Discovering Japan's Microbrewing Scene

Exciting flavors and big promise from a small, but growing, craft beer scene

The microbrewers of Japan are facing trouble — but it’s not the first time.

They have been on a long and difficult road ever since the microbrew scene started there in 1994, when the Japanese government repealed strict laws that prohibited breweries producing less than two million liters of beer annually from obtaining a brewer's license. The law was amended so that breweries would only have to produce (a much more manageable) 60,000 liters per year to be considered a true brewery. Since then, local microbrewers have been trying to force their way into the beer market in Japan, which ranks as the seventh largest beer-consuming country in the world. While there was an initial boom of microbreweries in 1995, a great deal were soon driven out of business by the big names in Japanese beer — Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, and Suntory — who had long ruled over the market and were unwilling to share with these new, smaller operations.

This stiff competition, along with Japan’s outdated beer taxes, forced many budding microbreweries out of business. Still, a small number pushed through and there was a slow, steady trickle of microbrewers onto the beer scene up until 2000. Right around this time, however, the Japanese economy faced a major meltdown, and just like many other Japanese industries, the microbrewing scene was hit hard and people started to fade out of the market. The number of Japanese microbreweries has been dwindling since, and many are only barely holding on.

That’s not to say there isn’t a significant microbrewing scene there. Small, tight-knit Japanese microbrewers have been making waves in recent years — receiving awards from the International Beer Cup and earning praise from some of the most well-known brewers in the world. These beers are often hailed as inventive and finely crafted, sometimes featuring unusual ingredients indigenous to Japan.

At a recent lecture on “Japan’s Beer Revolution,” hosted by the Japan Society in New York City, there were brews made with ingredients like Japanese sweet potato, green tea, and yuzu. Baird Brewing Co., for example, makes a deliciously tart plum beer. Other labels, like Echigo Koshihikari and Hitachino Nest, have been inspired by a simple, ubiquitous ingredient: Japanese rice. The latter makes a Red Rice Ale that offers a hearty, toasted rice flavor and a sweet, sake-like aftertaste.