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Jan 8, 2023

HOW TOJapanese Craft Beer: The Highs and Lows of an Industry in Flux

Craft beer is still growing as a global phenomenon, and Japan has earned a spot on the international scene with many respectable breweries. But is there something holding Japanese craft beer back from truly making a global mark?

Jan 8, 2023

The beginning and end of ji-biiru in Japan

Craft beer in Japan has come a long way since its inception back in 1994. At that time, the industry was focused on German styles – mainly pilsners, alts and weizens – due to an influx of German brewmasters and systems. And for good reason! German beer is highly regarded globally, especially since the advent of refrigerated transport, and the Japanese domestic macro market – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and more – is dominated by German lager.

Craft beer during this era was known under the protected term of ji-biiru (lit. “local beer”) with an overarching concept of breweries and local industries working together. Brewers were using ingredients like mikan (tangerines), yuzu (Japanese citron), satsuma imo (sweet potato) and even roasted black garlic in their beers to ensure their brews complied with usage of the term.

The Japanese craft beer market suffered a catastrophic crash in the late 90s when consumers realized that the local beer consisted, for want of a better expression, of terrible beers that were too expensive and not worth buying. The second and third generation breweries capitalized on these mistakes, using the term “craft beer” to distance themselves from the previous generation. In turn, they’ve found great success domestically as the reputation of domestic microbreweries improved.

Apprenticeships, international collaboration and competition

Since the early 2010s, breweries have placed importance on the education of brewers and apprentices to continue their craft. Perhaps unironically, there has been great influence from overseas breweries that pioneered the craft, and Japanese importers bringing in greater quantities of fresh craft beer from formative international brands. Pale Ales and India Pale Ales (IPA) are the most common styles in the USA, and the craft beer scene in Japan followed suit. Today, almost every Japanese brewery produces similar styles, which are perfect for enticing new craft beer fans.

Japanese brewers with experience overseas have tried many beer styles that are intended to be enjoyed as fresh as possible. For someone aspiring to create a Hazy IPA – a style that demands freshness – tasting one that is three or four months old simply isn’t acceptable, for brewers, or customers. Japanese brewers gaining valuable experience on the international scene has resulted in greater numbers of well-made Japanese domestic IPAs, pale ales and haze bombs.

Japanese breweries have also won a number of awards and prestigious overseas competitions such as the World Beer Cup. However, in general they were for predominantly German-style beers, or aged beers. Is there a reason Japanese craft beer is not being taken seriously around the world?

The major factor holding Japanese craft beer back

In a word — time.

Any beer drinker with experience should know that fresh is almost always best, especially for the aforementioned IPAs that continue to dominate the market. The floral, pungent and piney hops used in these beers degrade rapidly over time. While Japanese brewers today have access to amazing hops from Yakima Valley and New Zealand, time is of the essence. For this reason, the hops that end up in Japan may not always be the freshest, especially without quality assurance in the supply chain.

The Japanese breweries that take this issue seriously are making world class-beers intended to be enjoyed fresh. In fact, it’s not unheard of that some of these breweries put a 30-day shelf life on their beers to ensure that the customer is getting the freshest beer possible.

After considerable time and effort to acquire the freshest hops possible, brewers want their product to reach the customer at peak condition. To this end, Japanese beers may find trouble making inroads in other countries until a fast – yet economical – way of transporting them internationally is found.

While the Japanese craft beer scene is still in its infancy and faces some challenges, the sky’s the limit for success. With more and more people starting to appreciate and seek out craft beer in Japan, the industry is becoming more diverse, innovative and exciting. It’s a fantastic era for craft beer, and the future is bright. Cheers!