How would you go about introducing someone to craft beer?
Say you had a friend – I know a few of you do – who exclusively drinks the big four beers. You see them at barbecues and they’d be drinking the ubiquitous Kirin Tanrei (you know, the “いいんだよ！グリーンだよ！” (Iindayo! Green dayo!) beer). They seem curious about your stubborn insistence to only drink beers with unrecognisable labels and odd colours, beers that they’ve never seen in their local supermarket. They know that your eyes light up whenever you ask them what that beer is that you’re drinking, and one day they decide to ask you what the whole deal is with you and your weird beers.
Would you take them to a bar? Buy them a bottle of something you like? How about styles- would you get them a pilsner or lager, something that they’re familiar with? Or would you get them something really out-there, to show them just how wide and expansive the craft beer universe is?
Dragging someone along to your favourite watering hole is always a good option- as long as you ignore their longing glances at the 90yen beer offers in the izakaya across the road.They can experience the beer in its natural environment, maybe get a flight, and you can be their guide and chauffeur, telling them what they’re drinking. The only downside is one that I mentioned- your friend will see the astronomical prices. They might not be too happy to shell out more than ten times the price of a regular draft beer for a drink. Remember, your average beer drinker in Japan is only aware of craft beer as novelty “ji-beer”, and thinking of it that way, putting down a whole note for a single drink is goddamn obscene (I think it’s obscene myself, but I don’t let it stop me too often).
If you don’t want to take them out (to a bar I mean, not with a rifle), why not pick them up a bottle for them to drink at home? Again, this means you can pick out something you think that they’ll both enjoy, and that helps them to “get” craft beer.
However, you are leaving them to their own devices when you do this. The next time they see you, it’ll be unlikely that you’ll hear that they’ve had a good time.
“It was so bitter that I couldn’t drink it”
“There was stuff floating in it. I thought it had gone bad, so I threw it out”
“It was so strong, I got sick”
“Was it supposed to be cloudy?”
“Actually, I don’t like black beers” (so-called “black beers” seem to be the main “other beer” that Japanese people are aware of)
I’ve heard variations on these comments when hearing about people trying craft beers at home.
We know that “beer” for most people in Japan is just lager, and they aren’t really aware of other styles existing. Analogy time: It’s like someone saying “I like music” when all they listen to is oompah music. You, a ravenous consumer of every style of music you can get your hands on, have a mild seizure and decide to make them a mixtape. You know that most of the tracks aren’t going to be big hits with them, right? You aren’t stupid. But you still send them away with a bunch of Norwegian black metal and some Ethiopian jazz and some cumbia. What are you expecting? That they’ll hang up their flugelhorns and lederhosen and start wearing corpse paint?
The same is true for beer, I think. Evolution, not revolution. You can’t force change, especially not for something that people regularly put in their bodies to make them feel nice and make terrible decisions (Rob’s still getting beer deliveries he doesn’t remember ordering to this day). You aren’t Don Draper from Mad Men, you don’t have to win over someone’s mind by tapping into their deep subconscious. “This beer will finally make your parents respect you.”
So what will do that, then? what kind of beer is both within their comfort zone, and also subtly different enough to pique their interest?
You might not think that a lager or pilsner is really showing off what craft beer has to offer, but getting a style of beer that they know and therefore will know what to expect is good. If it looks like a lager, then it should taste like a lager too.
Let me tell you a story. When I first came to Japan I was working at a large British English conversation school chain. After work on my first day, my coworker bought me a nikuman (steamed pork bun) from Family Mart. I thought it was delicious, as anybody in their right mind would. So the next night I went to the same convenience store and confidently pointed at the rack of steamed buns and bellowed, “one of them please!”. I was so eager to experience the juicy pork and marshmallowy soft dough that I bit into it right outside the shop. And almost vomited. What I had mistakenly ordered was a steaming hot anman, which, instead of pork, are filled with hot mashed sweet bean paste. Both products, by the way, look identical to one another. Now, in principle I have nothing against beans or paste. But my bun expectation was so radically removed from the bun reality that it almost caused a catastrophic event outside the bini. Moral of this story? If you want to get your friend a fizzy yellow beer, make sure it tastes somewhat approaching fizzy and yellow.
You might be tempted to get them one of your favourite beers. This will most likely be a Bad Idea. How long have you been drinking craft beer? A while, right? long enough that you’re only able to taste beers which melt the top layer of skin off your tongue. Anything weaker doesn’t even register. The two beverages of choice at BeerTengoku Towers are triple IPAs and black coffee, and all our wallpaper is peeling off from our breath.
My point being that getting them an Imperial Stout or a Barley Wine is overkill at this stage. It’s like giving a new driver a GT-R and watching them wrap it around the first lamp post they see. Like I said, in Japan, black beers are the main novelty beer. People aren’t used to beers being bitter either, or hoppy for that matter. Folks I’ve recommended Aooni to have told me they’ve been unable to finish the can because it was “too bitter”.
In a similar vein, I’d avoid any odd-flavoured beers. I don’t just mean beers with a special ingredient, either. Those beers will put them in mind of “ji-beer”- you know, beer made with wasabi or garlic or bloody ice floe water. I also think you should avoid any funky Belgian farmhouse oddball beers. You want to present craft beer as a legitimate alternative to beer, not something that will give you heartburn and tastes like a liquidised rabbit warren.
Therefore. Taking all this into consideration. I suggest getting your hypothetical friend a lager (Ack!), pilsner, or a golden or pale ale. Something not too strong and not too hoppy. Maybe a weizen or a porter, if they’re especially eager. If you’re going to drink it with them, tell them about the style in relatable terms. How does it differ from what they usually drink? Talk about International Bittering Units or fermentation techniques are strictly forbidden. They don’t care.
Be prepared to answer seemingly blindingly-obvious questions. I’ve been asked “What’s the difference between hops and malt?” and “What is craft beer, exactly?”. Stifle your snorts of derision and answer these questions like a grownup. And only give the bare minimum of information. Don’t mention the Reinheitsgebot.
Hopefully, if all has gone well, great! You’ve shown that craft beer is more than just a novelty, and now your friend knows the name of the fancy beer with a funny label that you always drink. Maybe they’ll see it in a bar or in the supermarket and pick up a bottle from time to time. Maybe they’ll buy you souvenir beers (cross your fingers it’s the good ones). Well done. Pat yourself on the back.
But, before you go prancing off thinking you’ve made your first craft beer convert, let me say this: don’t be dismayed to see them drinking Kirin Tanrei at that next barbecue. For most people the price is important and the simple fact is that regular beer is better value for money than craft beer. Japanese beer is designed to be gulped as fast as possible and then poured again (and again and again). Old habits die hard, and your friend might never buy a bottle for themselves.
But you’ve shown them it exists. You’ve spread the love, and you can be happy with that.