Until the deregulation of Japan’s brewing industry in the 1990s, four major brewers — Asahi, Suntory, Sapporo and Kirin – controlled the entire production of Japanese beer. But, that’s changing thanks in part to Japan’s sake makers, evolving beer palates, and ancient history.
Ry Beville, publisher of The Japan Beer Times, says that demand for craft beer is unprecedented.
“A lot of people are saying 2012 is the year of craft beer in Japan,” he says. “You’re seeing an explosion of craft beer bars and restaurants in Tokyo. There’s over 100. All across the country, they’re popping up every week.”
For Youichi Kiuchi, shifting into beermaking was not just a savvy business move, but an act of personal liberation. Making beer, he says, has literally changed his life.
“Making sake is like judo or flower arranging — you’re judged by how well you stick to the rules; there’s no margin for improvisation,” Kiuchi says. “But beer is about doing what you want. It’s fun to make and sell. Sake is hard to make and tough to sell.”
Experienced at handling the microbiology of brewing and blessed with high-quality water sources, the Japanese have started to gain international renown for their ale, stout and lager, Beville says.
Many brew masters are using traditional ingredients in Japanese cooking like ginger root, wasabi horseradish, miso paste, and oyster shells to flavor their beers.