Jeffrey Alexander says Japan’s beer market is starting to evolve with a growing selection of craft brews. Photo by: Matthew O’Mara
Kirin, Sapporo, and Asahi. These three companies produce the most well known brews from Japan, but there’s a reason why they’re the kings of Japanese beer.
At a recent lecture held at the Japan Foundation in Toronto, author Jeffrey Alexander shared with audiences a behind-the-curtain look at Japan’s beer culture and the cartel of brewers that controls the industry.
Alexander, who once worked in a bar in Osaka and published “Brewed in Japan: The Evolution of the Japanese Beer Industry”, knows the long road the industry has taken to get where it is today.
“It started with the Dutch who brought beer long, long ago when they had an exclusive trade relationship with Japan,” Alexander tells Nikkei Voice.
“A series of folks who were interested gave it a try with limited success, but in the 1870s people started to brew it locally,” he says.
Sake and shoyu brewers, and miso makers had the space and the equipment to make beer, but they didn’t exactly have the ‘know how’. It was only through a number of resident foreigners who were living in Yokohama did the industry to take off and German, British, and Norwegian breweries began to thrive.
Not only did beer bring a new local industry to the table, it also brought new forms of architecture. The Sapporo Beer Factory’s brick walls are unlike anything else in the area and reflect European architectural design.
These breweries brought the first taste of European beer to Japan, but sales were still outclassed and outsold by sake and soju. The problem was cost and only a select few had the means to afford this new beverage.
“But it comes in larger glasses, it’s colder, and it’s nice in the summer time,” Alexander says. “People start to figure that out and by the mid 20s, beer starts to outsell sake by volume, but it was in the 1930s that things started to heat up with the empire.”
Japan’s expansion into Asia would open their beer trading lines to Korea and Manchuria. And during the First World War, Japan would have to find ways to become more self sufficient as the European brew masters who resided in the country would be called back home to fight on the front lines.
Soon Japan would take places like the Shandong Peninsula and the Tsingtao Brewery during the war, but the adherence to European-style beer would prove fatal to the industry.
Living up to German purity standards, Japanese brew masters only used European ingredients to help their product measure up to the competition.
In the 1940s with supply lines strained and the war in full swing, Japan’s beer industry would have to start producing their own hops and malts to keep the industry flowing.
And right up until the end of the war, beer was being sold for the tax revenue it generated.
Although Japan was left in a devastated state, the beer industry would return. Gone was the pretense that the beer had to be European. Beer had become a Japanese product.
“It’s as much a Japanese product as everything else,” Alexander says. “People do consciously Japanese things like eat traditional meals or wear kimono knowing that they are doing something traditional.”
“With beer, that’s a blurry line since it’s been brewed in Japan for so many generations,” he says. “It was no longer a niche product either, it was the first thing people asked for when they went to a beer garden or a bar rather than sake or soju.”
As Asahi eclipses Kirin in 1987 with the Release of Super Dry and the three major powers in Japanese beer start to coalesce so too do the problems of the modern-day beer market.
Controlled almost entirely by the Ministry of Finance and Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin, price-point competition is prohibited and craft brewing is trapped at a quarter of one per cent of the market because market control.
It’s a lot like North America companies like Molson, Coors, and Bud Lite that are the best selling beers, though perhaps the most bland tasting.
But craft brewing in Japan is slowly starting to catch up. Japanese consumers are starting to look for new tastes.
“It’s a niche product,” Alexander says. “I’m always on the look out for how the market is changing. Craft beer bars are opening up and there are several good ones in each train station area.”
“Brew Dog in Roppongi is popular, the Bear Brewing Company has taps rooms in Tokyo, and there’s a new place in Kyoto called Craft Man,” he says.
There are more and more bars selling craft beers on tap, but the main three still stand dominant and have made moves like many North American giants to expand their selection either through hoppier beers or through buying smaller breweries.
That means the convenience store and vending machine real estate has been totally, utterly called for, so how does a small brewer make it in Japan?
The micro and craft brewing industry is usually headed up by small restaurant owners.
With a fire lit under them with a change in the stringent conditions for a beer-making license, these companies now have government initiatives on their side and taste as well.
Able to call up recipes from years ago and take on the darker tones of stouts and light tones of white ales, these smaller breweries are finding a niche market, although it remains a small one.
According to Alexander it’s just going to take some time for Japan’s beer drinkers to get a taste of the wider selection out there. He says it will be an “aha” moment when they realize that the light-tasting beverages they have grown up with are only the tip of the beerberg.