Micro/Nano/Homebrew are words often associated with craftbeer, is beginning to make ' in roads' in Japan, and with a much younger crowd I believe. Major in roads, I am not entirely sure yet. Since the 17th Century Japan has been brewing beer and it's no secret that beer is the most popular drink in Japan, even more so than my beloved nihonshu.
When Happoushu, low malt beer, was first introduced to the market it was even cheaper to produce than regular beer, as tax was lower and cheaper to buy. Beer simply became the drink of choice for brewers and drinkers.. I remember asking Japanese about this and often times they would tell me the main reason they drink beer is because it's cheaper to buy than distilled spirits and rice brews, and that their ultimate aim was to just get wasted, cheaply, and not necessarily for the taste. Times have changed I believe as younger drinkers are starting to expand their range of preferences and tastes, and are beginning to take an interest in craft beer, in spite of it not being as cheap as low-malt beer. Craftbeer is more expensive and a like the fact that Japanese, especially younger ones are starting to take an interest paying more for extra quality, and that they are starting to drink for taste and not necessarily for affect.
But here is where I digress a little, the other day I was invited to lunch by an elderly couple / client over at the newly renovated sushi-ro in Higashi-Kanagawa, a conveyor sushi place. As we sat looking at all the plates move passed us, we honed in on all the freshly caught tuna ( maguro ). Now, I love tuna when it's in season, not the imported stuff you can get year-round. Who wants to eat tuna imported from India and Africa? This is Japan. Fresh tuna has a slippery oily sheen on it and melts in your mouth practically. Another point was that it was room temperature which is partly due to the freshly made vinegar rice used for making sushi. There is nothing like the heavenly goodness of tightly packed sushi over rice with a tender slab of fatty tuna on it. Are you with me? At any rate, the matron asks if I wanted a beer, and that she would be ordering one for herself too, along with tuna. I was a little reluctant at first because I was happy with just the hot green tea, but I remember back in the day when I used to take sushi jaunts around route 15 with some friends. We'd always order ice cold Suntory premium malt beer with tuna. No better combination in the world, actually. So I obliged her and accepted her generous offer. It was the cold crisp goodness of that beer that really got me in the mood for tuna.
No other beer on the planet, craft beer, what have you, can touch an ice cold Japanese Suntory Premium Malt / pilsner with the oily goodness of domestic fatty tuna. It's cleaner and more refreshing. Pale lager or pilsner produced by Suntory was made for tuna, and a whole host of other Japanese favorites. Japanese brews such as beer and nihonshu always work best for Japanese cuisines. This is where I believe there may be a gap between what craft beer brings to the Japanese consumer, and what already works best for Japanese food. Binge drinking isn't a custom in Japan like it is in Europe, so let's not confuse drinking parties with beer pounding belligerence, and neither should we associate a dark ale, lager, Helle with the light flavored, non-seasoned fish dishes most associated with Japanese cuisine. Europeans and Americans can drink and eat almost anything and not care about the flavor profiles when they have drunk themselves into a stupor, or even better, not eat anything at all and just drink themselves into a stupor. I remember at a beer event in Tokyo. I was sitting at a table with two geeky foreigners, one fat and the other skinny, a Japanese couple, and they were all experimenting with pizza and craft beer. One complaint that I remember both of them having was that the beer had no flavor profile, even though the craft beer was relatively fresh. The Japanese man sitting across from me couldn't identify not one single flavor profile……. So I am wondering what it is that turned him on to craft beer in the first place? What was the initial draw to craft beer for him? And, why is he paying 900 yen per glass for something he isn't enjoying? Could this be just some passing fad?
It's the Japanese restaurateur who has to create food that works best with whatever alcohol he has in his fridge. If you were to ask him to sell micro-brews then he would need to modify his menu to heavier, savory, and more oily foods, stuff foreigners tend to love, and although the Japanese palate is changing, the old favorites will always win out over the newer cuisines from the West. A German brewed pilsner may work with yakitori, but a Japanese brewed pilsner malt will always work better, that cannot be argued. How will craft beer etch out a place for itself in Japan? Will it simply be just a stand alone drink that people just binge over? Or will there be a culinary connection between it and food - Japanese food.
Where I see a clear advantage for these newer craft brews domestically and internationally though, is the wider range of foods they can accommodate - non-Japanese food. Oily dishes, spicy, and so forth and so on. But are Japanese people ready ? Or, is this just some passing fad? I think that with the focus being in places like Tokyo, which are hubs for culinary innovation, the craft beer-scene will take off. Especially as more Japanese chefs experiment with different tastes. Tokyo sophisticates are always game for the next big thing to hit the weekend scene. They will try anything and craft beer is one of them.
Still, I am not convinced how long the beer bug will bite. And I am not sure if they know what they are looking for in taste, quality, and aroma, like with the Japanese drinker I mentioned above who paid a pretty penny for something he obviously didn't enjoy. Even though newer tastes are acquired through time may not hold true in time. If a beer is supposed to taste like apple, then I had better taste apple, in other words.. What does craft beer bring to the table? Well, it brings a kind of eclecticism that Tokyoites are known for indulging themselves in, especially with European dishes, and appearing cool and worldy savvy….. These never hold nor stand the test of time.
What I think will eventually happen is that Japanese brewers and sake houses will tap into the micro beer market, like they have been already, and making much better beer at cheaper prices. The European imports will struggle to match the production and quality of Japanese craft beer. Sure Europeans will continue exporting hops and malts, but this too will not remain as Japanese brewers begin experimenting with red rice, sweet potatoes, and rare fruits. Eventually, small sake brewer's will begin to reinvent traditionally brewed Eurocentric beers to match the Japanese palate, the Japanese way, while Europeans and American reinvent Japanese sake their way. Culture swap. Or, all together ditch Eurocentric beers for something completely unique only to Japan. One example would be KAGUA craft beer. A pure Japanese craft beer made with Japanese cuisine in mind, using all homegrown ingredients from right here in Japan. I was surprised when I found out that they use Sansho and Yuzu, which are all rare in brewing craft beer. They are forecasting to expand their accounts to over 350 restaurants in Japan, and this is after their first year in business!
I dig the fact that younger drinkers are willing to try new things, and I like that they are willing to spread the coin a bit for it. Craftbeer is here to stay, the Japanese way, because Japanese craft beer is what I believe will hold the masses while others ride the wave success of better brewed beers. I am excited to see how beer evolves and what the market holds for the drinker. Imported craft beer will have its place, too. And with a modest following I believe.