What’s the Deal with Japanese Craft Beer?

Japanese Craft Beer, an association created by 23 breweries to promote Japan's artisanal brewing methods, dared me to “Drink in a New Language” by tasting some of the best offerings from the Far East.  

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So, what’s the deal with Japanese craft beer? Let’s start from the beginning. The industry was born in 1994, following deregulation that allowed smaller beer makers to acquire brewing licenses. The early players were mostly sake distillers who opened breweries on the side or other companies who made beer to promote tourism to their area of the country with batches featuring local ingredients like yuzu, wasabi, sansho, and even matcha (that’s why you see many Japanese beer companies with two names, i.e. Hitachino Nest/Kiuchi Brewing).

An early setback for most of these would-be beer companies was that they entered the business with little to no brewing experience (the majority of them literally only received a two-week crash course from visiting German brewers) and the product was admittedly not very good. We’re talking Tomato IPA bad! This turned off many Japanese beer drinkers from trying more craft brews and the industry almost failed before it really could get started.

Then around 2005, Japanese brewers got serious about the process of beer making as a “craft.” These reinvigorated and artisanal-minded brewers began creating modern, harmonious offerings that didn’t fit a single archetype, but still incorporated key from classic beers, like German-style lagers and American-style IPAs. The brews were actually starting to get good.

At least that’s what Japanese Craft Beer was trying to demonstrate when they had me taste these offerings (spoiler alert- I enjoyed most of these brews):

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Hitachino Nest White Ale. Chances are if you’ve only heard of one Japanese craft beer, it’s this white ale from Kiuchi Brewery. To be honest, it’s a great introduction to craft beers from Japan and piques your interest to try more. The Belgian-style witbier is flavored with coriander, orange peel, and nutmeg, tastes great, and goes down smooth. Try this if you like Allagash White.

COEDO Beniaka Imperial Sweet Potato Amber. This is a strong amber (7% abv) that’s brewed with Kintoki sweet potatoes from Saitama, Japan. It delivers an earthy hop bitterness, kind of like being smacked in the face with a sweet potato just pulled from the ground. Try this if you like New Belgium Fat Tire mixed with root vegetables.

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COEDO Ruri Pilsner. This is a crisp offering with a light body. It finishes with a bite of hoppiness (if you like that sort of thing) that helps to prevent you from putting down too many of these 5% abv brews too fast. Try this if you like Pilsner Urquell.

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Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale. Baird Brewing Company got creative with this 6% abv beer that adds wasabi and green tea to the traditional malt and Scottish ale yeast. There’s no great way to describe it except weird, but good. You’re not sure you want to drink it, but you just have to. For those in Los Angeles looking to try this on tap, stop by Harajuku Taproom for this and a dozen more Baird beers on draught. Try this if you like…just try this.

Kanazawa Hyakumangoku Pale Ale. Nothing weird or funky here. Just a well-balanced and refreshingly hoppy brew that proves the Japanese can handle expertly making a traditional favorite. Try this if you like Lagunitas Sumpin' Easy Ale.

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Karuizawa Weiss. This 5.5% abv German white is less cloudy than you would normally see from its European or American counterpart because of a special filtration process that maintains the flavor and gets rid of the other stuff. The brewers at Karuizawa say they are dedicated to both quality and design, which can be seen in their double frosted green bottle that feels smooth in the hand and to deliver their great beer. Try this if you like Hoegaarden.

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Sorry! Umami IPA. YOHO Brewing created this Experimental Adjunct IPA with a hint of the flavor of the traditional Japanese culinary ingredient of “Katsuobushi” or bonito flakes. That’s right, there’s actually mackerel inside this beer! But, don’t worry about a fishy taste because the aquatic addition helps fermentation and brings out the fruity tropical notes of the brew. Just remember it’s not vegan friendly. Try this if you like Stone Ruination IPA.