Friday, June 01, 2012

Local Brews: Beer

Japan is not what most experts would call a beer lover's paradise. If you are the type who frequents after-hours work parties or simply spends enough time at the local watering hole, you will learn to loathe Asahi Super Dry or one of its few equally bland counterparts.

While local beer is not easy to come by (or cheap, for that mater), it does in fact exist for those with a sharp eye and discerning pallet.

Why So Few Micro-Brews?
A lot has to do with economies of scale. Japan has long been dominated by a few large brewing conglomerates and the number of large producers has only shrunk with time, leaving Asahi, Suntory, Sapporo, and Kirin as some of the only games in town. Sake brewers are more numerous although many are connected with larger breweries.

Another factor is the way that alcohol is taxed. Rather than a PoS (Point of Sale) tax, it is taxed according to the number of kilo-liters produced for sale. Furthermore, the beer's ingredients (barley, hops, etc.) determine its tax bracket, and this has led to a whole range of faux-beer beverages on the Japanese market, called happo-shu (発泡酒), which contain fermented ingredients other than barely and hops in order to slip into a lower tax rate. The whole system is so complex (some might say deliberately so) that it is almost impossible to start your own brewery in this country without significant expertise and capital.

Local Beers
Local or craft beers are known as ji-biru (地ビール). Since Japan is not exactly over flowing with beer aficionados, these brews are often poorly advertised or not advertised at all. Expect to have to seek them out yourself.

For a general listing of breweries in your area, the best place to start is the All-Japan Local Brewers Association (zenkoku ji-biru jozo-sha kyougikai 全国地ビール醸造者協議会) website. Here you can find a list of brewers by locality as well as contact info and brewer websites. Similarly, the "Forest of Local Beer" (ji-biru no mori 地ビールの森) website has a list of local brewers that accept factory tours (kengaku 見学), products, and reviews. You can also search by prefecture.

Unless you are lucky enough to live next to a local brewery, you might to make a trek in order to get your hands on some tasty suds... or maybe not. Japan at least has very lenient laws regarding sending booze through the mail, and there are some good sites that will deliver right to your door. has a wide variety of beers divided by type and brewery in addition to stocking international craft beers. The main disadvantage is that shipping costs a bundle (1,050 yen and up for 1-24 bottles).

Similarly, typing 地ビール into, Rakuten, or Yahoo Shopping will also reveal some interesting results.

If you want to buy directly, here are some hints:
  • Pharmacies- Thanks to news laws allowing the sale of over-the-counter drugs just about anywhere, pharmacy chains have been trying to draw in new customers with cheap and interesting booze. While not universally true, in my own experience, pharmacy chains often stock one or two hard-to-find brands.
  • The Oldest Sake Store in Town- The Japanese countryside is literally filled with old sake-ya (酒屋) stores run by extremely knowledgeable octogenarians. While these places may smell a bit funny and have booze that probably hasn't been opened since World War 2, they'll also have a wealth of knowledge regarding anything and everything local.
  • Souvenir Shops- One of the most reliable purveyors of local beer is the souvenir stand (omiyageya お土産屋). You can almost always find one near the biggest train station in town or at the local highway rest stop. However, since these places cater to tourists, they are most certainly not cheap.
  • Large Super Markets- Seiyu generally stocks at least one local brand where available and Aeon has also been known to carry local brews depending on location and season.
  • Factory Tours and Museums- Despite being part of a mega-brewery, the Sapporo Beer Museum in Hokkaido is a great place to try out limited time batch beers only available for those who stop by. 

So good luck on your booze hunt, and stop by AJ again soon for our guide to finding some good local sake. We'll have the update on Facebook and Twitter!

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