Craft breweries the best-kept secret on Okinawa

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

With big-brand mega brewers like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory pumping out scarcely varied versions of Super Dry, “Ichibanshibori” (first-squeeze malt juice), Black Label and Malts, many assume that Japan’s beers are as homogenous as its population. It’s not an unwarranted assumption.

It’s also not entirely true.

What lies beneath the suds of an industry that dominates the nation’s taps and shelves with run-of-the-mill pilsner-style brews may not be a ‘sleeping giant.’ But microbreweries in the Land of the Rising Sun are bigger than most might think.

There are currently about 200 Japanese microbreweries crafting unique beers from Hokkaido to Okinawa, according to Japan Brewers Association, a group of small local breweries. The fruits of their labors may be enjoyed largely on local level, but craft brewing is alive and well in Japan – and the nearest microbrewery may be closer than you think.

After more than a century, Japan finally lowered its minimum yearly requirement for commercial beer production from 2 million liters (530,000 gallons) to 60,000 liters, opening up the market to more than just the mass producers. And after two decades of trial and error, Japanese microbrewers say they are finally getting it right.

“When we started brewing in 1998, we didn’t have good knowledge or expertise in craft brewing,” says Konosuke Minematsu of Mojiko Retro Beer. “We had to dispose of a full tanks of beer repeatedly. But that trial and error enabled us to finally produce beers with well-balanced malt and hop flavors.”

Using traditional European brewing methods, Mojiko Retro now produces about 700 litters of high-quality craft beer at a time. It boasts a pale ale, pilsner, amber, lager and weizen served up in its adjacent restaurant in Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka Prefecture, along with beautiful sunsets.

It’s a reoccurring theme now that the dust has settled after a microbrew boom that spurred as many as 300 microbrewers at one time in the 1990s, according to Japan Brewers Association. And those remaining have carved out a niche that’s all their own.

“As small breweries, we can produce more diversified more regionally oriented handmade beers,” says Yasumi Koganei, president of both Koganei Shuzo Brewery and the brewers association.

“At Koganei Shuzo Brewery, we mostly spend our energy on ales, as each has its own particular flavor from the malt and hops that allow consumers to get the most out of a craft beer,” he said. “We also try our hand at original beers that use local agricultural products. We are also brewing cherry, “kabosu” lime and peach beers.”

Craft brewers are riding this trend both to reach traditional non-beer drinkers, such as women, as well as to give their beers that distinct local edge. Flavors range from local fruits to “goya,” or bitter melon brews in Okinawa where at least four craft brewers have successful suds stories of their own to tell.

“Comparable with European and American craft beers, Japanese craft beers are well balanced in both taste and aroma,” says Aska Matsuda, general manager of Helios Distillery on Okinawa. “I think that is because the refined food culture of Japan requires the same subtle nuances as craft beer.”

According to Koganei, 30 percent of breweries now into craft brewing originally brewed or distilled traditional alcoholic beverages such as sake or “shochu” spirits.

“My brewery is primary an ‘awamori’ (Okinawan liquor) distiller,” Matsuda says. “I feel our know-how for awamori distilling helped us transition to craft beer smoothly.”

One of the carryovers from traditional Japanese distilling and brewing is carefully selecting the water. It can also as much a source of local pride as it is a prized ingredient.

Okinawa’s Nanto Craft Brewery, for example, credits the quality and taste of its “Nihede Beer” (a play on the Okinawan word for thank you) to 100 percent pure malt and spring water from Gyokusendo limestone cave, dubbed one of Japan’s best 100 water sources. While Oirase Beer near famed Mount Hakkoda in Aomori Prefecture, boasts traditional Czech brewing and Oirase mountain river water.

Masanori Takahashi, of Okinawa’s Miyakojima Microbrewery, explains in mouth-watering detail why it’s about more than just bragging rights when it comes to his craft beer.

“Our Coral Ale is brewed with the deep waters off Miyakojima Island, which contains lots of minerals, just like in Barton, England, where the ale we brew originated,” he says. “We focus more on aroma than hoppiness. Our Coral Dark is a dark ale with a blend of bitter and roasted malt flavors, and the aroma and sweet taste of brown sugar.”

Just as local brews can reflect regional pride, they can also give way to longtime cultural influences – even some familiar to the military.

Ishigakijima Brewery in Okinawa, for example, touts a special Marine Beer lager, a tacit nod the longstanding U.S. military presence there. Kure Brewery in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, on the other hand, prizes its “Kaigunsan no Beeru,” or Sailor Beer, so named for the brewery’s location near a former Imperial Navy shipyard.

So how can you best enjoy these locally crafted beers?

First off, have your cash ready. All beer is heavily taxed in Japan, pushing up pricing on standard brews from about 1,300 yen ($11.40) for a six pack to 500-800 yen per glass at a pub. Expect to pay at least half as much more for microbrew. Whether connoisseur or casual sipper, however, you’ll likely find many of these local brews well worth the price.

Many microbreweries home deliver, but the best way to savor what they have to offer is visit and enjoy their beers fresh from the tap. Many have their own pub or restaurant, and a few even offer facility tours.

So saddle up with your savings and a designator driver, then get over to your nearest microbrewery for a handcrafted ice-cold taste of Okinawa.

Keeping it cold

Caring for a good handcrafted beer can be an art in itself.

Craft beer usually contains live yeast that will not last long without refrigeration. So be sure to keep it refrigerated and enjoy it while it’s fresh – within a couple of months.

The ideal storage temperature varies depending on the kind of beer. Lagers are best stored and consumed between 37-41 degrees Fahrenheit, while around 50 degrees is ideal for ales, depending on the season, according to Nanto Craft Brewery’s Seizo Ganaha and Mojiko Retro Beer’s Konosuke Minematsu. Due, in part, to their optimum temperatures, ales are good winter beers.

Stouts porters unsweetened fruit lambics are best served between 45-54 dgress, while pilsners, American “macro” brews, weizens and sweet fruit ales do best at 39-45 degrees, according to

When in doubt, always refer to the labels, brochures or ask your brewer for the ideal temperature.

Also, don’t forget to chill that glass before filling it. A chilled glass contributes greatly to the full enjoyment of a good beer, according to Yuta Maeda of Helios Distillery.

Beer & taxes - 2 things you can't do without

A 350 milliliter can of brand-name beer (about 11.8 ounces) sells for around 220 yen ($1.95) in Japan.

Do you know how much liquor tax is imposed on it?

Japan’s Liquor Tax Law sets the tax rates in accordance with the type of liquors, and for beer it is 220,000 yen ($2, 000) per 1,000 liters.  That means you pay 77 yen in taxes on the 220 yen can of beer.

The tax rate for sake, on the other hand, is only 120,000 yen per 1,000 liters. So for the same amount of that alcoholic beverage you only pay 42 yen in taxes.

Wait. That’s not all.

There is a difference in the alcohol contents of beer and sake. While sake has about 15 percent alcohol, beer contains only about 5 percent. So the tax on the actual alcohol in each beverage is 15. 4 yen per one percent vs 2.8 yen, respectively. Technically, liquor tax on beer is 5.5 times more than that of sake, depending on the amount of alcohol.

So, why is Japan’s beer tax so high?

When the government first imposed taxes on alcoholic beverages, beer was an imported alcoholic beverage that was not popular with locals. It was only enjoyed at high-end establishments frequented by the wealthy. So the government imposed high-end “luxury tax” on this imported high-end item.

In order to get around this in recent years, breweries have produced beer-like beverages, such as “happoshu” (carbonated alcoholic beverages) and “zasshu” (third beer). They skirted the law by skimping on the amount of traditional ingredients in beer such as malt and hops. The taste is nowhere near as good as the real thing, but the price – because the taxes imposed on them are lower – can’t be beat.

Why not just lower the tax rate now that beer is produced locally and no longer item in Japan?

“The tax on beer cannot be compared with taxes of other alcoholic beverages like as ‘shochu’ (liquor) and sake because each liquor has its own culture and history,” explained a Tax Bureau spokesperson in Japan’s Ministry of Finance who declined to give his name. “The difference in alcohol content is not the issue – each has its own culture.”

Besides, the unnamed official argued, “Although the Government of Japan continuously raised the tax rate on between 1968 and 1984, tax revenues from beer kept pace. The government considers that as evidence that the beer industry can cope with the high tax rates.”

Top- and bottom-fermented beers

Top-fermented beer and bottom-fermented refer to the type of yeast used in brewing beer. Bottom-fermented beers are fermented at a temperature of between 25-50 degrees Fahrenheit, the yeast that’s produced sinks to the bottom of the tank. Top-fermented beers are produced between 59 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit and the yeast rises to the top.  Pale ales, stouts and porters are among top-fermented beers, while lagers, bocks and pilsners are bottom fermented.

Pale Ale Top fermentation
Representing English ale. Compared to pilsner, it looks more amber colored. It has strong aroma and strong bitterness.

Bitter Ale Top fermentation
The most common beer served at pubs in England.

Weizen Top fermentation
Using about 60 percent of wheat malt along with general barley malts, it has particular aroma with almost no bitter taste. It contains live yeast and is very popular beer in Germany.

Koelsch Top fermentation
A local specialty beer brewed in Cologne, Germany. It is clear with a bright, straw-yellow hue, and has a prominent but not extreme hoppiness. It is less bitter than the standard German pale lager. In this region, there is a regulation that the yeast must be filtered out before serving.

Pilsner Bottom fermented beer
Today, this beer is main stream throughout the world. A German engineer invented this beer in Pilsen, Czech.

Helles, and other German light color beer
Bottom fermented beer

American Beer
Bottom fermented beer

Lager Beer
Bottom fermented beer

Amber . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mild Ale and Brown Ale Top fermentation
A mild ale that is light flavored and less bitter that was originally made for steel plant workers. Brown ale is produced by putting mild ale and sugar into a bottle and ferment it.

Wiener Top fermentation
Lager beer made from brown Vienna malt.

Marzen Bottom fermented beer
Munich beer traditionally brewed in March. This beer has a full body, and is brewed the same as Wiener beer.

Dark . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Porter Top fermentation
Brewed by blending several ales. This beer was popular among laborers in the during England’s Industrial Reformation.

Stout Top fermentation
This beer has aroma of roasted malts and a hoppy bitterness. Guinness is perhaps the most well-known brand of stout.

Alt Top fermentation
This beer is brewed like an English ale in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Lambic Natural fermented beer
This beer uses wild yeast collected around Brussels in Belgium. After brewing with the wild yeast, the beer is aged in wooden casks for one or two years.

Dunkel Bottom fermented beer
General term for German black beer.

Munchner Bottom fermented beer
Traditional black beer brewed in Bavaria. The taste is mild and less bitter.

Bockbier Bottom fermented beer
This beer was born in Einbeck (northern Germany) and has widely been brewed in Bavaria. It has high alcohol content, strong aroma and is bitter.

Raochbie Bottom fermented beer
This beer is brewed in Bamberg (northern Bavaria). The malt is smoked with beech wood, giving the beer particularly smoky aroma and flavor.

Information provided by Japan Brewers Association

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