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The Blossoming Of Ji-Biru

Traveling Connoisseur: The Blossoming Of Ji-Biru

In Ushiku, an hour outside Tokyo via crowded trains where people are stacked up like slices of fresh fish on a sushi counter, a microbrewer is isolating the yeast found on cherry blossom flowers in order to ferment his yearly Sakura Kobo, or cherry blossom yeast wild ale, part of the country's thriving ji-biru movement.

In Shibu Onsen, a couple miles into the mountains east of Nagano where snow macaques bathe in natural thermal pools, another brewer is walking through his rice, hop and fruit fields, planning the brewing season ahead, inspired by his crop yield.

In Kofu, where the southern point of view is dominated by the elegant giant that is Mount Fuji, yet another brewer is throwing ume plums into his 14 percent ABV barleywine in order to give his wine yeast some extra fodder.

On a large scale, the Japanese craft beer scene may not have found its own identity yet, but a deeper look reveals that microbrewers in the Land of the Rising Sun have been finding fascinating ways to stand out. These craft brews, or ji-biru, aren’t nearly as rare as geisha sightings, if one knows where to go.

A Burgeoning Identity
The surreal white tree canvases during cherry blossom season have been the site of many a hanami, a ritual party for viewing the new flowers. It’s not much of a surprise that Tomoyuki Kakui, a brewer and microbiologist once thought, inspired by this traditional moment of spring revelry, of taking one of the flowers under a microscope in order to see what it could hold. Chateau Kamiya, also Japan’s oldest winery, is the brewery in Ushiku where one can taste find this experimental cherry blossom yeast brew every spring. Its delicate floral bouquet flows towards banana esters, herbal hops and light wilderness for a refreshingly different quencher, one far less intense than the Brettanomyces-laden brews popping up around America in the last decade.

A handful of Japanese breweries have also embarked on this wild cherry blossom yeast adventure, which is not surprising considering the high number of cherry blossom-based food products available around springtime in Japan. If they choose to develop this yeast, the Japanese hold the perfect ingredient to forge a distinct identity.

Up on the cool mountain slopes of the Nagano prefecture, crops of all kinds are being put to use in another brewer’s creations. From the ubiquitous rice to buckwheat, from fruit and vegetables to a newly named endemic hop variety called Shinshuwase (actually a blend of Saaz and a wild Japanese cultivar), everything that grows here is subject to being used in one of Eigo Sato’s refined ales.


Chateau Kamiya’s Sakura Kobo beer, fermented with wild yeast found on cherry blossoms.

This eighth generation entrepreneur, who operates the Shiga Kogen brewery with his savvy two-man brew crew after his forefathers had concentrated on the family sake brewery, is indeed crafting some of the most characterful beers Japan has ever tasted. Super aromatic new world IPAs of all colors and strengths are joined by saisons imbued with modern flair by a fair sprinkling of Miyama sake rice here and there. Impeccable execution, openness to different brewing cultures and intelligent use of local ingredients make Shiga Kogen a champion of the country’s brewing scene. An image of the torii, the traditional gate at the entrance of Shinto shrines, should be stuck to every glass of Shiga Kogen Oak-Aged Saison One to show that it contains a passage to higher realms.

This use of high quality rice seems to be another way for the Japanese brewers to set themselves apart. Swan Lake Beer, from the scarcely visited Niigata prefecture, brews Koshi Hikari Lager with the namesake sake rice. Its well developed barley malt and rice character sets the stage for a meticulous Noble hop display reminiscent of some Czech brewed Svetly 10˚. Rice adds delicate subtleties to the beer’s flavor environment much like the tinkling of bells does to an onsen, or hot spring spa, and there is no need to strip down to bare essentials in order to bask in its soothing currents. Sadly though, rice is still known as a cheap source of sugar for brewing; mostly because of the country’s macrobreweries and their characterless use of what some Japanese call “an alternative to oxygen.” Detractors obviously haven’t laid lips on Hitachino Nest’s captivating Red Rice Ale and some of the other delicacies from the brewer known by its owl symbol.

Overprotection Hinders Maturity
The special brews striving to forge a local beer identity are far from the norm in Japan. The four megabreweries (Sapporo, Suntory, Asahi and Kirin) still dominate the scene with their German-style lagers. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with most of what they are brewing, the system put in place by the Japanese government at the beginning of the 20th Century, as well as the cheaper prices at which these breweries can sell, nearly obliterated any attempts at brewing something different, something truly Japanese.

Major efforts were made as early as 1906 to stop the proliferation of smaller breweries. Initially, these measures were meant to protect the growing beer businesses already in place by making sure smaller local producers did not compete with the bigger brewers. In 1908, a change in the taxing laws introduced a yearly minimum quantity of beer to be produced, set at 1,500 barrels. That number rose to 150,000 barrels in 1940 and 156,000 barrels in 1959, making it virtually impossible for a new brewery to open.

Thankfully, that law was adjusted in 1994 and brewers have since been asked to only brew “at least” five barrels in a year. As a result, in the last 20 years or so, close to 200 new breweries have come on line. The vast majority of these breweries, understandably, try to emulate the best of Germany. That’s what they have been exposed to and what beer is about for them.


Even though you can dine on raw fish innards, Beer Belly Tenma in Osaka looks like many beer bars in the Occident.

As an indirect result of these teachings from bigger breweries, some of the best craft breweries in Japan, still today, offer excellent, authentic renditions of German styles. Fujizakura Kogen, for example, has one of the most impressive weizen’s going outside of Bavaria. Set near the base of Mount Fuji, this brewery sits right next door to one of those theme parks for dogs. The brewery owns the Sylvans restaurant, a huge building where brewer Miyashita Hiromichi’s wares wow beer travelers and hikers alike, who are brought in by the hordes on free buses from the nearby lake town of Kawaguchiko. The Rauch brew also could sit right next to a krug of Spezial in Bamberg and experienced tasters might think it comes from a Franconian brewer unknown to them.

The same could be said of the Bavarian-inspired brews of Otaru Beer. Based in a canal town on Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost island, this talented brewer has now reached Tokyo through its Beer Horn bar. Even if the gimmicky horn-shaped glasses detract from the bubbly show of prowess master brewer Johannes Braun can deliver, the place remains a vibrant reminder of the Japanese’s ability to imitate. The Pilsner, for example, possesses an intricate hop signature which displays spicy, citrusy herbs that freshen up the crunchy, straw-like base malts.


Otaru Beer Weizen is served in this strange albeit photogenic horn-shaped glass at its Tokyo restaurant, The Beer Horn.

The colorful izakayas everywhere around the country though, where the tie-wearing salarymen join after work for a few pints and snacks in traditional Japanese decor, are exclusively serving beers from the aforementioned “Big Four.” One would expect the microbreweries to want to integrate this market because these often tiny, atmospheric bars are not run by large companies and are rarely chains. They are often locally owned by small entrepreneurs, a market not unlike craft breweries in a way. But the bridge hasn’t been crossed yet.

Craft beer bars, on the other hand, are trying to reach a crowd seeking modernity, openness to the world, which sometimes results in bland I-could-be-anywhere-in-the-world on the visual front. Some excellent establishments like Tokyo’s Watering Hole or Osaka’s Craft Beer Kamikaze or Q-Brick, for example, look like they could anywhere in the Occident, from San Francisco to contemporary London.

Devil Craft, a recent addition to Tokyo’s rapidly expanding bar scene, sometimes ignores the local ji-biru, or craft selection, to make room for American micros on tap. It also specializes in Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Similar story for Shibuya’s Craft Heads, where you can find a larger selection of bourbon than most quality bars in America. These places are godsends for hardcore craft beer lovers looking for the most varied and elaborate beer lists. But don’t look for a typically Japanese experience beyond the ji-biru that flows from the tap handles.

No Tipping, And Other Such Tips
Getting lost trying to find an address, whether it’s a brewery or your hotel, is part of the Japanese experience. And it’s one of the first aspects of traveling which will burst your occidental convenience bubble. You’re jet-lagged but very excited, you’ve written down the address of the first beer bar you want to try out and you know the train station you have to reach. The rest can’t be wizardry, right? Without a GPS device, it might be. Reality hits: street names are more often than not absent from street corners and door numbers are in no clearly understandable order. And then alleyways don’t always appear on official maps, which can mean the “third on the right” is a narrow path towards the unknown.

The best way to find what you want: plan ahead and write down landmarks instead of street names. Something like close up: Shinjuku station, east exit, walk towards the Green Peas pachinko building, turn left after walking by Green Peas and walk on that street until the first temple on your right. And so forth. Using this method to get you around should lead you to your purveyor of choice as efficiently as a sushi master’s knife slicing through a piece of sumptuous chutoro tuna.

Whether visiting a lively izakaya to check out how typical Japanese raise elbows, or a craft beer bar where ji-biru brewers’ most recent delights are on display, some basic knowledge of pub etiquette should also help you ease into the first tulip glass.


Fujizakura Kogen’s Pils is a perfect match to gigantic shrimp tempura.

First, remember that most craft beer bars are seen as upmarket establishments where people consume a luxury product. Prices for a pint can be much higher than lagers from the “Big Four,” just like some farmer’s perfect strawberry baskets at the market can go for many times the price of the mainstream, slightly-dented strawberries next to it. For example, when a guest walks in, a server will immediately come to see him to ask how many people there are in his party. This is when a reservation can come in handy. Most craft beer places in cities are cramped holes-in-the-wall, and thus get full rather quickly. When a bar is a priority, it’s always a good idea to reserve ahead of time – as if you were going to a high-end restaurant.

In any case, the server will take you to your seat as soon as you tell him the number of guests in your party. Contrary to some North American practices, this diligent type of service is not done for tips. In fact, tipping is seen as reprehensible behavior, a bit like bribing. Try it and the server may laugh uncontrollably, start blushing, or try to look away, flustered. The servers’ seemingly exaggerated courteousness is not displayed because they are looking for an extra on your part. Even if they follow the guest out onto the street to bow farewell, that’s just what they do and they’re paid decently to do it.

Once seated, the last potential obstacle to a successful evening will quickly become apparent – the lack of an English menu. And that means, of course, you can’t even deduce something because you can’t decipher one single word on the beer list. One obvious solution is to look at the tap handles. These can sometimes help to give you the name of the brewery. But more often than not, the handles will not help you out much. What you can do though is ask your server to read the menu for you… in Japanese, mind you. From their reading and pronunciation, you can at least understand a few brewery names or beer styles.

Asking a bartender to speak English is sometimes another way to create discomfort. This is true even in megalopolises like Tokyo. Waiters are often shy if their English isn’t perfect and will refuse to answer you in other languages than Japanese… even if they understand you.

The Japanese identity brings out large doses of perfectionism, no doubt. One can always hope more and more brewers follow this path and stay authentic and true to who they are.


Eigo Sato, master brewer of the Shiga Kogen brewery.

A New Spring In Sight
All signs point towards the Japanese craft beer scene gaining an influx of talent and creativity. Luc ‘Bim’ Lafontaine, for example, former head brewer at the Montreal’s Dieu du Ciel brewpub, will be setting up his own brewery near the temple town of Nikko. Known for his elegant sour ales and mouth-watering use of Japanese ingredients at the world-renowned Québécois brewpub, he will surely regale Japanese craft beer lovers with recreations of his Noce de Soie, Ochamena Bi-ru, Toji Bi-ru and Yuzu Blanche, among other brews. All intelligently juxtapose ingredients like sancho peppercorns, green tea, ume plums, shiso leaves and yuzu rinds with acidic fermentation characters for tantalizing results the likes of which the Land of the Rising Sun has never seen. This can help the country showcase its high potential.

Many of the thousands of people crossing the street every minute in front of Tokyo’s Shibuya station might never know of the pleasures derived from Japan’s own gardens and creativity when it comes to beer. But the rest of the world may well latch on to such tasty idiosyncrasies like they already have with some of Hitachino Nest’s liquid wonders: Japanese Classic Ale, matured in cedar casks commonly used in the sake world, and XH, matured in shochu, or distilled sake, barrels. Along with growth of demand in the local market, this in turn can help the identity of ji-biru blossom to maturity just like the cherry trees every awe-inspiring spring.


Spent grain from Shiga Kogen is taken to its rice fields.