For many of us Westerners, Japanese beer translates to pretty much one thing: frothy, crystal clear adjunct lagers like Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi, downed by the pint alongside sushi, salty shrimp tempura, and steamy, hangover-curing bowls of tonkotsu ramen. And while there’s nothing wrong with indulging in the wasabi-tempering powers of mass-produced light beer, curious drinkers will be happy to learn that the land of sake and shochu is also home to an increasingly vocal crop of ultra-creative microbrewers dedicated to putting a new face on their country’s beer reputation. And these innovators aren’t just making great beer, they’re redefining the category itself, experimenting with native ingredients and methods while maintaining a sky-high level of quality and craftsmanship.
“Japanese produce is well known around the world -- cube-shaped watermelons, individual tomatoes that come wrapped up, or a bunch of grapes that cost more than a month's salary. It's famous,” explains Rob Bright, a craft beer expert and British transplant behind the Japanese beer blog BeerTengoku. “And those products also get used in beer. You'll see yuzu, which is a Japanese citrus with a lemony flavor, oranges, cherries, peaches, apples -- these aren't one-offs, these regularly get made and you can find them on the shelves. Beer is made with local grain, wheat, rye malt, spices like sancho and wasabi. I've even seen a salmon pale ale.”
If the idea of fish beer is turning you off, think again. Perfectionism is integral to Japanese business culture and even the most offbeat craft breweries aren’t immune to these standards. That means that just about every bottle you come across has been painstakingly refined and manufactured to please.