Chances are, the only Japanese beers you know are the basic Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin served with your California roll and soba noodles. No longer. Japan's craft-beer industry is growing at a rate of 15 percent a year, according to the Japan Craft Beer Association. In 1994, when the laws changed to allow small-scale commercial brewing, there was exactly one microbrewery in the whole nation. Now there are more than 260.
Despite their vivid, showy labels, the brews are subtle. "Japan's beers are soft-touch products," says Geof Ryan, global wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, "sophisticated in a way that isn't just about over-the-top hops." That high-quality craft brewing has taken off in Japan makes perfect sense. "Sake is really closer to beer than wine," says George Kao, of sake and beer importer New York Mutual Trading, because the fermentation process of sake is more akin to beer brewing – extracting sugars from a grain – than winemaking. "After centuries of practice with sake, the Japanese are masters of fermentation," he says. Hitachino Nest, one of the country's most popular artisanal beermakers (and the first to export beer to the U.S.), was founded by a sake brewery; Eigo Sato of Tamamura-Honten brewery is an eighth-generation brewer whose family started bottling sake in 1805.
Though Japanese brewers have always had the technical skill needed to make beer, most of the key ingredients – hops and malt – have been shipped in from the U.S. or Europe. But today the best producers are incorporating local flavors in inventive ways. Red rice, sweet potatoes, and exotic fruits like yuzu and Satsuma oranges are all ingredients that make for exciting new brews. Launch Gallery >>
Tokyo Black Porter
This porter from can-only Yo-Ho Brewing in Nagano is less intimidating than it looks: With flavors of chocolate, coffee, and soy sauce (and just 5 percent alcohol), it goes down easy. [$5; 11.8 ounces; windycityliquor.com]
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco