A New Wave of Japanese Beer

  • From Left: Kyoto Yamadanishiki Ale [#2036, 11.15 oz], Kyoto Kuromame Ale [#2996, 11.15 oz], Kyoto White Yuzu Ale [#2997, 11.15 oz], Kyoto Kurano Kaori Ale [#2037, 11.15 oz]

Are you suffering from craft beer fatigue? Skeptics threaten the craft beer bubble will burst, but everyday consumers’ wallets keep sending the same, clear message as popularity, demand, and market shares increase: “We want more,” and Japanese beer is no exception. Previously, the only Japanese options America had for beer were Kirin, Sapporo, and Asahi. These are all customer-favorites for a crisp, clean lager, but need to compete at the same, lower price point as stalwart, European lagers. They also fall short of the demand for full-flavored, artisan beers. Summer will be here soon, and as temperatures warm, a wave of new options are reaching American shores. Adding a higher, gourmet tier to the beer menu can increase sales, create more pairing options to enjoy, and elevate the dining experience.

Superior Japanese Craftsmanship

With Japan’s long craft alcohol traditions in Sake, distilled Shochu, and nearly a century of whisky production, a fair question might be, “What took so long?” Ji-beer, Japanese craft beer, shares many traits Japanese cuisine excels in - an emphasis on high-quality ingredients, seasonality, local sourcing, and attention to detail, but for most of the 20th Century, large-scale lager producers cornered the market, shaping the appetite and image of beer. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when Japan relaxed their liquor tax laws to finally encourage more competition, and in 1994 Echigo Beer Co. in Niigata become Japan’s very first micro-beer brewery, with others following suit. Like all craft beer, Ji-Beer is small batch, utilizing premium malts, hops, and yeast, but the emphasis on drinkability, producing craft beers with a clean finish, and superlative focus on balance sets Ji-Beer apart.

Ji-Beer Terroir

Now, with more and more Japanese brews rolling in, identifying customers who happily pay more for the quality and selection craft beers offer can benefit any business. Lovers of craft beer enjoy a deeper sense of connection to the terroir, or regionality associated with where their beer comes from. From North to South, this is another area Japan wins out. Whether it be Echigo beer, who use Echigo-grown Koshihikari rice; or Kanazawa’s Hyakumangoku beers made in the north by farming their own, local barley; or Kinshachi, in Central Japan, who make a beer using Nagoya's famous red-miso.

Similarly, breweries all across Japan are differentiated by their surrounding ingredients, and their brewer’s unique tastes and techniques. Kyoto Brewing Company makes a white yuzu ale, beers with Sake koji, and even roasted, black beans their region of Tanba is known for. Some daring American craft brewers have also experimented with varying degrees of success, but it stands to reason Japanese brewers, who grew up in the same culinary culture with these ingredients, might have a special advantage in drawing out and balancing the characteristics of these fun and sometimes exotic flavors, to create uniquely Japanese-tasting beers.

Premiumization: Canned Beer

The broader trend toward gourmet, referred to as “premiumization”, has benefited the popularity of Japanese cuisine in particular. Supermarket cut rolls and cup-noodles are cheaper, but no one craves these quite like restaurant-quality sushi and ramen. For craft beer the latest trend in premiumization comes from canning. Canned beer is easier to transport, costs less, moreover improves freshness, and offers superior protection from light’s harmful UV rays which can ruin beer. Previously, consumers felt drinking from bottles provides a greater sense of refinement, but this advantage has diminished since craft beer culture encourages enjoying beer from a glass. Innovative brewers have also been adjusting and marketing their beers specifically to be enjoyed straight from the can, while other improvements in beer canning and label-wrapping have turned cans into canvas - with beautifully artistic labels and surprisingly satisfying textures, that improve both the aesthetic and tactile experience of holding a can in one's hand.

Regardless of the beer preferences, ignoring craft beer could hurt business bottom line. Premiumization of Japanese craft beer translates to a prime opportunity to increase sales for businesses. Skilled chefs and quality ingredients are difficult to source, but craft beer from Japan is readily available and simple to store, display, and sell. By familiarizing with the products, restaurants can easily provide guests with something delicious, authentic, and a bit more luxurious. More than just profit, Japanese craft beer can generate word-of-mouth buzz and happy customers.

Written by: Greg Beck for Mutual Trading Co., Inc.

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