The Japanese love beer bi-ru (rhymes, sort-of, with ear-oo), and although their brews cannot compete with the variety and quality of, say, their European counterparts, beer drinking is an essential part of the culture.
It’s also the perfect antidote to those sweltering humid summer evenings, when most of the population seems to retreat to a hotel-rooftop beer garden, to sink icy steins of larger beneath tacky lanterns emblazoned with images of women in bathing costumes clutching glasses Sapporo or Kirin or Asahi.
Beer is served either in bottles, or as draft, which comes in frosted, handled glasses in large, medium or small – dai-jokki, chu-jokki and sho-jokki. Often these are abbreviated to dai, chu and sho, and its quite acceptable for a parched customer to yell nama dai chodai! something like “gizza big draft!”.
Beer gardens and izakaya are clearly not places to stand on ceremony. Party groups often get a pitcha- – a pitcher of beer to share. Kirin Larger and Ichiban-shibori, Sapporo Kuro-label and the all-malt Yebisu (pronounced Ebisu) and - still topping the sales league after all these years - Asahi Super Dry are some of the favorite brands.
Though few beer garden habituées know it, the Japanese have a Norwegian to thank for their suds. William Copeland – OK, he was Norwegian by way of the USA – opened the country’s first brewery in Yokohama in 1868, having studied brewing in Germany and the US.
There’s no record of why Copeland felt the urge to up sticks and traverse the globe to set up a beer-making concern, but it was an astute move. The Japanese had already tasted beer that had been imported from Britain and Holland to the treaty ports of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Hakodate, and the upper classes in particular took to the stuff, which they termed bakushu, 'wheat alcohol'.
Copeland quickly picked up on the new invention of the day, pasteurization, and thus could begin selling gallon upon gallon of beer without. Since then, Japanese consumers have continued to lap it up, to the tune of around 5,750,000 kL per year, roughly 50L per person.
Incidentally, I am often asked why the mainstream, large-scale Japanese brewers - Asahi, Suntory, Kirin and Sapporo - can't produce interesting beers, IPA pale ales, bitter, dark beers, weissbier, etcetera. The fact is, brewers assure me, they can, and from time to time over the years they have produced excellent beverages of this kind. Alas, market forces demand that they stick to production of good, yet unremarkable, lager beers, simple because that's what sells.
Small scale brewers however operate quite differently. It was not until 1994 that the odd Japanese law demanding brewers have a yearly capacity of 2000 kL was amended, so the Japanese microbrew industry remained in its infancy. However, the production of ji-bi-ru, literally, ‘local beer’ has of late exploded (not literally, you understand) with small scale operations creating craft beers the length and breadth of the country. Many have done well in overseas competition.
An overview of craft beer in Japan will be up here at Foodies Go Local shortly, with brewery visit details and recommendations of where to sample the best ales following. In the interim, you might like to check out Baird Beer (Shizuoka and Tokyo), Minoh Beer (Osaka), Kyoto Brewing Company (Kyoto) and Yo-Ho Brewing (Karuizawa, Nagano) who produce some of the best-loved domestic craft beers.