Frank Zappa once claimed `You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline`. After JAL’s recent travails, Japan is only just holding on to its airline, but it does have a `big four` group of breweries (Asahi, Suntory, Kirin, Sapporo and Ebisu). However, if we were to insert the word `decent` before beer in Mr. Zappa’s sentiment, Japan would be in severe danger of losing its sovereignty. Anyone who has drunk Japanese beer, in any of the incarnations listed above, will know it as a vehicle primarily for transferring a momentarily refreshing sensation to the back of the mouth, before departing with undue haste to leave a somewhat bitter, unsavory aftertaste. It thus loses its function of being a pleasant drink, and instead serves only to intoxicate and increase your chances of making an utter berk of yourself when the karaoke microphone is passed around. As the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson said of Asahi Super Dry, the biggest seller of any of the `big four` beers, “It’s extremely difficult to make a beer this flavourless”.
However, beer sells well, and is taxed well. Beer made with 100% barley is taxed at 222 yen (around ₤1.50/ $2.30) per litre. As a result, the breweries have spent the last ten years attempting to make beers with less than 100% barley content to evade tax laws. The results have been predictably poor; if you make anything with sub-standard ingredients the product will of course suffer too. First came happoshu, which can contain anything between 50% and 70% barley content, but the clever fiends in the tax office got round to stamping a (lower) levy on this in 2003. This led to dai-san (third type) beers which contain less than 50% barley. Draft One, a beer from the Sapporo crew takes this trend to its logical conclusion. The brewery uses no barley at all, but rather ferments some unimaginable concoction from peas and corn. In addition, the breweries further experiment by making their dai-san stronger (to help stressed recession-hit salarymen reach oblivion all the sooner), alcohol free (for those who drive), or reducing the sugar content (for those watching their weight). The culmination of these further modifications is the unimaginably dreadful Strong Off from Asahi. My feelings towards this monstrous carbuncle of a beverage can be expressed by replacing the word `strong` with a rather fruitier, shorter word of Anglo-Saxon origin. It is 7% alcohol, but mysteriously manages to have 60% less sugar than the normal Asahi brew. I tried some of it last night, just to ensure it really was as bad as it sounded. Of course, it was much, much worse. The only way you could really understand would be to drink some. Please don’t do that. Instead, imagine a beverage that is almost exactly unlike beer. One that has overtones of turpentine, with a strong urinal cake aroma and an aftertaste of wet dog. That will bring you some way towards conceptualizing the full horror of allowing Strong Off to pass your lips
Let me, then, offer some glimmer of hope for the beer lover marooned in Japan. There is a growing craft beer scene, and those in bigger cities may even have an annual beer festival happen nearby. Unfortunately, the high taxation mentioned above makes real ales up to twice as expensive as mass produced beers, but you will certainly gain more pleasure from three decent craft beers than a six-pack from any of the big four. Toyama residents may know of the Unazuki, Johana, and Iki-iki breweries (in Kurobe, Nanto and Himi cities respectively), and also the grog shop inside Apia Department Store in Toyama City, which stocks beers from all over Japan and around the world. Unazuki Beer is sold in cans in a number of convenience stores in Toyama too, notably the Heart In inside Toyama Station.
Expanding our horizons nationwide, here are some breweries to look out for. A beer from any of them will be money well spent.
1. The Sankt Gallen Brewery, Atsugi, Kanagawa
Does an excellent sweet vanilla stout, a very creditable Imperial Chocolate Stout (both pictured below), and some interesting coffee and orange flavoured beers. I have never been disappointed by a Sankt Gallen.
2. Baird Brewery, Numazu, Shizuoka
Run by American expat Bryan Baird, the eponymous brewery is notable for offering nationwide delivery of its products, of which three were awarded gold medals at the recent World Beer Cup, the most notable being Country Girl Kabocha (pumpkin) Ale.
3. Hitachino Nest Brewery, Naka, Ibaraki
Hitachino Nest beers are easily recognizable by the big eyed owl on the label. Started as an offshoot from the Kikusakari sake brewery in 1996, Nest has expanded to become one of the best known Japanese craft breweries. Their White Ale is particularly good.
4. Iwatekura Brewery, Ichinoseki, Iwate
Very impressive range – while you may not like the sound of Oyster Stout or Blueberry Ale, you’re bound to find something you like in their twenty-strong range of ales and lagers.
Of course, these are not always easy to lay your hands on. If you have nothing but a convenience store nearby, try the following;
1. Sapporo Chocolat Brewery Bitter
A decent chocolate beer that has recently appeared in branches of Circle K and Sunkus, this is perhaps a little sweet for some palates, but worth a try.
2. Yebisu Kohaku Beer/ Yebisu Stout
Yebisu beer is usually left out of the `big four` breweries, perhaps because it makes some effort to make its beers distinguishable from urine. Their Kohaku beer (red can) and Stout (black can) are by a stretch the best beers you can reliably find in convenience stores
3. Yona Yona Ale
This is the only craft beer you have any hope of finding in a convenience store. It comes in cans, is a very smooth, well hopped brew, and should be snapped up with urgency when found.
So don’t despair, beer lovers! Quality is out there; it just takes some searching.
If anyone thinks I’ve missed off any Japanese beers or breweries that absolutely should be on this list, do tell me. I look forward to your recommendations. Cheers!