Yo-Ho Brewing are one of Japan’s biggest craft beer makers and in 2019, they have become central to the debate about what craft beer is. In the USA, there are very clear, but loose, definitions as to what makes a craft beer brewer. The UK is looser still, with some unique ideas about how the beer is served. However, in Japan there are no clear definitions as to what constitutes craft beer.
However, the white elephant in the room can not be avoided – Kirin’s investment and purchase of Yo-Ho Brewing’s shares. In September 2014, Kirin took a 33% stake in Yo-Ho Brewing – at the time, an unheard-of idea. This stake also allowed Yo-Ho Brewing to buy Ginga Kogen Beer a few years later, further blurring the definitions of independence and craft beer in Japan.
While a little apprehensive to the line of questioning, and also the image of Kirin, Yo-Ho Brewing did go on to explain the reasoning for the selling of a one-third stake of the company to a macro brewery, especially with the connotations and negative PR it has brought. Yo-Ho Brewing are adamant that the only effect Kirin have had on them is to improve their supply chain, with no changes to ingredients or the processes used in making beer.
Kirin Beer have helped Yo-Ho Brewing Company expand out from supermarkets, with appearances and collaborations with Lawson’s convenience store, such as the Boku Beer, as well as using the Tap Marche system too. Yo-Ho Brewing are going to be fighting a battle with this concept; however, their clear answers and openness to the amount Kirin have bought into goes against some bigger, well-known, breweries, from both the USA and UK that hid investments from their customers.
Yo-Ho was founded in 1996 by Keiji Hoshino. He first experienced craft beer in the United States while he was an exchange student, and by comparison quickly realised how bad most Japanese beer was. At the time most Japanese breweries were focussing on German style beers of pilsners, weizens, and alts, so Hoshino started Yo-Ho with the aim of being more like an American one than a Japanese one. Since then, their focus has been entirely on ale-like beers (ones that are bottom-fermented), since their first batch in 1997.
At the time of the deregulation, many breweries’ focus was on tourists as an additional source of income, rather than actual beer drinkers. Yo-Ho Brewing focussed on the latter rather than the former, and since then, their beers have won numerous awards both in Japan as well as overseas.
Many of the brewery’s current styles were developed by former head brewer Toshi Ishii, who was one of the first Japanese brewers to work overseas, gaining experience at Stone Brewing company – known for their aggressive IPAs. Ishii moved to Guam to open up Ishii Brewing Company. While the brewery may not be as well known as his former place of employment, Yo-Ho Brewing do encourage their brewers to learn on the job and also support them in opening their own breweries.
Yo-Ho Brewing is situated at the base of Mt. Asama in Nagano, and the mountain area also lent some ideas to the naming of the brewery. In Japanese, the brewery is called ヤッホー (ya-hoo), which is the sound people make when calling out across the area – yodelling made its way to Japan, it seems.
Mt. Asama also plays a strong factor in the beers too, with its hard mountain water being used for the production of the beers. While it undergoes basic cleaning and filtration to ensure it is safe to drink, the water itself retains the majority of its minerals from the soil. It would be relatively easy for a brewery the size of Yo-Ho Brewing to use soft water; however, the hard water adds to the depth of flavours of the beer – adding a sense of terroir to the range.
Terroir, a word often used with wines in the past, has now found its way into the beer market. This has not missed a brewery the size of Yo-Ho Brewing. In their high-tech laboratory, the brewers can experiment with using a variety of adjuncts from the area – such as fruits, herbs, spices, and bonito flakes. To coincide with the new tax rules that the Japanese government has introduced, Yoho launched Sorry Umami IPA, a previously limited-edition beer featuring umami extracts from katsuobushi bonito flakes.
Yo-Ho Brewing’s most popular beer is Yona Yona Ale, an American Pale Ale with pronounced citrus hop aromas, which saw a renewal due to the appeal of American pales ales in 2017 – the first renewal in a lineup that stood the same for almost 20 years. Aooni (“Blue Demon”), a 7% India pale ale that was inspired by Ishii-san’s experience with Stone Brewing, and Suiyōbi no Neko, released in 2012, is a Belgian witbier, with 99% malt content. It translates as “Wednesday Cat” and was meant to be aimed towards women, under the guise of it being an easy-drinking beer. It was classified as a happōshu because of its orange peel and coriander seed flavorings, and remains so due to an ingredient used to control the beverage’s clarity under the old tax laws. However, since the change in laws in 2018, it’s interesting to note that the happoshu label on the side has changed. Suiyōbi no Neko is now sold as beer.
Yo-Ho Brewing also make a range of beers for the local Karuizawa area under the name Karuizawa Kogen Beer. There are four different types of brews on the regular roster: The clear and smooth “Wild Forest,” “National Trust,” which is made from black malt, “Seasonal,” which changes its flavor each year, and other limited production ales. Part of the revenue from sales is donated to two volunteer groups, “Karuizawa Wild Forest” and “Karuizawa National Trust,” which help preserve the beautiful nature of Karuizawa and enhance its appeal through various activities.
With the help of Wonder Table, a company that operates a variety of restaurants in Japan, Yo-Ho Brewing have also expanded out into taprooms, with the Yona Yona Beer Works brand. The bars follow a tried and tested method of design, with all 8 locations (at the time of writing) offering up the same food and beer on tap. While the bars serve the main range of Yo-Ho Brewing on tap, there are also seasonal specials on that are not sold in cans or in bottles.
While some craft beer fans choose not to drink Yo-Ho Brewing due to their links to the big macro company that is Kirin, what they did Yo-Ho Brewing’s influence on craft beer in Japan cannot be underestimated.