Echigo beer

Photo:Christian Kadluba

In Search of the Perfect Pint: a Guide to Japanese Craft Beers

Scottish stereotype though it may be, I like a drink now and again. When it comes to drinking beer, I will freely admit, I have always been somewhat skeptical of this whole “craft beer” thing. In much the same way as organic fruit and vegetables, so-called “superfoods” and other pretentious “foodie” nonsense, I’ve always tended to regard craft beer as a similar hipster-driven fad. Until recently I regarded craft beer as nothing more than repackaging of essentially the same thing into a different, more expensive box to take advantage of the latest batch of neck beard-wearing, pseudo-intellectuals, eager to impress their equally irritating friends with their “more cultured” approach to drinking.

However, I have to admit, in this regard, I may have been a little hasty. Whilst I do believe that the craft beer movement in the US and the UK is still largely driven by the aforementioned individuals, in Japan things seem to be different. Local microbreweries in Japan have got my attention, by having it where it counts. No pretentions, no condescension, just fresh, tasty, real beer. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I think I may be about to become a convert to the craft beer cause.

Of course in a country of 47 different prefectures, the selection of different craft beers on offer here in Japan is immense. At last count there were more than 450 different brands of craft beer on sale in Japan and that figure continues to rise every month. Even the most ardent alcoholic probably doesn’t have time to try them all during a trip to Japan. Luckily dear readers, your old uncle Liam is here once again, doing the dirty work of drinking a wide selection of craft beers so you don’t have to!

Here for you today, I present my personal top 5 of Japan’s best craft beer breweries, in no particular order:

1. Minoh Brewery, Osaka Prefecture

Minoh W-IPA
Photo by Sotaro OMURA, via Flickr

One of the biggest names in the Japanese craft beer business, and an early entrant into the game, back in 1997, Minoh is one of the few local breweries in Japan to garner a genuine national following. It was also one of the first craft beers that I found being sold on draft here in Osaka, though honestly, much like Coca-cola, for some inexplicable reason, I find it always tastes better ice cold and from the bottle. Always keen to experiment where other breweries sometimes prefer to play it safe, one of Minoh’s most original creations is their Minoh Cabernet, a beer-wine hybrid. It is one of those classic examples, so often indicative of Osaka’s food and drink culture, of a combination that really shouldn’t work, but, somehow, does.

2. Okhotsk Beer Factory, Hokkaido

In spite of the Russian overtones the name suggests, this microbrewery, based in Kitami, in Hokkaido is very patriotically Japanese. Their famous red ale shines with the intensity of a Hinomaru, and takes full advantage of the very best ingredients that the local farmland, forests and arctic waters have to offer.

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Okhotsk also produces a number of seasonal beers, in line with Hokkaido’s mild, yet distinctive four seasons. Though not quite up there with Minoh in terms of national profile, Okhotsk’s red ale and their other German and eastern European inspired lagers are in themselves worthy of a trek up north!

3. Yo-Ho Brewers, Nagano Prefecture.

Yona Yona Ale
Photo by Ippei Suzuki, via Flickr

This is one of the few craft beer brands so popular that it has actually ventured beyond Japan. A friend of mine recently bought some in a specialist beer shop in my native Scotland, and I have also heard anecdotes of Yo-Ho beers being on sale in the US and Canada too. On a more local level, this beer is widely available domestically and makes up an integral part of the ever-expanding Japanese craft beer display on show in my local convenience store.

The Yo-ho ale itself is a good starting point for those new to craft beers. For people more used to drinking the likes of Budweiser, Stella Artois or other mass-produced lagers, Yo-ho’s lighter taste and smoother feel makes it a better fit to the palate of the more casual beer drinker. Indeed, the brewery’s founder set out with the intention of making a beer that brought in the best of local ingredients but retained the accessibility of nationally recognized beer brands. Yo-ho strikes this balance well, and is rightfully deserving of a place in my top 5.

4. Abashiri Beer, Hokkaido.

It is often said that university students are a surly, unproductive bunch. Spending their evenings partying and their daytimes sleeping as they continue to spend their parents hard earned cash in pursuit of “academia”. However, students can occasionally do a great service to society, as the Tokyo University of Agriculture did in 1998, when they dispatched a team to the northern domain of Hokkaido, to conduct research and studies into the production of wheat beer. These “studies” led to innovations which today have brought us the many great flavours of the Abashiri Beer Company.

Of course, every business needs its own marketing gimmick and in the case of Abashiri, this unique selling point is “coloured beers”. The brewers add various locally produced pigments to give their drinks unique colour schemes, indicative of the overall character of the drink in question. Most popular among these is the famous Okhotsk Blue Ale, which really is blue, coloured in tribute to those cold northern waters from which the ale itself is derived.

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5. Koshihikari Echigo Beer, Niigata Prefecture

Japan’s most famous drink is, undoubtedly, the rice wine known as sake. But what if I told you there was a beer made from rice too? Well Koshihikari Echigo Beer offers just that. The Niigata Koshihikari rice from which this light, easily drinkable lager is brewed is regarded by many as the finest in Japan. I don’t know about that, but the beer is certainly a good one, with a distinctive malty flavour.

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So there you have it, 5 delicious, refreshing beers to get you started on your Japanese craft beer journey. However, there are multitudes more out there waiting to be experienced. So next time you find yourself in a beer shop in Japan, why not ask the staff “What do the locals drink?” You’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised by what you may find!

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