Perhaps you’ve seen them in your local convenience store. Maybe you’ve been in a supermarket looking for something to drink and they’ve caught your eye. Quite possibly, you’ve gone to your friend’s house and they’ve offered you one as they know you like craft beer and your friend wants to get in.
They look like craft beers, maybe enough to fool your grandma. But they’re not. Perhaps due to the sneaky nature of their suddenly appearance in shops across Japan, “crafty beers”. The “Big Four” breweries have noticed that there is an undercurrent of discontent among beer drinkers looking for something different besides a macro “pilsner”, and they aren’t going to take it lying down.
A brief attempt by Asahi in cracking the market was ended as quickly as it started, with their foray into the craft beer scene ending in mid-2016 with an announcement from the CEO that the “Some consumers had the opinion that beer made by a large company should not be called ‘craft beer’.” The Craftsmanship canned range ended though the brewery still remains. As far as we’re concerned here at BeerTengoku, the beers on offer from Asahi were as bland as their regular beers in comparison to the styles that we’re used to. It’s interesting to see, though, that Asahi bought the UK craft beer manufacturer Meantime in April 2016 from SAB Miller – how will Asahi promote them in Japan?
Out of all the Big Four breweries, it could be said the Kirin have been the most successful into the craft beer scene with their Spring Valley Brewery in Tokyo’s upmarket area of Daikanyama, as well as their original one in Namamugi, Yokohama. Both of them allow customers to see the brewing process, and also try a variety of styles of beers. But, yet again, their flavours were quite thin in taste compared to what we’re used to. And the Jazzberry? The less said the better. On top of this, Kirin have extensive promoted their Grand Kirin range of beers, with Dip Hop Lager (?!), Calypso IPA, and Galaxy IPA for starters, but they’ve all lacked the punch that is expected from the styles.
Moreover, Kirin announced that they are going to start brewing Brooklyn Lager in Japan for the first time. This news came as a surprise to us as Brooklyn Lager’s flagship beer has been widely available for a while now in Japan (their Chocolate Stout also comes highly recommended), being brewed by Hitachino Nest. Nippon International have been importing their bottles as well. A strange occurrence, but it can only be the yen talking there from both parties.
Suntory also jumped in with their Craft Select range that has been heavily promoted throughout Japan, with posters on trains and adverts in magazines, and their commitment to the variety of styles of beers should be commended. Suntory have made an IPA, a wheat ale (weizen?!), a weizen, a bitter ale, a saison, an imperial stout, an amber, a pale ale, and a golden ale. And they’ve all been poor. None of them have been close to the style, with the imperial stout been laughably weak, clocking in at 6% abv rather than 9%. Suntory have vowed to carry on with the range of beers; however, with none of the previous ones being released again, it means to be seen whether they are dedicated to it.
Sapporo, owners of Sapporo Beer and Yebisu Beer, launched their Craft Label range, which is one of the smallest ranges so far. There’s only four beers in the portfolio: a pale ale, weizen, IPA, and a Sorachi Ace hop beer. Again, none of them have been really outstanding for those who know the difference between a kristalweizen or a hefeweizen (the first has been filtered, while the second hasn’t been filtered). Surprisingly though, the Craft Label range have been the most noticeable in the stores across Japan.
Of course, it would be easy for people to be snobbish about the impending expansion of craft beer, and how people drinking those beers aren’t drinking “true” craft beer. But in reality, they’re treated as gateway beers – dragging people away from the pilsners that adorn shelves of shops left, right, and centre across Japan. Anything that can get people trying new styles, with IPAs, weizens, saisons, and bitters should be commended, but is this the way? If you see one of your friends drinking one of them, give them some suggestions about what they could try instead. Even better, take your friend to one of the numerous craft beer bars across Japan and get them a tasting set or buy their first pint from a craft beer brewery.