Kampai Samurai: Rob Bright & Joe Robson, Japanese craft beer

The Kampai Samurai interview series brings together experts in Japanese whisky, sake, shochu, beer, gin, and other categories to explore the breadth and depth of Japan’s drinking culture. Click here to see other entries in the series.

Rob “do-er of things” Bright and Joe “Professional Space Beast” Robson (photo left and right, respectively) co-founded the web’s most comprehensive independent resource for Japanese craft beer: BeerTengoku. Launched in 2014, the site is chock-full of reviews of Japanese craft beers and beer bars, featuring brewer interviews, a podcast, an exhaustive Craft Beer Map of Japan, and much more. Apart from the site, you can also follow BeerTengoku on Twitter, Facebook, the gram, and even support them on Patreon for access to exclusive content.


WR: So I’ll have to begin with the standard gaijin-to-gaijin question: how did you find your way to Japan? Is there anything that specifically attracted you?

RB: I came to Japan in January 2004. I was disillusioned after university – broken shoulder from playing rugby, hated my course by the end of it, and wanted a break. I fancied traveling for a bit as I had come into some money and was searching for jobs to do. English teaching came up in Japan and I thought, what the heck. My aunt had told me lots about Tokyo and that also attracted me to working in Japan.

JR: It seems like me and Rob both came to Japan on the back of broken dreams and disillusionment! For me it was a long-distance relationship with a Japanese girlfriend which fizzled out before we were reunited, but also not before I’d gotten myself a job and a place to live in Japan. Oh well. I came over in April 2005, straight out of university. I’d always been interested in Japanese culture and anime (which is about as bog standard a response as you can get), although I’d say that these days I see Japan as just “where I live” rather than “an endless wonderland of mystery and magic”.

WR: What was your first memorable experience with Japanese craft beer?

RB: For me, it was in Niigata in a town called Echigo Yuzawa. I had been snowboarding for the day and came across a small gift shop on the north side of the station. They sold some beers I had never seen before and a 90 day stout – to this day I don’t know if that meant it had been conditioned for 90 days or was some weird name they had given it. I fell in love with it and spent the next few years picking up beers whenever I went somewhere or asked people when they went somewhere. A whole new world had opened up before me but it was hard to find things in those days.

JR: First memorable experience with craft beer… well, I wasn’t familiar with the term “craft beer” for quite a while. You know how when something is natural to you, it never occurs to you to name it? And growing up in the UK where craft beer was everywhere, it never occurred to me to say “ah yes, I’m a craft beer fan”. So I can remember becoming conscious of “other” breweries apart from the big 4 in probably around 2011. I’d been seeing these small cans of expensive beer in my local combini and occasionally trying them. Then when the Tohoku earthquake hit and I had nothing to do between the rolling blackouts and cancelled jobs, I started writing reviews of these beers in my notebook for my own amusement. And so I’d be actually looking at the labels and seeing “Oh, this beer was made near here!” or “What the hell is this beer style that looks like Hoegaarden? Oh, it’s called a Weizen”. I suppose that was the proto-BeerTengoku (Well, my side of it, anyway).

WR: BeerTengoku is updated pretty much every day. Are you also drinking beer every day?

RB: It may seem we’re drinking every day but it really does vary. I’m never far from my notebook so I’m constantly writing things down. It may be that we have three or four beers in one night, and nothing for a couple of days. That gives us time to write things up and catch up with articles. My drinking varies a lot – I took 3 weeks off in April until golden week and will probably have another three or four weeks off at the end of this month before heading back to the UK. I’d say in a usual week, I probably drink 3 or 4 times a week, at most 3 beers if I have nothing planned the next day. I find if I am slamming back beers then I’m missing out on a lot of flavours that develop when the beer warms up.

JR: I don’t drink every single day, but it does become a bit of a habit. Craft beer in Japan is an expensive hobby so I don’t actually drink it that much- actually I’m more of a chuhai fan as it’s easier on the wallet! The site is updated daily but we schedule far in advance. One night out having six new beers in three new bars is potentially nine articles which we could spread out over two weeks. If it’s in a certain city or locale we make it into a connected stream of articles- Shizuoka City Bar Tour, for example. We used to have an automatic repost of old articles as well but these days there’s so much to cover we don’t need it!

WR: Japanese craft beer was essentially born in 1994, with the “ji-biru” hurdles being lowered. How would you summarize the past 25 years of the Japanese craft beer’s history? Bonus points if it’s in haiku.

In a quiet land,
a poor business was born,
now it has come good.

Rob Bright

Is that ok? In all seriousness, craft beer has come on a long way since 94, and it had to. Breweries jumped onto the new scene and treated it as some kind of gimmick and people saw through it. It got a lot of bad rep from people – and rightfully so – but the breweries that were serious about it have seen their reputations come through and have gone onto win awards around the world. It’s tough to write a summary but it’s probably in its mid teens now – it had a rebellious stage and people are starting to see it mature a bit and take it seriously.
Cash-grab tourist swill
Then they came with IPAs
Now brewpubs are king

Joe Robson

When we talk about it we generally class breweries in “waves”. First wave craft breweries were ones started as side projects of sake distilleries and were very much gimmicky, tourist-aimed novelty gift beers. Think wasabi, garlic, blue beers. The brewers around then were influenced by German styles, which is why so many of the places have lagers, alts and weizens as their standard beers.

A few waves later, after the American craft beer scene influenced breweries and encouraged them to experiment with different styles (coupled with the recent reclassification of happoshu malt content which meant that fruit beers and dry-hopped beers were no longer tarred with the happoshu brush), we’re seeing more brewpubs popping up. Personally I think this is a response to the 6-month waiting period for brewery licenses, during which time they have to be ready to brew but can’t legally make anything. Why waste money with that extra brewing space when you can open a bar next door and get some cash flow and word of mouth going?

WR: Homebrewing is illegal in Japan. How do you think this impacts Japan’s craft beer scene?

RB: Yes, yes, and yes! Homebrew allows people to learn and try things out – never dry hop your beer in bottles and give it to friends. But you need to make and learn. You can do all the courses you want, but if you’re not brewing regularly, then you’re not learning. Homebrew allows people to make these mistakes before opening a brewery and also to try out their recipes. When people open breweries, they have to immediately make good, drinkable beers, else their reputation is gone. The successful breweries in Japan – the well regarded ones – are those that have made hundreds upon thousands of batches and make notes on how to improve their beers – something they could have done with home-brew. The foreign owned breweries in Japan, with foreign brewers, are one step ahead of the curve as they have had that essential learning experience.

JR: Homebrew being technically illegal has a huge impact on the scene. Every family I know makes their own umeshu. Some make their own miso. The niche is there and it’s not as if it’s an expensive hobby. A basic knowledge of homebrew on the consumer side would give people the knowledge that there are more beer styles than just lager. Maybe the Big 4 is responsible for keeping homebrew illegal. Ooh conspiracy theory! On the brewing side, it creates a barrier to entry. Breweries poach brewers from each other, or from other alcohol industries like sake or wine. It’s very hard for someone without professional experience to get their foot in the door, unless they start their own brewery or go overseas to train.

WR: Domestic shipments of beer, looking at the entire category, have been in decline for the past 15 years or so. But Japanese craft beer seems to be a beacon of hope. More than half of Japan’s craft breweries reported increased shipments during 2018. At least here in Tokyo, I think there a lot more visibility in just the past few years — it seems like there’s a craft beer place on every corner! Do you think there is more room for growth?

RB: I think there is room for growth but it has to be at the expense of breweries that need to close. Some of them are dreadful and aren’t improving. Craft beer isn’t cheap and people are wary of spending their money on sub-par products. If breweries and bars wish to grow, then they have to be more communicative with the breweries to ensure they hear the feedback on their beers – be it positive or negative. Moreover, bars need to take move out of the usual areas – we’re starting to see some saturation in areas of Japan because a couple of craft beer bars are in an area, so a new bar owner thinks their is a client base there. That could be a turning point for that area but also you’re diluting a customer base to spread out over a number of bars…

JR: There is room for growth of the brewpub, I think. As I mentioned, breweries are just sitting there while they are waiting for their license, and bottling and kegging takes up extra space and money. Breweries with bars on site are the future of Japanese craft beer, in my opinion. Breweries without have something of a disconnect with their drinkers, because not only can they not get direct feedback from their taproom, they can’t interact with the drinkers who are walking past their brewery every day. More than a few times we’ve gone to interview breweries and not had any way to try their beers on site. Also, as people become more knowledgeable about styles, they will become more discerning in their tastes and suddenly paying 1000yen for a pint of sub-par lager seems like less of an appealing prospect.

WR: Some of the majors are also experimenting with beers besides their standard lagers. It’s fairly common to see at least an IPA or stout at any given combini these days. Do you think this is a positive, perhaps because it’s introducing your average Taro to different beer styles, or is this potentially taking market share from actual craft brewers?

RB: I call them crafty beers as they’re stealing customers and deliberately misleading customers. The JBA states that a brewery in Japan can only call itself craft if the batches are below 20,000l so these aren’t craft beers – they’re macro beers in a different style. Gateway beers perhaps but they’re in danger of confusing people as to what people should look out for in the respective style. Some of the beers have been washed out in terms of hops and have lacked the bite we associate with an IPA, or the boldness from a stout, or the sweetness from an amber. There’s a distinct lack of education from the big breweries too about what craft beers are and also the different styles and how to differentiate between them.

JR:  I think it’s a positive thing, and isn’t taking away any market share. As you say, it’s introducing people to (sort of) different styles at affordable prices. People are generally scared away by unfamiliar labels and tastes, so to see “Suntory” on a can of 270yen barley wine acts as a comforter. Then they can find what style they prefer, and if they then go out and find the craft version, well, craft beer has a new fan. If not, craft beer hasn’t lost anything. People who are already craft beer fans are not going to switch to the major version, in my opinion.

WR: Speaking of the law and beer styles, the April 2018 tax code revision has loosened the definition of what is legally “beer” in Japan, so you can now use things like soy sauce in making beer. Indeed, utilizing local ingredients is a big focus for many of Japan’s new craft distilleries. Is this something we should expect to see for Japanese craft beer as well?

RB: Craft beer has always had two licenses: beer which could only be made from malt, water, hops, and yeast and a minimum of 60,000L per year, or happoshu which meant an addition of an adjunct, such as orange peel, or coriander or salmon, with a minimum of 6,000L per year. If you had the beer license only, you could not make witbiers, Belgian ales, yuzu beers etc. If you had the happoshu, then any beer you made had to have something added to it, such as an ounce of tea, a dash of orange, etc. The license change meant beer licenses could have a maximum of 5% of adjuncts per batch, making it easier for breweries to combine the licenses but they still needed to make 60,000L a year. Many craft beer breweries in Japan work alongside people in the area to produce beers showing off local ingredients, doubling the PR efforts for that area.

JR: Craft breweries have already been doing that for a while- in fact, the “gimmick” beers they started out as included some diabolical pairings, such as Aomori Garlic Black Ale (mentioned above), and the less said about Abashiri and its Hotate Beer and Bilk the better. With better knowledge about what people actually want to drink, many breweries these days are making great beers with their local ingredients. Baird Brewing, Outsider and Yo-Ho are three that commonly use local or regional ingredients in their beers.

WR: In Japanese craft whisky we’ve also seen some movements towards using local barley. Is this something that beer breweries are aiming to do, or is Japan’s output of two-row barley pretty much already spoken for?

RB: Japanese breweries do promote local ingredients – some breweries use locally grown malt, some use locally grown vegetables or fruits, while some use spices in their beers. It’s part of the small industry where everyone tries to support other people in the area. However the big problem in Japan is growing space and the amount of malt that can be grown to sustain the industry. Canadian, German, UK, and USA already produce a lot of malt, cheaper than what Japanese farmers can grow it for realistically due to restrictions on space. Moreover the organic movement in Japan is hard to sustain too – a farmer must have his field certified for 3 years that it is organic before the Japanese government will give it an official license.

JR: As you say, I think it’s spoken for. Japan’s farmland is at a premium and barley probably goes into more than we realise. First-wave brewers who get their recipes from Germany also import their barley from overseas, and that tradition seems to have trickled down to the current generation as well. Besides, barley is only one of a handful of ingredients which go into beer. With whisky, if you’ve got local grain and water, you’ve got locally-sourced whisky. With beer, good luck getting those hops that only grow in New Zealand into your local brew. Breweries tend to promote one or two ingredients as locally-sourced rather than the whole beer, unless they’ve grown everything including the hops here as well.

WR: Hoppy… best non-beer ever, or a blight on Japanese society?

RB: Hoppy – it’s good because it’s not hiding what it is. It’s not non-alcoholic beer, rather beer flavored liquid you add to Shochu to get you drunk for as cheap as possible. And for that, I salute them. I’ve never had hoppy without Shochu so I don’t dare think about what it tastes like.

JR: Oh man. I’ve had some times with Hoppy. I remember being given a pint glass basically filled to the rim with shochu and a bottle of Hoppy for 200yen at my local yakitori shop. I like how there are multiple ways to drink it- do you add the shochu to the hoppy, the hoppy to the shochu? Do you keep topping it up as you go or do you drink the lot then ask for another “naka”? There’s a charming drinking ritual around it which I have a lot of nostalgia and respect for. It definitely has its place in the Japanese drinking culture. That being said, I’m 36 now and that pint glass of shochu I had at age 25 would probably put me out of action for a couple of days, at least.

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