Craft Beers?
Vertere TIPA is made out west of Tokyo in Okutama. You can visit the brewery, buy some beer and go for a hike. The hiking is good and the beer is great. They make a 10% double IPA which is also sold in kombini in the area but be careful that 10% really sneaks up on you.
Sankt Gallen – Brewed in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, they claim to have made the first craft beer in Japan. They have lots of beer made with fruit, chocolate and even a stout made with coffee beans excreted by an elephant.
Yona Yona Ale – the name means “drinking night by night”. Its home is in Karuizawa, a fashionable resort town in Nagano Prefecture in the snowy North. It tastes hoppy and fruity. Should be drunk at 13 degrees Celsius to bring out the flavours. They have their own craft beer bars called Yona Yona Beer Works. Their beers are American-style pale ales.
Swan Lake Beer – it’s brewed in Niigata to be crisp and a little bitter. It’s another craft beer brewery in the snowy North! They have a bottom fermentation beer, Koshihikari, made with rice of the same name.
Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale – It has a light refreshing hoppy taste. The brewery is in Kounosu in Ibaraki, northeast of Tokyo. The town’s name literally means “wild goose nest”. The family has been brewing sake for eight generations and their skills show in their very drinkable craft beers.
Shiga Kogen Beer – made in Yamanouchi in Nagano with pure mountain water. Some of their beers contain sake rice and all of them are unfiltered. They have an American Pale Ale, a coffee stout and a barrel-aged sour ale. There is also UFO, Unidentified Fermented Object, an imperial milk stout.
Minoh – an Osaka microbrewery. They make Minoh Godfather 8 Yamaroku Ale which has Yamaroku soy sauce in it. It’s a 6% pale ale and not as weird as it sounds. They also made a salty ale with local salt but it was discontinued because it was as weird as it sounds.
Chabeer – from Kyoto makes a luscious cherry stout called Smoochies. They also make Wasabi Salt Gose, a 4.5% gose, which is a little spicy as you’d expect but surprisingly mild and malty.
So you can come to Japan for the temples, shrines and fabulous food, you can even come for the skiing, but also dive into the vibrant craft beer scene to really get to know the locals. Local and sometimes quirky ingredients, ancient skills and modern brewing technology is a recipe for a great experience.