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Japan is world-famous for its Sake (rice wine) and in the last few decades it has earned a reputation alongside Scotland, Ireland and the USA for its whiskey, but did you know that beer is the country’s most popular alcoholic drink? And just like the rest of the world, Japan has seen a craft beer renaissance in the last few years. Japanese beer has always been crisp, clean and pure, but with more and more craft beer producers and distilleries emerging as competition for the big mass produced brands such as Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory, international craft beer enthusiasts travelling to Japan have a huge amount to look forward to and enjoy. Using your JR Pass to travel the length and breadth of this amazing country, we’ll help you find the best distilleries, the coolest bars to visit, and the finest beers to try. Kanpai!
A Brief History of Japan’s Craft Beer Industry
‘Ji-biru’ or Japanese craft beer is on the rise. The craft beer industry in Japan is relatively young compared to Europe and North America at around 25 years old, but underwent a massive boom in the 1990s thanks to a change in regulations which led to a resurgence in small independent brewers, and saw Japan quickly earn a reputation for producing outstanding and unique beers. Craft beer lovers have been making regular pilgrimages to Japan for years and many have settled there to open their own breweries and bars to help support the independent scene and capitalise on its huge potential.
The last 10 years in particular have seen an explosion in the numbers of bars dedicated to craft beer. When the Japan Beer Times – a bilingual magazine dedicated to the country’s craft beer industry – launched in 2010, there were just a few dozen bars specialising in craft beer. Today, there are hundreds of bars, dedicated annual beer festivals, and more than 300 breweries to visit, where you can taste freshly brewed and lovingly made craft beers. For a much longer and more detailed history of craft beer in Japan be sure to check out Professor Mark Meli’s book, Craft Beer in Japan. Mark, a Professor of Cultural Studies at Kansai University in Osaka, tasted more than 1,700 varieties of ji-biru while researching the book. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it! Luckily, you can follow in his footsteps by visiting Japan’s best craft beer breweries, bars and festivals using your Japan Rail Pass and the country’s excellent rail system.
To Craft Beer or To Not Craft Beer?
To paraphrase Hamlet, that is the question. A very topical (and sometimes controversial) talking point amongst Japan’s beer community is the distinction between genuine craft beer and mass-produced beer (which sometimes calls itself ‘craft’ as a marketing ploy) and ongoing struggle of small, independent craft breweries to compete. But what is the difference for those of us who aren’t experts and just enjoy drinking the stuff? And why is it important?
While all beer comes from the same four ingredients – water, malted barley, hops and yeast – all beers are not created equal. Craft beers are intentionally produced in small batches using old, artisanal methods and high quality ingredients to create unique and distinctive flavour profiles, while large-scale commercial companies often use chemicals and cheaper ingredients to produce thousands of litres of beer at a time with the aim of making every can and every bottle taste the same. Craft breweries tend to be small, independent and traditional, and they are also often run by people with a lifelong passion for beer, but perhaps the most important difference is in the flavour. Craft beer enthusiasts would argue there is no comparison between the flavour of craft and mass-produced beer.
Japan’s craft brewers face constant challenge of competing with the big companies whose products can be found in every supermarket and convenience store, but if you’re a fan of craft beer, and all the love and hard work that goes into producing it, then it is definitely worth seeking out Japan’s many craft breweries while you’re visiting this amazing country.
Visit Japan’s Best Craft Beer Breweries
Japan now has more than 300 craft beer breweries and if you’re a true craft beer die-hard you’ll likely want to visit them all. Of course, like a great craft beer, a must-see brewery can be a very subjective thing. We’ve put together a small selection below, but to find out which breweries interest you the most (and to keep up to date with the very latest breweries and bars opening across Japan) we would recommend you read the latest issues of Japan Beer Times, which is an essential read for any beer lover planned to visit the country.
- Kiuchi Brewery, Ibaraki
This historic brewery started life in 1823 producing sake, and only started creating craft beer in 1996. However, thanks to the success and quality of its Hitachino Nest beer range, the company’s beer is now available worldwide. Craft beer enthusiasts will love a visit to the historic Kiuchi Brewery which offers tours and a bar where you can enjoy their full range. With your JR Rail Pass, you can reach Ibaraki from Tokyo via the JR Joban Line from Ueno Station.
- Yo-Ho Brewing, Nagano
Named after founder Yoshiharu Hoshino, Yo-Ho set out to create beers for everyday beer lovers and succeeded in creating one of Japan’s most popular craft beer lines. Get to Nagano from Tokyo via the Hokuriku Shinkansen or from Kyoto via JR Tokaido Shinkansen before transferring to a JR Shinano limited express train.
- Minoh Brewery, Osaka
Run by the three Ohshita sisters, the award-winning Minoh is known for their experimentation with new flavours, and has a reputation as one of Japan’s most innovative craft beer operations. Use the Hikari and Kodama trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen lines to get from Tokyo to Osaka.
- Baird Brewing Company, Shizuoka
Launched in 2001, Baird were Japan’s smallest brewery to receive a licence at the time, but have successfully expanded across the country thanks to their distinctive process of making their beers unfiltered and fermented twice once packaged. Look out for their Angry Boy Brown Ale and Suruga Bay Imperial IPA. Use the JR Tokaido Shinkansen to get from Tokyo to Shizuoka using your JRailPass.
- Miyashita Sake Brewery, Okayama
Famous for their Doppo range, a live-yeast-added craft beer which is brewed in the temperate climate of Okayama. Use the JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen to reach Okayama from Tokyo.
- Abashiri Beer Brewery, Hokkaido
Interestingly, this brewery started life in 1998 at the Tokyo University of Agriculture’s bio-industry faculty, to do research and develop the production of wheat beer. As a brewery, they are known for experimenting with colour, adding natural gardenia pigment to give their most famous beer its vibrant blue colour. To reach Hokkaido, take the JR Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and transfer to the Hokuto limited express train to Sapporo.
Craft beers to try in Japan
There are thousands of craft beers to try and it would be impossible (as well as foolhardy) to try them all in one trip, but here is a small selection of six to look out for during your craft beer tour of Japan:
- Hitachino Nest White Ale
This delicious Belgian-style wheat beer (or witbier) features flavours of orange peel and coriander. Also look for Hitachino Nest Lager and Japanese Classic Ale.
- Yona Ale
A pale ale from Yo-Ho with ripe fruit, citrus and spicy hops. Perfect. Yona Yona means ‘every night’ in Japanese. We can see why!
- Swan Lake Beer
Swan Lake – famed for their high-quality – won two awards at the World Beer Cup for their exquisite beer which is made using ‘Echigo-Meisui’ – pure Niigata spring water from the mountains where the brewery is located.
- Minoh Beer
The entire Minoh range (IPA, Stout, Weizen, Pale Ale and Pilsner) are worth trying. In particular, they are regarded as having one of the best IPAs and stouts in the country.
- AJB – Imperiality
Anglo Japanese Brewing (AJB) Company was set up by Thomas Livesey after he moved to Nagano, and shortly after opening the brewery’s Imperiality was rated as one of the best beers in Japan in independent awards.
- Koshihikari Echigo Beer
A uniquely Japanese rice lager made using Koshikikari – a premium short grain rice.
- Okhotsk Blue Ryuho Draft
Produced by Abashiri Beer Brewery, Hokkaido, this unique beer is a distinctive blue colour and features sea water from icebergs melted in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean as well as the aforementioned gardenia pigment.
Japan’s Craft Beer Festivals
If you’re lucky enough to be travelling to Japan in the Spring then you’ll not only have the delights of Cherry Blossom Season (which you can read all about in our guide to Visiting Japan to View the Sakura), but you’ll also have some fantastic beer festivals to choose from, which take place in Spring each year:
- The Keiyaki Beer Festival
Located in Saitama, this festival is described as one for craft beer purists in the best possible sense. It’s also very close to Tokyo if you don’t want to travel too far.
- The Kyushu Beer Festival
This springtime craft beer festival is held the city of Fukuoka and is extremely popular. Look out for beers by Goodbeer Faucets Hakata brewery.
- Snow Monkey Beer Live
Held in the Shiga Highlands area of Nagano Prefecture, this is the ideal beer festival for those who prefer things that are ice-cold. The festival takes its name from the Japanese snow monkeys that live in the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
- Yokohama Fruhlingsfest
Named after the German word for the arrival of Spring, this festival is located in beautiful Yokohama Bay and features attractions, family activities, food and more – as well as lots of beer.
- The Great Japan Beer Festival
Organised by the Japan Craft Beer Association (JCBA), this is the country’s biggest annual beer festival. The Great Japan Beer Festival changes location each year – 2019’s festival was held in Okinawa – and features thousands of beers to try.
- Japan has hundreds of craft beer bars. To find your nearest drinking spot while travelling Japan, use our guide and download a super handy app created by the clever people at Japan Beer Times – the Craft Beer Japan app works with your GPS to help guide you to the nearest bar, shop or restaurant selling craft beer.
- Don’t drink and drive! Use Japan’s world-renowned trains to get around instead and you can sample as many beers you like en route (within reason of course!) The best way to see the whole of Japan is by using the JR Pass to travel the country’s domestic rail network.
- Need to stay connected while you’re on the move to post a photo of the craft beer you’ve just discovered? Make sure your purchase Pocket Wifi before you arrive.
- Read more about Japan’s different regions and discover our Regional Passes.
- Planning to travel around Tokyo while trying craft beers at the best bars? Remember to book a prepaid travel card alongside your JR Pass.
- First time in Japan? Read our top tips for first-timers in Japan.
- Fancy a whiskey chaser? Combine your craft beer tour with visits to Japan’s finest whiskey distilleries by reading our guide to Japan for Whiskey Lovers.