Craft beer is hurtling like a meteor through mainstream consumer consciousness in beer cultures across the world, including Japan. But like those flashes in the sky, is the movement already breaking apart into innumerable pieces?
That depends on how you define “craft beer.” Therein, too, lies a problem; the term’s usage and meaning is becoming so diffuse as to be meaningless. In America, home to the world’s most vibrant “craft beer” culture, the term is closely tied to an official definition of “craft brewer” by the Brewers Association (BA), the trade organization formed to protect and support those brewers. Roughly ten years ago, Japan’s small craft beer community appropriated the term from English and its usage originally reflected a fairly accurate understanding of what it meant to the industry in America. It certainly meant more than just small scale and it began to supplant the term “ji-beer” (or “local beer”), much in the way that “craft beer” has largely replaced the word “microbrew” in English. In recent years, however, media has bandied the term about as if it simply applies to small-scale brewing. Or creating flavors of beer beyond typical light lagers. So when a large, industrial brewery like Kirin opens a small-scale production facility–in this case, Spring Valley Brewery Yokohama–is it craft? Kirin says it is.
News outlets in Japan both major and minor have largely failed in their journalistic responsibilities to properly investigate and understand the term. News reports just echo the official Kirin line that the company is now doing craft. To some it may seem as if news outlets are unwittingly paying lip service to an industrial brewery looking to score a marketing coup and take advantage of the apparent ‘meteoric’ rise of craft beer that small brewers have created. Why wouldn’t Kirin want to take advantage of the buzz? Overall beer consumption in Japan has been declining for decades, while the craft beer segment has been growing slightly by overall production volume since about ten years ago. Kirin has a right to look after its interests and pursue renewed growth opportunities. What happens, too, when Kirin makes an announcement about “craft beer” and every major newspaper in Japan runs articles? That segment, which accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s total beer market, suddenly gets enormous attention. That’s good for small craft brewers. If Kirin is taking the niche seriously, then maybe more retailers and consumers will.
At issue is whether Kirin’s so-called craft beer will stymie the growth of small craft brewers in Japan by riding their momentum and taking away potential customers. Then you have additional pressure from products like the “Craftsman’s Beer” series from Suntory, which makes no claim to be craft beer, though the products are clearly packaged to give that impression. The series also features beer styles that are departures from the light lagers that the brand is built on. Dishonest marketing? Or simply intelligent marketing? Some hardcore craft beer fans in Japan are already calling these products from major brewers “crafty” beer, alluding of course to a debate in America over what constitutes craft.
It’s instructive to look at the “craft vs. crafty” controversy, as well as the history of craft beer in America, to see what might be in store for Japan’s craft beer future. There are some similarities between the two beer cultures, but quite a few interesting points of divergence that indicate a different situation for craft beer in Japan.
In the U.S., breweries and brands owned by large brewers had been marketing themselves to appear craft-like since the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, some small breweries had been selling significant stakes to large breweries. To prevent a blurring of the lines, one former industry group put forth a definition of “craft brewer” that became the genesis for this debate.
Toward the end of 2012, the debate boiled over publicly when a newspaper op-ed entitled “Craft vs. Crafty” signed by Charlie Papazian (then CEO of the BA), Bob Pease (then COO; current CEO) and Dan Kopman (Schlafly Beer) criticized large brewers for their undercover ownership of brands that seemed to pose as craft beer. The authors took the opportunity to draw attention to the BA’s definition of “craft brewer” and additionally listed on the website which breweries were not craft. The working definition from the BA at the time stated, “Craft beer comes only from a craft brewer.” It further enumerated three characteristics: small, independent, traditional.
This article was published in Japan Beer Times #21 (Winter 2015) and is among the limited content available online. Order your copy through our online shop or download the digital version from the iTunes store to access the full contents of this issue.