Japan is home to beer’s great sibling, sake, and the fourth largest beer market in the world. Although sake is a wonderful and complex drink, in Japan it runs a very distant second to beer. Although there is some indication that beer was introduced to Japan by Dutch traders in the 17th century, it surely did not become established there until the late 1800s. After Commodore Perry signed the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, an influx of British and German beer quickly outstripped American beer sales. On August 27, 1869, The Daily Japan Herald ran an article declaring that a man named Rosenfeld had opened the Japan Brewery in Yokohama. The Japan Brewery was run by an American, Emil Wiegand, and apparently stayed in business until 1874, having primarily sold its beer to foreigners doing business in Japan. He had had competition from the Norwegian American Johan Martinius Thoresen, who changed his name to William Copeland after emigrating to the United States. Copeland’s Spring Valley Brewery opened in 1870 and after some years of success, finally faltered and went bankrupt in 1884. By 1888, this brewery reopened under new ownership, selling a new beer called Kirin. In the meantime, Seibei Nakagawa had returned from Germany to Japan in 1876, having studied brewing there for 2 years. He was appointed chief engineer of the newly built Kaitakushi Brewery in the Aoyama area of Tokyo. This became the first Japanese-owned brewery; when it was sold in 1886 it was renamed the Sapporo Brewery. The Osaka Beer Brewing Company, later renamed after its best-selling Asahi (rising sun) beer, was established in 1889. Japan’s three largest brewers were well under way by the 1890s, and the standard beer of Japan, taking after the German and American beers of the day, was a variant of golden export lager. Over most of the next century, Japanese beer changed very little. In 1987 Asahi launched Super Dry, a highly attenuated lager that did not have the heavier maltiness of the beers made by Asahi’s rival, Kirin. With a crisp, dry taste similar to beers from northern Germany, Super Dry soon carved out a large share of the market, and in the process many of the other popular lagers became “drier” as well.

However, there were more interesting things slowly happening in the Japanese beer scene. From the late 1980s, Tokyo and other major Japanese cities in Japan were experiencing a small boom in Belgian ales, particularly Trappist beers. A small specialty bar, called Brussels, opened in Tokyo, followed by a few others. Most notable among them is Bois Cereste, a favorite of the late Michael Jackson during his Tokyo visits. Although the popularity of Belgian beer in Japan has been small, the love of these beers by Japanese enthusiasts has been enduring, and interest has steadily grown over the past 20 years. There are now nearly 40 Belgian beer bars in Tokyo and perhaps about half as many spread throughout Japan’s other major cities.

Craft beers from the United States have also been imported into Japan since the 1990s, alongside beers from Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.

Another major shift in the Japanese beer scene occurred in 1994 with the relaxation of brewery license regulations. Previously, yearly production of 2 million l of beer was necessary to license a brewery. This was dropped to 60,000 l annually, enabling the opening of smaller breweries that could produce craft beer, or ji-biru.

Japan’s first microbrewery, Echigo Beer of Niigata prefecture, held their opening party in December of 1994 and opened for business the following month. The new brewpub had a design that reminded many of a modern European church, and their beer was based on popular American microbrewed styles of the time. Their pale ale, amber ale, and stout were found to be of surprisingly good quality, and Japanese craft brewing was off and running.

Little by little, the craft brew industry in Japan grew, despite the collapse of the economy around the same time. Although Japanese consumers have a particular appreciation for high-quality food and drink, they were entirely unfamiliar with craft beer, and many Japanese craft brewers seemed not to be entirely familiar with it themselves.

One reason is likely to be the fact that that homebrewing is still illegal in Japan. Without a homebrewing culture—no clubs, no contests, and, in the end, no breeding ground for would-be brewmasters—Japan struggled to build a craft beer culture. Brewers visited from overseas, usually Germany or the United States, but most stayed only months at a time, training local Japanese brewers to brew bolder, more interesting beers.

Some 175 breweries opened in Japan between 1995 and 1999, followed by around 100 more through 2005. Since then, however, new openings have slowed to a trickle, and no great burst of new craft breweries appears to be on the horizon. However, craft beer does have a genuine foothold in Japan. Anyone seeking it there might be advised to visit Beer Club Popeye in Tokyo. Located opposite Ryogoku station, near the famous sumo wrestling stadium, Popeye was founded in 1985 as a western-style pub by Tatsuo Aoki. The pub was an early adopter of Japanese-brewed craft beer. From three taps in 1995, the number grew to 20 in 1998, 40 in 2002, and 70 by 2008. The beer enthusiast contingent that frequented Popeye held Japan’s first Real Ale Festival in the early spring of 2003 at the pub. The event spurred them to form a club for beer consumers, first called the Real Ale Club, and then quickly broadened to the Good Beer Club at the founding meeting in January 2004. Some members were soon disappointed that the group did not agitate to lower beer taxes or legalize homebrewing, but the group remains active and hosts regular tasting events. In recent years, a number of pubs specializing in craft beer have sprung up throughout Tokyo and in most other major Japanese cities.

Today, Japan has a very diverse beer culture, and most craft beers are well made and nicely balanced. However, the beer market in Japan is still strongly centered around the mass-produced lagers and low-malt beers produced by the four major brewers. These low-malt beers, called happo-shu, are usually 25% malt or less, with the rest made up by other starches or sugars. Happo-shu can contain up to 65% malt before being reclassified as beer.

This is an important factor because Japanese beer taxes are high—some 222 yen (about US $2.50) per liter. This makes the cost of an ordinary six-pack of standard lager as high as US $15. Taxes on happo-shu are far lower and the drink appeared as a way of offering cheaper beer, with a six-pack costing as little as about US $8. On the other hand, six bottles of the least expensive craft beer will run about US $18 and often nearly twice as much. Japanese craft brewers import most of their ingredients and production equipment, a fact that has allowed foreign craft and traditional beers to enter the market at competitive prices.

As of 2011 there was talk of the Japanese government effecting a significant reworking of beer taxes, and it is possible that any changes will diminish the appeal of low-malt happo-shu while proving advantageous to craft brewers. Still, Japan is a place where dramatic change remains rare, and craft brewers there forge ahead in the knowledge that the path is likely to remain rocky.