A Look Into Japanese Craft Beer
In Japan, craft beer is a relatively new and quickly growing phenomenon. Much of the beer in Japan is still manufactured by the big names; Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. However, as more drinkers look to try out new flavours or find out their preferred type of brew, beer from smaller breweries is quickly gaining traction in the market.
In 2009, the big name breweries had a total of twenty-eight breweries among themselves with Kirin coming out on top with eleven breweries, followed by Asahi with nine, Sapporo with five, and Suntory with three. The same records go on to show that, outside of the big five, 191 companies had registered 201 breweries, bringing the total number of breweries in Japan for 2009 up to 230. 2010 to 2014 had an average of 20 to 30 licenses granted each year and 2015 saw a total of 49 additional licenses granted for beer or near-beer drinks.
(Writers note: A “Beer” brewing license is strict in that you can only use essentially 4 ingredients: Malt, Hops, Yeast, and Water. You can also use rice, corn, kaoliang, potatoes, starch, or other sugar to brew beer as well but once the malt ratio is less than 67% (or if one uses anything outside of the aforementioned list) automatically makes the drink “Happoshuu” or what is often referred to as near-beer. Also, adding anything outside of the initial wort boil, for dry-hopped IPAs or fruit-based beers, is not classified as “Beer” by that government.)
You may have heard of two specific terms to refer to beer made by non-industrial breweries in Japan: “Ji-biru” (地ビール) or “Craft Beer” (クラフトビール). Both terms can be used interchangeably but recently fans have opted to use the term craft beer more.
There are some slight differentiations between the two terms which are explained below.
- Ji-biru (地ビール)is a Japanese term that translates to "beer of the land", and is usually found only in very local areas in Japan. Many ji-biru are made only for local drinkers / areas, so the name is fitting. Many of the beers made here are to attract attention to a certain aspect of that local area (such as a special water, or crop of rice) and do not focus on the craft of beer making.
- The term craft beer (クラフトビール) has come into popular usage recently and this term is often used by brewers and beer fans to differentiate beer brewed with special attention to the quality and detail from just any old locally-brewed ji-biru.
This differentiation becomes necessary as many local ji-biru seem to have lacked the appropriate attention to the craft of actually making the beer. Which a lot of it is still far from good. It can be uninspired, unreliable in taste or consistency, or just overall poorly crafted. A ji-biru is often written as or perceived as good because it is local, making a majority of consumers the tourists who come to visit. That isn’t to say that all local beers are bad, with many becoming more competitive and focusing on the craft to stay relevant.
Moving back a bit on the topic of smaller breweries, Ji-biru / craft beer was essentially born in 1994 when the taxation laws in Japan were changed so that it became possible to get a brewing license by demonstrating a capacity to brew 60,000 litres of beer a year. This is a large decrease from the previous 2,000,000 litres a year law which drove the initial required investment to prohibitive levels. After this change in the law, the ji-biru / craft beer scene exploded with many breweries popping up all over Japan. Many of these breweries, however, have thus disappeared due to various reasons. The late 90s saw over 400 microbreweries open up, but by 2009 saw only 200 left. 2010 saw another explosion of craft beer in Japan, with it becoming popular among many drinking groups, with a high enough demand to entice the opening of many craft beer bars in Tokyo and in other major cities as well.
To this day, craft beer still only has a marginal percentage (around 0.35-0.40%) of the total beer market in Japan but has become its own niche with specialized events happening year round.
Stay tuned as we explore the constant struggle of breweries, both large and small, to be unique, individualistic, and in your belly.