The story of Japanese drinking culture is a tale of two countries, and a story of both night and day. The rising sun shines upon a diligent nation of survivalists holding cultural tradition in the highest regard. By day, the country’s citizens are fixated on projecting a proper outward image that communicates their hard-working, upstanding nature. Under the cover of night, however, decorum and inhibitions are traded for stiff drinks and raucous, gluttonous adventures. For centuries, an evening of spirited revelry revolved around the usual suspects—sake, firewater or macro-brewed lagers. And for most in Japan, this remains the norm. But make no mistake, modern brewing has taken root and is slowly expanding like a small yet extremely formidable blowfish. Little by little, the nation’s beer drinkers are happening upon artisanal ales and lagers brewed in styles going far beyond the light-bodied Germanic variety upon which the Japanese, like inhabitants of so many other Asian countries, have solely sustained themselves for so long.
In 2013, the country’s largest annual beer event, Yokohama’s Great Japan Beer Festival, turned up a level of diversity that was twofold. In addition to beer styles hailing from England, Belgium and the United States, the imbibers sampling spanned many demographics—male and female, young and old, locals and far-flung visitors. And while there is still a solid percentage of Japanese drinkers with a penchant for subtler, more sessionable beers, the tastes of the country’s average beer enthusiast veer unmistakably toward the extreme. Last year’s GJBF turned up more barley wines and double India pale ales than ever before. Similarly bold-flavored and high-alcohol barrel-aged beers also garnered much attention from attendees, inspiring lines requiring as much as 15 minutes of patience for small samples of oak- and spirit-laced brewing ingenuity. These are hardly the types of beers outsiders (or most locals for that matter) think of when considering the brews coming out of Japan. But, even at the modest growth rate of the nation’s smaller artisanal breweries, it won’t be long before they will be.
Extreme Beer Only is the tagline for Thrash Zone, a Yokohama bar that perhaps most succinctly communicates Japan’s changing tastes as well as America’s influence in that development. Plastered in Xerox-era U.S. punk band fliers and an entire wall’s worth of Marshall guitar amp facings with video footage of metal concerts blaring on an endless loop, it is the lair of publican and brewer Koichi Katsuki. His big-hop, massive-ABV beers like Speed Kills IPA and Hopslave, an Amarillo-based double IPA he’s brewed since 2009, share space with imperial brews plucked from throughout Japan as well as American outfits like North Coast Brewing Co. and Green Flash Brewing Co.
Demand among local enthusiasts is driving an increase in the trickle of American beer into Japanese bars. A hophead on the loose in Tokyo can sample core and specialty offerings from the United States at a number of establishments devoted to Western wares. Battling for supremacy in this arena are Beer Club Popeye with 70 taps, a modernistic pour house perch called Goodbeer Faucets that’s just a few short blocks from the world’s busiest intersection and archived bottle depository Craftheads. Smaller, but just as devoted to offering local craft intermingled with liquid Americana, are operations like The Watering Hole brewpub and The Hangover, the product of a proud U.S. transplant.
Another American expat who has left an indelible stamp on the Land of the Rising Sun is Bryan Baird. Since he opened Baird Beer in 2001, his overseas empire has grown to include a quartet of taprooms, all serving his largely English-influenced family of beers. Similarly, the pubs borrow heavily from the U.K. pub aesthetic while providing uniquely Western food experiences—Southern-style barbecue in Bashamichi, and heavy pizza pies in Nakameguro. Not surprisingly, it is a favorite of other expats as well as locals looking for a slab or slice of something different. And like quality taprooms in Baird’s homeland, his look to educate visitors on all beer can be. They serve a wide array—to-style pale ales, ambers, IPAs, porters and stouts—at proper temperatures versus the ice-cold any-and-every-bar norm.
The hot number in Baird’s current arsenal is its newest—Suruga Bay Imperial IPA. But it’s not the only abundantly hopped double IPA generating big buzz. So, too, is one recently invented at Coedo Brewery in Kyodo Shoji. It is vibrant in its tropical fruit nuances and assertive bitterness, and on par with any West Coast-style IPA being produced in the United States. This assertion comes courtesy of Shawn DeWitt, director of brewery operations for Coronado Brewing Co. out of San Diego, who tasted the beer while in Japan to brew a collaboration beer with Coedo brewmaster Hiromi Uetake.
It was Uetake’s third collaborative effort with an American brewer. The first two came when he worked with Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits to create a pair of IPAs brewed at each company’s brewery. “The night before I brewed with Ballast Point, I couldn’t sleep at all,” says Uetake. “American brewers are like gods to us. There isn’t a single brewer in Japan that isn’t aware of what American brewers are doing.” Having worked closely with several, Uetake now understands that American brewers are essentially no different—just further along. And he is looking forward to catching up. Coedo has procured barrels from Japanese whiskey producer Ichiro’s Malt. Those barrels will not only be used to age beer. Once Coedo has siphoned spirit-tinged suds from those receptacles, they will be returned to the distillery, where they will be used to store whiskey that, once bottled, will be infused with the essence of the beer.
Though early in its development, Japan’s modern beer movement has legs and serious determination behind it in the form of brewers looking to change the landscape and perception of brewing in their country. It’s unlikely the sun will set on its budding culture of higher quality, more greatly diversified and increasingly extreme ales and lagers anytime soon.
This story appears in the May issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here for a free trial of our next issue.