Craft Beer in Japan

Recently, craft beer has skyrocketed in popularity in the United States, with more small, locally based breweries popping up each year. While it’s easy to think this is an isolated happening, craft beer is becoming more common in numerous parts of the world. Right up there with the best international beer cities is Tokyo. As an already renowned travel destination, the city is now becoming the hub from craft brewing in Japan, and out here, beer’s not just about the taste. It’s about all five of your senses coming together to experience a glorious, fermented beverage.

Just 25 years ago, the idea of Japan becoming a beer mecca would have seemed impossible. At the time, laws mandated a minimum requirement of beer production for breweries that essentially made craft beer illegal. However, in 1994, revisions of the country’s liquor laws reduced the annual production requirements to a mere 60 kiloliters. All of a sudden, small breweries had the freedom to experiment with new flavors and styles without having to worry about mass production leading to unwanted surpluses.With more breweries comes more tap houses, and beer makers in Tokyo are taking full advantage. In recent years several have begun specializing in creating experiences for their customers that reach beyond taste and aim to satisfy all five senses. Like any restaurant or tap house, it starts with the aura of the place. Lighting, music, and decorations are all carefully selected to create the proper drinking mood.

Ordering a beverage is where the fun really begins. Generally, the first sense involved in ordering a glass of beer is sight. Heat, sugar content, and type of grain all contribute to the final product’s hue. Alterations to any of the factors in the process can change how a beer looks, and of course, how it tastes.

Based on the beer selection, the bartender will choose the shape of glass right for the drink. Some tap houses carry more than 20 different styles of glasses to ensure each beverage is accented appropriately when consumed. Lagers are usually fermented in cool temperatures and have a crisp taste, so a long, tall glass gives the drink an added punch to go with the refreshing flavor. Goblets work great for malty, heavy beer, such as dark ales, as the wide mouth allows the drinker to take in all of the aromas. Smell can be just as important as taste.

The wrong glass and the scent of the drink can either be too overwhelming, or inversely, get lost in the atmosphere before the fragrance can truly be appreciated.

While it’s clear Tokyo breweries go above and beyond in the taste, scent, and look of a beer, a tap house dedicated to tantalizing all the senses will not stop there. Not only will they want their beer to be tasted, they want it to be felt. Carbonation levels are studied and altered to create a fizziness that matches the flavor. Natural carbonation occurs in beer in different ways depending on level of sugar and length of fermentation. Beers such as stouts tend to run flatter than most, which makes for a full bodied swig where none of the flavors are numbed by the carbonation. Lagers and ales typically contain higher levels of fizz, a feature that accents the fruity and hoppy flavors traditionally associated with these styles of beer.

Tokyo is a city with a rich history of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, and their drinking culture is no different. As craft breweries grow in popularity throughout Japan and around the world, there will hopefully be more and more international hubs to travel to for beer lovers from every corner of the globe.