Spring is the most beautiful season in Japan. It’s hard to argue otherwise. Sure, if you’re a winter sports fan, you may be mourning the melting snows, but with the warmer weather and longer days, it just seems like more opportunities are created for enjoying the outdoors. Which means enjoying beer outdoors. Isn’t it great that Japanese law allows for the consumption of beer in outdoor public spaces? Take advantage of this beautiful season and generous law! But be careful that you don’t drink too much and become a hanami zombie.
This past winter was not without some notable activity in the beer world. The lone major festival we attended, the Japan Brewers Cup in Yokohama, successfully concluded its third year without a hitch (or zombies). This festival includes a competition judged by brewers themselves. Winners included: Hakone Beer and Plank (imported by Kobatsu) in a tie for best pilsner, an exuberant Niwa Satoshi accepting for Outsider’s Enigma IPA in the IPA category and in the rather broad category of “Dark”, Nasu Kogen’s Royal Stout walked off with the top prize. Meanwhile, Suzuki Shinya, organizer of the festival and founder of Yokohama Bay Brewing, is super busy with the construction of a bigger brewery in the city.
Overseas, the San Francisco Bay Area held its annual Beer Week in late January and Oakland showed some love for Japan as usual. Local businesses Trappist and Umami Mart have been hosting their Japan Beer Fest every year during the week. Hundreds of people showed up for a tap list that featured an array of craft breweries from Japan. Nearby Rosamunde Sausage, meanwhile, featured all five of Coedo’s main beers. What exactly is a “Beer Week,” though?
Most major cities in America, as well as a few in Europe and other parts of the world, host these to celebrate local craft beer. Usually, it’s local breweries–united as a guild–working with local retailers to plan, promote and execute a plethora of special events for the public. In cities where these are well established, it can be a rather festive week where breweries and bars do really good business and patrons are quite happy (except for the zombies).
Japan has pursued its own with Tokyo Beer Week, which is kicking off its 3rd year on April 15th. Committee members have been striving to make this annual event as big and as dear to craft beer fans as it is in cities abroad. Of course, celebrating great beer will be the main focus, but maybe more importantly, education about craft beer culture will be a major component. Mix in some well-thought out food pairings at the participating shops and that’s a nice recipe for success. Come on, Tokyo, you can do this! For more information on the event, please visit the website at: http://beerweek.jp/2016/
In the last few months, we’ve counted quite a few new brewery openings, at a pace of roughly one a week. Bars serving craft beer continue to proliferate. In January, a major Japanese newspaper even ran an article saying we are witnessing Japan’s second craft beer boom (the first was in the mid-1990s, but died quickly because of poor quality). Where we see the key growth, however, is in the opening of new taprooms from already established breweries. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Fujizakura’s announcement of its taproom in Roppongi–the brewery’s first outside its idyllic location near Mount Fuji. A third Yona Yona taproom (Yona Yona Beer Works) is opening in Kichijōji. Pizza lovers will rejoice to know that Devil Craft is opening a third restaurant to serve its Chicago-style pizzas and original brews. Swan Lake is opening yet another pub in Tamachi. And finally (drumroll….), Baird is opening its third Tokyo taproom in Takadanobaba (making six total taprooms). To jog your memories, this opening activity is not entirely new. Last year, Minoh opened up two new beautiful taprooms in Osaka while Coedo used its original brewery equipment to launch a stylish brewpub in Kawagoe.
How in the world to keep track of all these openings? There’s no perfect source, but if it’s the breweries you’re interested in, Mark Meli’s book, “Craft Beer in Japan: the essential guide”, is the most authoritative to date. Meli, our regular beer styles columnist, has recently completed an updated edition in Japanese, to be released very soon. A guide to all Japanese breweries together with tasting notes, bar recommendations, good festivals and more is likely to be a valuable resource for anyone who likes beer. We’re certainly excited about this.
We’re also keen on the many international collaboration beers Japanese brewers have done recently. Last year, Coedo, Stone and Garage Project brewed a plum saison aged in New Zealand white wine barrels for export to the American market. That beer will be released soon to lucky drinkers on the West Coast. Minoh teamed up with British brewery Brighton Bier to make an English bitter with mugicha (roasted barley tea). The supply in England basically sold out within two weeks; in Japan, it goes on sale as we write… Finally, Baird put two more collaboration beers under its belt, one a Baltic Porter with Browar PINTA from Poland. The other was with long-time friends Country Boy Brewing in Kentucky (the owner/brewer of which used to live in Japan). That one was a rye whiskey barrel-aged hybrid of Country Boy’s Lazy Rye Pale Ale (see this issue’s style column for more about rye beers) and Baird’s Bakayaro (an American strong ale), which will be released toward the end of April in Japan. Better go out and get some before the zombies come swarming!
This article was published in Japan Beer Times #26 (Spring 2016) 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.