Ten days in Japan isn’t a lot of time, especially if you and your group are travelling to 3 different cities over that time span. You keep a tight schedule if you want to see most of what you hoped to see. Luckily, our group had meticulously planned our trip in the weeks leading up to our departure. We all gave up some of the things we’d like to do, as there was no way to cram everything into the itinerary. However the one thing I would absolutely, positively, not give up was taking some time to explore the craft beer scene in Japan.
Some of you might wonder why would I bother with craft beer in Japan, when the prime beer vacation spots can all be found in the heart of Europe: Germany for its stern brewing tradition, establishing the modern beer production process while still dominating the styles they helped create; Belgium for its artistic take on classic recipes; and the Czech Republic for its beer obsession and its pride in being the birthplace of the pilsner, the most widely-consumed beer style in the world. However, I would say that Japan is now a definite stop for any self-respecting craft beer fan at some point in their life.
Although the craft beer boom only recently started in Japan, it has grown tremendously in a narrow timeframe, and the quality of their craft beer is on the rise. At this year’s World Beer Cup, a festival celebrating some of the best beer the world has to offer, Japanese breweries took home 9 medals, including 5 golds. The only two countries to beat Japan? The United States, who had the majority of the entries, and Germany, which is no surprise to anyone who has ever drank a beer.
Let me guide you through our group’s craft beer travels, and show you just how far Japan has come in the craft beer world.
SMOKE HOUSE APE – A Bit of America in Osaka
Our first real craft beer experience came at SMOKE HOUSE APE (yes, that is how they capitalize it) in Osaka. Our group had just finished wandering the streets of Amerikamura (a.k.a American Town) late in the evening, trying to work off the delicious okonomiyaki we had feasted upon next to the Dotonbori canal. With the help of Google Maps I was able to track down a few listed craft beer bars in the area, but the only one that was within reasonable walking distance was SMOKE HOUSE APE. And although Google Maps would screw us over with incorrect train times later in the evening, its suggestion for this place was spot on.
Some say that Japan takes good ideas and makes them smaller, and that holds true here. SMOKE HOUSE APE is very much like an American craft beer bar, only shrunk down to fit on the narrow second floor of an already tiny building. The spiral staircase leading up could barely fit a single person, and it still leaves me wondering how they even get kegs up there in the first place.
However, once we were up there, we were greeted by the gloriously bearded bartender, who looked like he belonged at a craft beer bar on this side of the ocean. Giant beards may be somewhat acceptable in the U.S., but you hardly see any facial hair in Japan, which gave this place a U.S. stamp of approval. Their menu quelled any remaining doubts I might have had. SMOKE HOUSE APE focused on Japanese craft brewers and kept their options unique while subtly varying the style. Some of my friends may argue that they had too many IPAs, but to me that’s a matter of opinion.
One thing I did notice was the pricing, which seemed a bit high, at about $9 for a pint. But then, you have to understand that 1) craft brewers of this caliber are relatively new and are still a bit of a luxury, and 2) Japan, like most of the world, is a no-tip society so prices usually compensate for that. When you look at it that way, it’s much more reasonable, especially when you are on vacation.
Trust me when I say that the “price of admission” was well worth it. The first beer I tried was the Minoh W-IPA from A.J.I. Beer Inc. brewing out of Osaka. I wanted to see where Japan stands with IPAs, since the U.S. has revolutionized the style. This beer was good, but not great, however it was better that most standard IPA offerings that new American craft brewers can muster. There are many mediocre IPAs in the US, but we also have all of the best, so to have a beer that stands above I would say 70% of those available here says a lot, especially in a country whose cuisine is much more about subtlety, than an IPA’s usual brashness.
My second and final beer (thank you Japanese transit for stopping at midnight) was Iwate Kura Oyster Stout by Sekinoichi Shuzo. This was one of the beers that won bronze not a few weeks prior to our trip at the World Beer Cup. I had completely missed it on my first look through the menu, but luckily others in the group ordered it and were blown away. For those not familiar with oyster stouts, no, they are not made with oysters, but they get their name because they are usually meant to be paired with oysters. [Oysters and stout beer work very well together, in case you ever need a beer pairing.] Yet, these stouts are perfect for drinking by themselves and are usually lighter in flavor and alcohol that most other stouts. This particular beer may have been lighter, but that didn’t keep it from being wondrously complex, with small hints of smooth chocolate and a note or two of coffee.
At this point, Japanese craft beer was 2 for 2 in my books, and showed no signs of stopping.
To be continued in Part 2.