Editor’s note: This was written before the outbreak of Covid-19 and the changes in the bar industry.
One of the most common questions asked by people is “Why can’t I get a beer to take away like in [insert country’s name here]?”. And we get it. You find a nice beer on tap and you want to share it with your partner, your friends, or just sit down at home in a nice comfy chair and a compact disc playing on your home stereo.
But then you go and ask the staff if you can and they give you the old cross-their-arms pose meaning you’ve struck out. This is pretty much the case in all bars in Japan – bar a few that have off-site licences. And it needs to change. Why can’t you get some beers to takeaway and why does it have to be so hard for bars to do this?
Yep, it’s down to tax and how the tax office charges bars for sales. The age old nugget of the tax office wants their share of the profits before the bar can make any. And it isn’t a case of simply pushing a few buttons on a till to indicate that the beer has been sold for off-site consumption either. A bar, or brewpub, needs to have a dedicated area set aside for off-site sales, and also a set of kegs and taps that are solely for the purpose of sales offsite.
This also extends to bottle purchases as well – beers that can be taken off-site need to be sold from separated fridges too. If you buy a bottle of beer that is solely for off-site consumption, then it is taxed in a different form than as to beer sold in bottles for on-site consumption.
However, and here’s the sticking point for me personally – it’s not just for tax issues. Another consideration to look at is, do brewers want their beer being sold through a tap into any old container that could taint or damage their beer. That’s not to say people don’t know how to pour or store beer, but as soon as that beer leaves the tap, it comes into contact with oxygen – the gas that humans need to live, but damages beer on contact. Very few places are set up to properly serve beer for off-site consumption into containers such as growlers.
In my personal experience, I’ve bought beer for off-site consumption from taps in three places in Japan – and they all served it differently. One brewery had a full set up with crowlers, aluminium cans that are open and then sealed on site, that were purged with carbon dioxide, and then a plastic hose that had been cleaned, sterilised, and inserted over the end of the tap and fed into the can. The beer was then poured and had minimal contact with oxygen. The perfect way to do it. And the beer lasted easily for a good week in the can. The second brewpub poured a beer into a uKeg I had purchased a few years back, after sterilising again after I had washed it. While there was some contact with oxygen, the staff politely reminded me that I should drink the beer ASAP – no problem there with me! The third, and final place, had the worst set up. Just poured a beer into a plastic cup and then put a lid on top.
As you can imagine for a brewer, having your beer treated in these different ways can be either a bonus or a disaster. Breweries have no control what a bar does with the beer as soon as they have shipped it out. There may be contacts signed, but unless a brewery is monitoring every single bar they have sold every single beer too, it’s just not possible. Someone tries the beer, never having had it fresh, and then complains about a beer being off or damaged, it doesn’t damage the reputation of the bar, it damages the reputation of the brewery. If you really want to support a brewery and drink their beer at home or at a friend’s house, then try buying their beers from their online stores. Money goes direct to the brewery, and you get the beer in the ideal condition.