For a short time, Japan got its own beer magazine, thanks to prolific beer writer, illustrator and bon vivant Hiroyuki Fujiwara. He was the editor of The Beer & Pub quarterly that was published from spring 2005 to the end of 2006. This full color glossy magazine featured a selection of interesting articles and great photography, and is still sadly missed.
Today, Japan has a very diverse beer culture, though it is concentrated on mass-produced lagers and low-malt beers (generally defined as those made with up to 25 percent malt) from the four major brewers. Beer taxes are high—about $2.50 per liter. This brings the cost of an ordinary six-pack as high as $16. The low-malt beers are taxed less, and have appeared as a way of offering cheaper beer, with a six-pack costing as little as about $9.
At the other end, the least expensive craft beer will run at least $18, and often nearly twice as much. What needs to be remembered with Japanese craft beer, though, is that all the inputs are imported, so that top quality craft beer from the United States is fairly competitive in price.
Bryan Baird still faces challenges, though most involve getting more people interested in better quality beer. Interestingly, these days none of them involve laws. “Of course, the liquor laws in general are actually quite free,” Bryan admits. “It is utter freedom—no interstate commerce laws, no three-tier system, and thanks to the Internet, we can sell directly to anyone. This means retailers, pubs and restaurants, and even consumers. Since our first Taproom, we have opened two more, both in Tokyo: one in Nakameguro in 2008, and another in Harajuku in 2009.”
Bryan’s business strategy is at one philosophically with his approach to brewing. He explains, “We make beer in a certain way, we are committed to retailing the beer well. We run our own taprooms, which is easier to do than in the U.S. since we have full legal rights to owning our pubs. They are our showrooms, and enable us to sell twice as much beer as we could otherwise. The Taprooms are absolutely essential to our business.
We also began exports to the U.S. in April, 2008, through Shelton Brothers, our importer. This is a very small part of our business, less than 10 percent, but exporting is mainly for pride, reputation and brand-building. When you are as small as us, it is not that profitable.”
In the next 10 years, it is safe to say that craft brewery openings will be minimal. Baird and breweries like his will grow incrementally while closures will continue apace. “There is no entrepreneurship in brewing here,” Baird explains. “It has been corporate from the beginning. It’s really been about local promotion and tourism. Out of over 200 breweries now, there are about 20 that are really committed to making a good go of it, and making really good beer,” he explains.
In the fall of 2009, a new government was put into place in Japan, and there is talk that liquor taxes will be heavily revamped, perhaps to the benefit of craft brewers. Still, fundamental change in Japan takes place at a very slow pace, so dramatic changes should not be expected.
Still, Baird is optimistic. “The future is bright because of the demographics. Brewing good beer is your only chance to make it in this business in Japan. I believe there is a culture here that can support good beer.”