When you first mention beer, most people probably associate this beverage with the sweltering summer as it is deemed as the best thirst quencher. However, have you ever considered drinking this during the cold winter? How about diving into the world of Japanese craft beers this season and find out what makes them so appealing?
In Japan, craft beer is sometimes known by the name jibiru (地ビール), or local beer. Craft beer producers or microbreweries are usually small in size so the production volume is relatively restricted compared to major manufacturers. Each producer has their signature way of fermentation and a unique blend of ingredients, thus giving birth to an amazing variety of beers with different colors and tastes.
It’s been said that there are more than 2,000 craft beer producers located all over Japan so no matter where you go, you won’t be far from a microbrewery.
Since there are so many types of craft beers in Japan, how do you know which to choose? Don’t worry – you can rely on craft beer events and competitions, such as the recently-concluded Japan Brewers Cup 2017, for some ideas on which brands are considered the best.
Japan Brewers Cup is an event consisting of two segments – a beer competition and a beer festival. In 2017’s edition, held between January 27 and January 29 at Yokohama Osanbashi Hall, industry professionals chose the top six winners in four categories: pilsner, wheat, IPA and dark, from more than 200 entries. At the same time, the public got to sample as many as 210 types of craft beers at prices as low as 300 yen per cup during the evenings.
Here is an introduction to three of the brands which won awards in 2017’s contest, and what you can expect to see, do and feast on during a visit to their breweries.
Taiyo no Lager, or Sun’s Lager, comes from Miyazaki Hideji Beer Company, which is based at the foot of Mount Mukabaki (行縢山) in northern Miyazaki Prefecture. Compared to the two other breweries featured in this article, Hideji is relatively young. It was set up as a business segment of an oil distribution company in 1996 when there was a boom in craft beers, thanks to the easing of regulations regarding alcohol taxes at that time. However, when the hype subsequently died down, the company was faced with a tough decision of whether to exit the brewery business by the mid 2000s.
It was in 2006 when the company managed to cultivate its own yeast and went through extensive research to refine its products in a bid to save the business. By November 2011, the company was re-established under its current name and became independent of its previous company to become the only craft beer maker in Miyazaki Prefecture. Since then, they have also participated in various projects to support agricultural products in the area by incorporating local produce such as kinkan (kumquat; 金柑), mango, yuzu (ユズ), purple yam and wheat in their beer and wine.
Taiyo no Lager is a regular winner of many craft beer competitions such as the Gold Award in the 2009 and 2011 Asia Beer Cup, and the Gold Award in the 2009 International Beer Cup. In addition, it has been certified as a highly recommended product of the prefecture and won the Mayor’s award in the 2014 Osaka Beer Festival and Nagoya Beer Festival.
In 2017’s Japan Brewers Cup, it was the winner in the Pilsner style category. The brand name is meant to represent the bright sunshine in Miyazaki, and is said to be a fine balance of malt and hop with the use of fresh, homemade yeast to produce a refreshing and clean taste. It is recommended that you should drink this chilled at 5 degrees Celsius.
Tours of the brewery are held regularly throughout the day during opening hours. However, due to the potential dangers involved in entering the production areas, visitors can only observe the preparation room and fermentation tanks through glass windows and are not allowed to enter the internal parts of the brewery. Other than buying the brewery’s products via their website (Japanese only), you can visit the brewery’s shop to buy limited edition beers which cannot be found elsewhere.
In order to get to the brewery, you can take the Higashi Kyushu Expressway (東九州自動車道) and get off at Nobeoka Interchange before driving for another 20 minutes. If you are taking public transport, go to at JR Nobeoka Station and take a taxi ride which should last for about 30 minutes. It is recommended that you take a car if you can, as taxi rides can get very expensive.
Chateau Kamiya is a longstanding brewery at Ushiku City in Ibaraki Prefecture. It was Japan’s first wine brewery set up by Kamiya Denbee (神谷傳兵衛) in 1903. Although the business started with the import and production of grape wine, the company moved on gradually to produce a wide variety of products, including locally-made wines, craft beers, shochu (焼酎), whiskey, umeshu (梅集) and wine-infused foodstuffs.
In the craft beer line (Japanese only) produced by Ushiku Brewery, there are three regular brands. These include Pilsner, Helles and Dunkel, with another five brands which are available during limited periods of the year. Among these, Pilsner was ranked No.2 in the Pilsner Style category in Japan Brewers Cup 2017 and is said to have a floral aroma and refreshing bitterness thanks to the use of hop imported from Germany. Its Weizenbock (ヴァイツェンボック) also clinched the No.2 spot in the Wheat Style category.
Chateau Kamiya’s premise spans a whopping 60,000 square meters and offers lots of greenery in the form of flower fields, grape fields, a bamboo forest, a gingko forest, a mini waterfall and a landscaped garden. A number of its brick buildings that currently house the administration office, fermentation facilities, and storage facilities are more than 100 years old and have been designated as Important Cultural Properties by the government since June 2008.
Besides buying their products from their souvenir and wine shops, you can enjoy exquisite French cuisine at the restaurant Canon (レストラン キャノン) housed in the warehouse building. You can try dishes that go well with beer at La Terrasse D’oenon (ラ・テラスドゥオエノン), or head for the outdoors to enjoy a barbecue at the Barbecue Garden (バーベキューガーデン).
If you are interested in knowing more about the brewery’s history, the Kamiya Denbee Memorial Hall and Oenon Museum are must-sees. At the moment, however, the brewery has not listed any tours organized for the public on its website. As for those who would like to buy Chateau Kamiya’s products online, you can get them via the designated Rakuten page (Japanese only).
The brewery is open every day except during the New Year holidays, so if you happen to be traveling there around this period, it is highly recommended that you call the respective facilities and restaurants to check the opening days and hours.
For those taking public transport, you can go to JR Ushiku Station on the Joban Line and walk for about 8 minutes from the Chateau Exit. If you are driving, you can take the Joban Expressway, get off at Tsukuba Ushiku Interchange before going along National Route 408. Parking will be charged at 100 yen per hour where the maximum to be charged on weekdays is 300 yen. This limit is not applicable on weekends and public holidays.
IPA American Style from Shonan Beer which was ranked No.6 in the IPA Style category, actually comes from Kumazawa Brewing Company (熊澤酒造株式会社) based in Chigasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture, and is the sole surviving brewery in the Shonan area. Since its inception in 1872, the brewery has been making a limited quantity of Japanese wine, using ingredients sourced locally. Its beer is made without heating the yeast, thus they have a fresh taste and can only be kept chilled up to 60 days after production. The copper-coloured IPA American Style is made from American hop with a citrus aroma and a clean, bitter taste.
If you are keen on visiting the brewery, you will have to contact them in advance using the online form (Japanese only). The company operates a number of restaurants on the brewery’s premises in Chigasaki, such as:
- Tensei (天青), which specializes in Japanese cuisine
- MOKICHI TRATTORIA, which features Italian cuisine
- mokichi wurst cafe, which uses organic ingredients mainly from farmers in Chigasaki
- mokichi baker&sweets, which offers baked goods and desserts made with minimal yeast and North American and domestic wheat
The area also offers a shop, the okeba gallery & shop (Japanese only), which promotes creations from artists in the Shonan area, vintage furniture and items, secondhand books and holds periodic exhibitions and workshops.
To get to the brewery, you can take the JR Sagami Line from Chigasaki Station (茅ヶ崎駅) and get off at Kagawa Station (香川駅) before walking for another 7 minutes.
Now that you’ve read about these award-winning craft beers, how about planning a visit to these featured breweries and experience the charm of Japan’s craft beers this winter?