The Portland of the Far East
Craft beer is booming in Japan.
Neidhart says the Hitachino Nest portfolio grew 45 percent in the United States last year. In most good beer bars, it's their only Japanese offering. Momofuku chef David Chang is a fan. Super-high-end restaurants carry it as well. At Per Se, the Red Rice Ale sits on the wine list in the lofty company of $9,000 bottles of Bordeaux and other billionaire bait.
It's not easy for drinkers in Japan, either. The JCBA says more than 40 percent of Japanese craft beer is sold directly to drinkers by mail. In that sense Japanese beer fans outside major cities find themselves in a situation similar to their American counterparts 15 years or so ago: unable to get great beer at their local bars or stores and forced to find it through a combination of mail ordering, festivals, and brewery visits. But things are changing; Oda's latest numbers show the craft beer market doubling from 2003 to 2009. He credits online buzz and strong interest for something new among 20- to 45-year-olds with driving the increase.
If you visit Japan, there's a growing number of craft beer bars ready to show off the labors of the country's talented, creative brewers. Other than Ant 'n' Bee, where I was first schooled, Popeye, Ushi Tora, and La Cachette all have a wide selection of Japanese microbrews (as well as international craft beers). The staff may not speak perfect English, but most of these venues offer menus and tasting notes in English, and the friendly bartenders light up when you declare a local beer oishii (delicious). You'll also get red-carpet treatment if you name-check a rare offering you've had from an American craft brewery.
Barring a trip to Asia, American drinkers will have most success finding Hitachino Nest, easy to spot by its nifty owl logo. Many start with their White Ale, a cloudy Belgian-style witbier. Its flavor and aroma, fragrant with citrus, nutmeg, and coriander, has bested beers from Belgium in global competitions. The Red Rice Ale is still more complex, made in a painstaking process that involves both sake and ale yeasts, since beer yeasts cannot convert the rice to alcohol. The finished product gives the lie to the notion that rice can't be part of an excellent beer. It has the sake character one might expect, but also well-balanced malt and hop flavor, with surprising hints of berry and spice. That's the beer Per Se charges its deep-pocketed clients $16 per bottle for.
My favorite from Hitachino Nest is their Japanese Classic Ale. It's a dull-sounding name, but it's a spectacular beer. It's a pale ale or an IPA, depending on whom you ask, and it has all the qualities one expects from those styles. But it's aged in cedar barrels normally used for sake. This special Japanese touch elevates it, adding peppery, slightly earthy flavors. These Asian twists, which Hitachino Nest mingles with European ingredients and technique, are what make the beers stand out.
Many Japanese beers are well worth your time, so take a moment to encourage your favorite beer bars and retailers to carry Japanese microbrews. If they feel interest rising, more good beer will make its way across the Pacific. And, just maybe, there'll come a day when you won't need to suffer through a Sapporo just because you've decided to go out for sushi.