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 Back In Japan!: The Japan Drinking  Scene.

So Japan and beer. Not words that you tend to see together in the international press. In fact from conversations I have had, a lot of Japan doesn’t seem to know they have a growing craft beer scene. Now Japan and Whisky, the world has got its head around that. After quite a few awards you would have to work very hard not to notice it. Their local beer however is still a well-kept secret for the most part.

That is however changing.  So here we have, based on my short visits, an outsider’s view on the Japan drinking scene.  For any locals of Japan who read this, feel free to correct any mistakes I make. This is based purely on what I saw during my travels and I claim no great expertise.

The first thing that seems odd to an outsider is the opening times. In the UK the lunchtime pint is a thing of tradition, going around America I found places serving at ten in the morning and the refrain, “Its five o clock somewhere!”.  In Japan most craft beer bars didn’t seem to open until 17:00/18:00 hours. On the other hand they did then run to obscenely early o clock in the morning, so it is a trade-off.  You will find some bars, usually brew pubs, doing a short lunch open, but for the most part I would advise to keep bar drink hunting to the night and plan to other things in the day.  You will be in Japan therefore I will presume that this will not be in any way difficult.

Now, for those of you who can’t wait that long, you may be thinking about bottle and can hunting. Good plan. A warning though, your average alcohol store will not have much in the way of craft beer. Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo by the bucket load, but very little craft. It is worth noting that the main players seem to have expanded their range slightly, with black lagers, premium lagers, stouts and the like showing up.  Not top quality, but at least in a pinch you have a bit more choice available to you.   Watch out for anything that is low malt, for they are, well not abominations, but very very dull. This isn’t a shot at those beers that deliberately pick odd ingredients as a stylistic choice, only those who use it as a means of a tax break and turning out a cheap, dull beer.

If you are looking for good quality beer, as always, a specialist shop is your best bet. Failing that, watch out for train stations. No , seriously, nearly every decent sized train station has at least a few shops, which for some reason seem to have a better beer selection than most places. If you are at one of the main train stations that have a food market underneath  you are in for not just a wonder of foodstuff, unusual, sweet creations to delight and tempt, and more, but also a good chance of an area doing sake, whisky by the bucketload, and usually a good chunk of craft beer as well. Hitachino Nest , Baird and the like seem particularly common in food markets.

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If you are wandering and unsure, the best thing to do is keep an eye out for this kanji (酒 ). It is the character for “Sake”.  A lot of alcohol stores will have it outside. Now you may be wondering, what if I don’t want rice wine? I want beer. Don’t worry. Sake is the general term for alcohol in Japan, it can also mean rice wine, but that is more specifically called Nihonshu.

There are more mainstream bars that open throughout the day, and most restaurants will serve alcohol, but in general I found their beer selection as lacklustre as the food was excellent.

So, that’s the basics out of the way. Let’s look at what beer you can likely expect.  Oddly enough for a craft beer scene, massive hops and high abv seems to be relatively uncommon. That isn’t to say they don’t exist. If a beer take exists, it has been tried somewhere in Japan. In my travels I saw white IPA’s, Real Ale on cask, barrel ageing and hop bombs. They don’t seem to be the mainstream though.   There seems to be a few distinct influences, craft German styles be it pilsners, black lagers or wheat beers seem to be relativity common, possibly due to the summer heat.  The Belgium influence seems popular as well with wit beers and, most tellingly, a very Belgium approach to fruit and otherwise infused beers.  The saison style seemed pretty darn common as well, I didn’t get to try many so I can’t say much on if they went for a higher hopped route, more sour and thirst quenching, or something unique, but they did seem to have quite a presence. Then of course, the USA beer scene has an unmistakable impact.

That is not to say that the scene is just clones of whatever exists, that much is distinctly not true. I have mentioned before how Japanese takes on foreign food always have their own twist, be it a mild and sauce laden take on curry, or salad topped thin baked pizzas.  Japanese beer is the same way to me.  The wheat beers are smoother and sweeter, the infusion beers tomato and grapefruit, the traditional low hop ales packed with honey and cinnamon.  Beers are made with sake yeast, buckwheat or Japanese potatoes. A distinct approach to beer is appearing with a style and grace of its own.

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However, similar to how Japanese Whisky is oft called Scotch in all but name, when they set their mind to duplicating another style they can do it very well, and I came across several American Style hop bombs and big fruitcake barley wines.

With all this I do find it slightly sad that the Japanese craft scene seems to oft come second in its own pubs. I have been in several bars with exceptional Belgium selections, bottle shops with wall after wall of foreign beer, and then just a single tap or single cabinet dedicated to local ale.  It is great that the world beers are so easily available there, with the notable exception of British cask ale, which, by its nature, tends not to travel further than the nearest pub or so. Similarly it is great that the enthusiasm for these world beers, and the knowledge of the beer fans in Japan is so great.  However sometimes it seems to overshadow their own growing scene, which is something I would love to see flourish in its own unique identity.

Maybe I was just in the wrong bars, but many, though not all, craft beer places did seem to push the world market at the cost of the home grown ale. Still, to counter that the Brewpub does seem to be rising, with a smattering springing up around the cities. Small pubs and restaurants proudly selling their own ale on or near the site

I will say, if you are a beer hunter, do your research before heading out.   The good craft bars and bottle shops are often tucked away, or off the beaten track and for all that craft beer is rising in Japan it has nowhere near the cultural saturation of the USA or the sheer spoiled for choice nature of Belgium. Here research, maps, and possible a gps enabled phone are your friend.  If you aren’t used to GPS phone navigating in Japan, do some practise with entering street names in the correct format, or copy pasting the correct Kanji in before you head out. It can be a tad counter intuitive if you aren’t used to it and it took us a few attempts to get it to recognise the address we wanted it to find. If you are using internet on the move while you are out there mobile wifi hotspots are expensive, but less so than roaming charges and will make your life a lot easier. I was happy tromping about with printed out paper maps and map photos on my camera at several zoom levels, but I am happy getting lost and wandering. When I was with others of the crowd and using their wi-fi/GPS combination it was a hell of a lot easier and more relaxing.

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Another useful reference, and one I wish I had found earlier in the trip is “The Japan Beer Times” a dual language (English/Japanese) magazine I got handed with one of my beer purchases.   It is laden with both interesting articles and, more on topic, many adverts for craft beer bars, oft including mini maps to help.   They made me realise how many times I had passed close to many such bars in my travels without realising it. If you can pick up a copy early in your travels, it will probably be a helpful guide.

Also that magazine is responsible for a lot of my comments at the start about my lack of knowledge for the scene in Japan.  The articles talked about television shows regarding the craft beer movement, and the anniversary of the sorachi hop being celebrated with images on the side of buses. This , along with the huge number of pubs advertising in it lead me to believe that there is a higher cultural propagation of the craft beer knowledge than I saw, and my difficulty with the language probably did not help either. I noticed also that the magazine is planning on releasing an English language “Craft Beer In Japan: the Essential Guide” book my Mark Meli. If the book is as good as the magazine was I can see myself grabbing a copy if I am ever lucky enough to head to Japan again, I get the feeling it would be very much of use.

In more ego boosting reading the magazine seemed to back my impressions of the two main influences on the Japanese beer scene, that of the early Belgium influence and the recent American influence.  Very tellingly, many craft pubs serve a selection of food stuff that is very American craft pub in style.  Interestingly they comment specifically on the Saison style in one article, commenting that there are comparatively few being made in Japan, which leads me to wonder if my encounters with them were part of a recent upswing in them being made that may have inspired the article.

The public enthusiasm for several high profile beer festivals may also indicate that I have underestimated the depth of love for the beer scene currently in Japan. There were several  such festivals advertised while I was there, including a Belgium beer weekend that seemed to travel from city to city.  However again the emphasis here seemed to be on world beers rather than home grown.

You may notice I’ve not mentioned much about whisky. There is a reason for that. It is bloody expensive in Japan. I don’t just mean the imported Scottish whisky, though it was, Japanese Whisky is at least as expensive in Japan as it is in tax duty heavy UK, if not more so.  You can get more of a range in Japan, and a frankly exceptional range of scotch, but for the most part you can get it with a bit of hunting in the UK. Therefore I didn’t dedicate as much time as you would think to whisky hunting. I will admit I have been meaning to visit the Japan Highlander Bar, after visiting the Scotland version some years ago.  However there always seems to be something else to do, and with the cost and range being about the same in my home UK it didn’t seem the best use of time.

Also, no overview of drinking in Japan is complete without at least a short look at the local specialities, Nihonshu (Sake), umeshu (plum wine) and Shochu (A varied but often potato based spirit).  As with beer, research is the key here.  Your average restaurant will generally serve the basic selection unless you ask otherwise, and quite a few seem only to have that basic selection.  It is well worth searching out somewhere like the Sake Jam Hostel in Kyoto where they can advise you of the varied range of sake available and give you a chance to try a range of flavours to get the idea of exactly how high quality and varied it can be.  Plum wine does not seem to have quite the same range, but does seem to be a popular drink to be made at ryokan (traditional hotels) and often these family made drinks are far better than the more commercial products. Most shoochu I encountered were rougher and simpler spirits, but with a good amount of variance depending on the quality and choice of ingredients.  Despite these being the traditional drinks of Japan, do not expect the excellent versions to be available everywhere. Do your research and hunt out a place that specialises, it is well worth it.

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Before I go, I will just say that I noticed that measures in most pubs seemed smaller than the UK, and strong beers came in small 200ml measures. Often it was commented by people that apparently westerners have quite the reputation for being able to hold their alcohol, an impression I hope I did not dent too much due to being a complete lightweight despite my love of beer.

Though possibly that was just their way of politely saying we are all complete pissheads.

Japan, I hope to return one day and see how the beer scene is doing and to roam its beautiful cities and countryside

Kanpai!

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