With some established big names and a burgeoning craft scene, Japanese beer has all the bases covered – particularly when it comes to food matching. Pass the pork belly, says Adrian Tierney-Jones
Japanese beer. Here’s the accepted view: it’s well designed, clean, refreshing and dry – no, make that super dry. It’s driven towards food; a fumble with sushi; a tumble with teriyaki. Oh, and packaged in sleek, well-designed cans, some of the tops can be unpeeled as if they were an orange. In short, it’s nothing much to write home about, if you really like beer.
Well, times have changed. In line with an increase in the popularity of Japanese cuisine, we are also seeing a growth in the availability of the country’s craft beers. A rather impressive 10% of new restaurants opening in London last year were Japanese. Wagamama, YO! Sushi, Bone Daddies and Sushi Samba are all now firm favourites on the dining scene.
In restaurants, bars and pubs, adventurous drinkers can pick up beers from the likes of Koedo, Hitachino, Baird and Kagua, alongside old favourites such as Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. In common with most countries in the world (apart from perhaps Saudi and Iran), Japan has been going through its own craft beer revolution in the last few years.
A brief history of Japanese beer
Things first kicked off in the country back in 1994, when legislation was passed allowing for the creation of micro-breweries – up until then licences were not approved for breweries unless they were producing 2m litres a year.
Pretty soon there were approximately 370 outfits in operation, but this early enthusiastic surge of suds didn’t last and by the end of the 1990s the number had dropped back to 170.
Since the millennium, however, a new wave of breweries has arrived, many of them this time taking their cues from the USA craft brewing movement, but with a particularly Japanese approach – especially when it comes to ingredients such as rice, tomato and sweet potato.
The beers of Kiuchi Brewery, which is based in the Ibaraki Prefecture, an urbanised area close to Tokyo, and better known under the brand of Hitachino Nest, are perhaps the most familiar to beer-lovers. Its portfolio includes a pale ale, a DIPA, a red rice ale, an espresso stout and a Belgian-style wheat beer, the latter being its most recognisable. The labels are brightly coloured, and feature a cartoon-like owl, so they stand out on the bar. And yes, they are good with food.
‘Our brand is not only just a craft beer brand, but a brewery which is authentically Japanese, and has a long brewing history and heritage,’ says Kumiko Hotta, UK-based sales and marketing coordinator for the brewery. ‘We were originally (and still are) a saké brewery, which has almost 200 years of history.’ Hence the paradox that, while the brewery itself is relatively young, the company’s current owner is actually the eighth generation.
Hitachino Nest Beer is one of the breweries that has survived from the first craft beer wave in the 1990s, and over the last 20 years has acquired an impressive reputation abroad as well as at home. Japanese craft beer tends to stick fundamentally to the original idea and elements of ji-biiru (this is a term that means regional or local beer), which specialises in Japanese traditional brewing methods and using local produce.
‘We believe that this is the way of real “Japanese” craft,’ says Hotta. ‘We do not simply imitate Western brews. As for whom we target our brand at, it would be young professionals up to 50, from craft beer enthusiasts to foodies who are looking for unique, quality products with lots of storytelling.’
Another Japanese craft beer brand making waves and worth stocking is Coedo, also founded in the pioneering mid 1990s and located in the Greater Tokyo area. Alongside Coedo Kyara (an aromatic India pale lager), Coedo Shikkoku (an easy-drinking pilsner) and Coedo Shiro (a smooth and bountiful hefeweizen), it produces Coedo Beniaka, a 7% amber ale that has Kintoki sweet potatoes in the mix. This versatile veg, incidentally, also makes its appearance in desserts and confectionary in Japan. It’s smooth and full-bodied and rather delicious.
According to Holly Forbes from Amathus Drinks, importers of the brewery’s beers, Coedo’s mode of production is ‘similar to that of Japanese whisky, which takes traditional methods and then throws technology at them’.
There is a huge focus on hygiene, which helps ensure the clean and fresh taste. At Coedo a lot of research and experimentation has gone into finding the specific yeast strain that is used in the production process. As such, staff are requested to sign a waiver with regards to their diet and lifestyle that asks them to avoid other yeasts and cultured bacteria that could have an unwanted influence on the quality of the beer.
This dedication to detail obviously works, and the beers can be found in a variety of premium Asian restaurants as well as dedicated craft beer pubs, with the latter being especially drawn to the unusual styles such as Beniaka.
‘With trends moving towards quality over quantity, and a general premiumisation in the category, these beers fit perfectly into the now,’ adds Forbes. ‘We are delighted with the existing Coedo range, it has something to offer for everyone. We are also always open-minded to any new styles Coedo would look to introduce.’
How big is big?
However interesting and heartening the growth of these new beers might be, we need to put this invasion of Japanese craft beer into perspective. Chances are that the most common beers from the Land of the Rising Sun that both drinkers and bartenders will be familiar with are big brands such as Kirin and Asahi, with the latter’s Super Dry being brewed under licence at Shepherd Neame since 2005.
‘At the time the challenge was to bring Asahi’s brewing expertise to its draught version, so that it lived up to the standard of its world-beating bottled beer,’ says Deighton Ridge, the Kent brewery’s national on-trade sales controller. ‘We felt we had something to offer them when it came to keg dispense and presentation.’
The brewery worked closely with their Japanese counterparts to create a draught version, which reduced the carbonation and served it at a super-cool 3˚C, rather than the usual 7-8˚C. According to Ridge, it has been ‘adopted with open arms’ in the UK by trendy young things in city bars and restaurants nationwide, as well as in uber-smart pubs and bars.
‘We’re continuing to see great demand for the brand from customers looking for a premium offer that sets them apart,’ he says. ‘We find that being an early adopter of our beers in their local area is extremely important to licensees, so we’re always conscious of being selective in distribution to ensure pubs have some exclusivity and can differentiate their offer.’
When considering whether or not to stock Japanese beers it is important to be sure that your venue is the kind of place whose customers will enjoy beers that feature their stylistic branding and packaging (craft or otherwise). Whether the beer is a cold and refreshing lager, a well-hopped IPA or a beer with fruit and veg in it, these really are beers that stand out, that deserve to be presented with a sense of theatre and give the drinker the feeling that they are indulging in something special.
‘Japanese breweries are immaculate in the presentation of their beer and their attention to detail to create peerless bottled lager,’ adds Ridge. ‘Everything about the product from the branding to the glassware, font and packaging communicates super-premium quality beer and yet, at the same time, a simplicity that is allied to the Japanese modern culture. It is this that consumers like and embrace.’
If you are keen on serving Japanese beers, but not sure how you’ll get people ordering them, their kinship with food is a good way to initially convince the perhaps-wary customer.
Pairing Japanese beer with food
The boldness of the new wave of craft beers is ideal with the equally bold flavours of Japanese dishes, as Kumiko Hotta explains.
‘In Japanese culture, dining and drink always have to be together. Different types of saké are brewed to match various traditional and seasonal Japanese dishes, and we do the same with beers,’ he says. ‘For instance, our White Ale is excellent with sushi and sashimi or fish and chips; Saison du Japon on the other hand is a good match with miso dishes, washed rind cheese and grilled meat. Finally, Red Rice Ale goes really well with most salmon dishes, teriyaki and red bean ice cream.’
But there’s a place for the lighter, crisper, traditional lagers as well, as Deighton Ridge points out. ‘Japanese izakaya dining offers a contemporary marriage of traditional drinks with casual snacks,’ he says. ‘In the last few years, we have seen a rapid growth in this style of Japanese restaurant in London bringing the consumer the country’s take on tapas. It is a great concept for the original UK casual-dining haunts of pubs and bars.’
His suggestions are that the clean, crisp Asahi Super Dry goes very well with spicy Japanese snacks such as chicken yakitori, while the sweeter, richer Asahi Super Dry Black works with grilled meats like crispy pork belly.
‘This beer is also a really great accompaniment to Japanese teriyaki dishes, anything smoky, such as Katsuobushi, Yakiniku or simply smoked salmon,’ he concludes.
We are living in perhaps the most exciting time in beer since the big sailing ships took IPA to the Indian Raj, and Japan’s craft beers are making an equally long-distance (but in less time) journey to tickle the palates of modern drinkers. Whether you run a craft beer bar or pub or Asian-themed restaurant, it might be worth thinking of joining these beers on their journey.