Beer hunting in the land of the Rising Sun is not only unique in many ways, but an adventure into a little known section of the RB world. There are many pitfalls you need to watch out for such as $9/pints (no tip, no tax) and a much more ubiquitous macro scene, but to the careful eye and the trained beer hunter, this truly can be a land of opportunity!
First off there are some major differences between the scene here and in North America.
1. Beer is sold on the basis of supply and demand. Business people can buy (import direct, sell online, etc) and sell the beer by whatever means necessary and supply will judge how successful you are. There doesn’t need to be any middlemen or government control between the producer and seller. CRAZY concept to say the least. Certainly this crazy concept is not taken from the beer regulators in States or Canada. What this has led to, is a proliferation of online stores selling beer by the bottle, bars directly importing beers for their own use and a very wide variety of beer, especially Belgian ales (Sadly N. American ales are very underrepresented). It also means that almost all breweries have on-line websites to buy beer from.
2. Deregulation of the industry only started in 1994, when the minimum amount of beer needed to be brewed each year was lowered to 60HL, which allowed for micros to pop up.
3. Shipping costs are much, much lower in Japan. You can buy up to 3 cases and have them shipped half way across the country for less than $10.
4. In general, most Japanese have no idea that micros even exist, as they represent only 0.5% of the market. To make things worse, someone decided to really confuse matters and call beer styles by inappropriate names, such as calling all dark brown and black beer (Porter, Schwarz, Stout, etc) ‘black beer’. This hardly helps consumer education.
5. IMO, women are going to drive the micro scene as in general they have an obsession, more so than men, about trying new and different types of food and drink. Most beer festivals are about a 50/50 split or women heavy. At the latest GJBF it was about a 55/45 split of women/men.
6. The micro scene is still in its infancy (think USA about 1987) and there is a lot of crap out there, which hurts the producers of quality beer.
7. BEER TAXES ARE 222 yen (about $2)/liter, significantly higher than in N. America. Therefore beer, as mentioned before, is significantly more expensive, especially micros. Expect to pay at least $6 for a US pint of microbrewed beer and up to $10 for something stronger like an imperial stout/porter or barleywine. Special beers can go much higher than that.
8. Because of high land prices there are very few brewpubs and breweries in the big cities, but people in larger cities, especially Tokyoites, tend to have the highest knowledge about beer.
9. Homebrewing is still ‘illegal’, though the only time I have heard of it being cracked down on is when some guy won an American homebrewing competition and his local newspaper did a story on him. Despite the lack of enforcement the law still stifles homebrewing culture and therefore quality brewers and the good beer scene in general.
10. All alcohol can be sold 24 hours a day in a variety of establishments.
11. The macros actually make damn good beer, especially pilsners. Japan makes some of the best Pilsners in the world. I have been to Czech Republic and Germany and I prefer the pilsners here. Unfortunately the best products are not available in North America.
12. Many rural micros focus on selling their beers as products of that specific area, rather than as a brewery producing a variety of different styles of beers. Those breweries tend to produce crap beers at really high prices.
13. Alt and Kolsch style beers are represented disproportionately high, while IPAs and Pale Ales are underrepresented.
So what can the average beer hunter look forward to if they were to visit Japan? Well in Tokyo in particular more beer bars than they could ever imagine. There probably are over 100 establishments in the greater Tokyo area (Greater Tokyo also has a population of about 40 million people) that cater to the specialty beer consumer group. In central Tokyo alone there are probably a good 50 plus, and even in the neighborhood Aceofhearts (Chad) lives in there are at least 8 places within walking distances of each other that would be quality by North American standards. Of note of course is Popeyes, which is, IMO, the center of Japan’s beer scene. Popeyes has 40 beers on tap, which may not be too outstanding by N. American standards, but in light of the fact the only domestic ‘macro’ on tap is Asahi’s 8% imperial stout, you know Mr. Aoki, the proprietor is serious about beer. So much so that he updates his beer menu in the restaurant and on-line nearly everyday in Japanese and every few days in English!! The staff at Popeyes will let you know the hop profiles of pretty much any of the beers and can answer many questions about specific Japanese microbreweries they carry.
In the countryside, there is a vast amount of undiscovered micros that seem to be hidden just around the corner from some ancient shrine. One oddity perhaps is that the vast majority of the good beer in Japan is brewed between Nagoya (site of the last year’s Expo) and Hokkaido, the northern island. The other half of the country has a few gems here and there, but is pretty much a wasteland. One great thing is that the states (prefectures) within two hours train ride from Tokyo in all directions tend to produce the best beers in the country. Because micros tend to be in the countryside, beer hunting allows you to see a side of Japan that most tourists would not bother to see, and something completely different than the concrete jungles of Tokyo and Osaka. Some of the micros are located in beautiful locations that make the beer drinking experience all that more enjoyable. One such place, OH LA OH, in Nagano, is located on top of a large hill that over looks the valley below and has an onsen (hot springs) in the adjacent building - which is an excellent place for a prebeer dip.
Overall the Japanese beer scene is interesting to say the least and is likely the most idiosyncratic scene in the developed world. Japan, with its lack of information in English, will challenge and maybe even frustrate the most experienced beer hunters…… but that is what gives the beer scene here its mystique.