Walking through Tokyo's garish Roppongi district on my first visit to Japan, I found it remarkably easy to ignore the pulsing high-tech signs promoting electronics, movies, and cars. What caught my eye was probably the most modest ad: a tiny bilingual sandwich board that said "Craft Beer Bar." When I think of Japanese alcohol, sake and mass-produced lagers come to mind. Apart from the excellent Hitachino Nest, I wasn't aware of any Japanese craft brewers of note. Skeptical, I squeezed down a narrow staircase into a tiny, subterranean bar, expecting nothing more than insight into which foreign craft beers suit the Japanese palate, and possibly a taste of a Hitachino Nest creation that hadn't yet crossed the Pacific.
I got neither. Instead, I found 19 gleaming taps ingeniously squeezed into the diminutive space, with every last one offering a local brew. That bar (it's called Ant 'n' Bee, in case you'd like to visit) and those beers represent just a fraction of what's available. Japan's craft beer is little known globally, but alarmingly good. Breweries you've never heard of and may struggle to pronounce are making well-executed beers in a wide array of styles. I sampled a white beer from Shiroyama, cloudy with citrus and a hint of spice, subtle enough to please Belgian witbier partisans. Those who like muscular hop flavor would probably enjoy the powerful IPA I tried from Minami Shinshu.
But beyond high-quality renderings of popular Belgian, German, and American styles, many breweries are experimenting with Japanese flavors, like ginger, yuzu, or even fist-sized Uramura oysters.
This vibrant craft brew scene is a recent development—in part because it was actually impossible not long ago. Before 1994, microbreweries were illegal in Japan. Licenses were granted only to brewers producing well over half a million gallons a year. That protected the well-entrenched large brewers from any upstart competition.
Talk craft beer in Japan and you'll soon hear grumbling about the Four Giants: the mega-brewers that dominate the market. Craft beer fans disparage them with all the disdain American drinkers have for Bud, Miller, and Coors. If you've been to a sushi bar in the United States, you're probably familiar with three of them: Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin. The fourth is Suntory, a name most American drinkers probably associate with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.
Big Japanese beers are similar to American macrobrews, with all the flavor and aroma of air, liberally substituting rice or corn for malted barley to keep cost (and flavor) low. But the Japanese brewers who have taken up the challenge to offer something else are a bit different than their American counterparts. American craft beer has roots in home brewing. Scratch the surface of many successful American craft brewers, and you'll uncover early horror stories of batches lost to infection and weeks of work and money literally gone down the drain. But in Japan, most craft beer is made by sake brewers, with full command of sanitation, fermentation, bottling, and aging. They needed only to master malted barley, hops, and different yeasts, so the learning curve wasn't as steep for them. And the sake breweries' traditional emphasis on craftsmanship and quality ingredients served them well in the specialty beer world.
That's not to say microbrewing was a smash out of the gate. Many of the breweries that opened in the 1990s closed within a few years. And almost none of their beer made it outside of the country until 2000—the year Matthias Neidhart began distributing Hitachino Nest in America. The German-born Neidhart has a reputation for finding fine beers in unexpected places, and his company, B. United, sells a carefully curated list of international beers, from Italian ambers to Scottish bitters, even a Maltese porter for Euro-completists. But he had a tough time convincing serious drinkers that Japan had anything to offer beyond forgettable adjunct lagers. Passionate about the product, he and his team evangelized through countless tastings and promotions. Meanwhile, the beer racked up international awards.
"Nobody believed in us," he says, "But 11 years later the market is exploding."