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GUIDE Japanese Beer Guide From the beginnings of brewing to the craft beer boom

(Photo by Sadamu Saito)

Few countries consume beer like Japan. It's the most consumed alcohol in the nation, and plays a central role in the country's culture

Japanese beer is often the drink of choice for an after work get-together with colleagues, at year-end parties or under the cherry blossoms come spring. The beer market features a mix of established brewers who have been making the beverage for more than a century, and smaller microbreweries scattered all over the archipelago.

Beer in Japan has a long history—the beer produced in this building was the predecessor of today's Kirin

The traditional big players of Japanese brewing

Beer arrived in Japan several hundred years ago when sailors from Europe docked in the country. Yet Japanese beer really got going in the latter half of the 1800s, with the establishment of breweries that have become household names. A Norwegian-American named William Copeland established Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama in 1870, and that private company would eventually morph into the Kirin Brewery Company, one of the cornerstones of the Japanese beer market.

The wheat fields of Kamifurano in Hokkaido—the base of Sapporo beer

Brewing on a large scale expanded to other parts of the country shortly after. Sapporo Brewery opened in 1876 on the northern island of Hokkaido, and Osaka's Asahi Breweries got to work in the late 1880s. Okinawa's Orion launched in 1957, becoming the go-to choice in the islands and soon spreading out to the rest of Japan, and beverage producer Suntory also got into the beer game in 1963. Those are the big five producers today, and the brands most likely to be found in stores, restaurants and izakaya.

These major breweries primarily make pilsner-style lager, partially because this was the style that first sprung up when Europeans brought it over to Japan. It's a style that's easy to enjoy and matches well to social settings where drinking is common—izakaya food goes great with a slightly lighter brew. But in the 21st century the major players have grown, introducing a wider variety of styles influenced by the craft beer boom and also leaning more into “happoshu,” a beer-like beverage made from soybeans.

Echigo Beer has been on the Japanese craft beer scene since the beginning

The craft beer boom goes mainstream

Microbreweries used to be a rarity in Japan due to tight tax laws. But in 1994 those regulations were loosened and a new generation of craft beer makers appeared. The rest of the decade saw players like Echigo Beer—billed as “Japan's first microbrewery”—emerge and open tap rooms to much fanfare. It has been the past ten years, though, where microbrews have become buzzworthy in the mainstream. Today, you can find craft brews in every convenience store.

Visit a Spring Valley Brewery or Baird Beer taproom for craft beer from the tap

There's no shortage of places to enjoy Japanese craft beer in the country. Most microbrewers have opened tap rooms. Baird Beer, a brewery originating from Numazu, operates multiple tap rooms in Tokyo and nationwide, while Hitachino Nest Beer runs a “brewing lab” on the roof of Tokyo Station. You can find local brewers operating such establishments in most big cities. Then you have major companies like Kirin opening craft-style taprooms, with its Tokyo, Yokohama and Kyoto taproom Spring Valley Brewery.

Canned microbrews are a common site in supermarkets and convenience stores

If you're on the go, convenience stores stock a wide assortment of brews from pale ales to IPAs made by brewers such as Yoho Brewing (famous for their popular Yona Yona Ale). Meanwhile, big producers like Sapporo and Suntory have unveiled craft lines featuring limited-edition drinks far removed from the typical pilsner.

Enjoy craft brews direct from the tap

Craft beer bars become the new normal

Craft beer bars have opened up all over Japan. The majority of them have tapped into the English-language market providing dual language menus and, sometimes, staff who can speak English. It has never been easier to find a craft watering hole in Japan.

Craft Beer Market and Goodbeer Faucets offer a great selection

The aforementioned Baird Beer is a good example of a nationwide endeavor, and Craft Beer Market has a constantly rotating menu of craft brews in locations around the country. In Tokyo, you can swing by one of eight Yona Yona Beer Works, which also serves tasty sausages and other snacks. Popeye in Tokyo's Ryogoku or Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya, carry dozens of speciality beers from around the world in one space. The menu at Devil Craft is more curated, rotating in many kinds of varieties.

Full fridges at Antenna America

Another option for those seeking out craft beer in Japan are speciality liquor stores doubling as drinking spaces. Many, like Mitsuya Liquor in Asagaya, allow customers to enjoy craft beer in a small back room. Others, such as Antenna America, can be found in department stores, and double as small but vibrant drinking corners.

Look out for limited edition beers that celebrate the seasons

A calendar's worth of craft beer experiences

Japanese beer isn't just something to be enjoyed in an izakaya or at a bar. There are all sorts of limited-edition launches and beer-related experiences to indulge in.

Brewers tend to change the design of their cans for the current season. In spring, you'll see pink cans or ones adorned with images of cherry blossom petals. In the fall, rich red and yellow leaves appear. And, beyond appearances, most put out seasonal flavors too, like autumn and winter brews which often feature a higher alcohol percentage.

Tasty tasting at the Great Japan Beer Festival and beer mixes with music at Snow Monkey Beer Live

Craft beer festivals have also become a staple in Japan. Brewers from all over the nation come together and set up shop for thirsty fans, who get the chance to enjoy some of the country's many beers in one space. A good snapshot of this is the annual Great Japan Beer Festival Yokohama, held in September. The same company, BeerFes, also puts on yearly festivals in Tokyo, Osaka, Okinawa and Nagoya. There's also Nagano brewer Shiga Kogen's Snow Monkey Beer Live, which mixes a music festival with a celebration of beer.

Enjoy a brewery tour at Asahi's Tokyo Sumidagawa Brewing or at Suntory's Kyushu Kumamoto plant

Finally, don't miss out on a brewery tour. Every major brewer offers them at their main plants, sharing their history and showing how their beer is made—with an all important tasting at the very end.

All information is correct as of March 2019.

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