Beer has for a long time been the favorite tipple of the Japanese, overtaking sake in popularity in the second half of the twentieth century, bolstered in the nineteen eighties by the introduction of the quintessentially Japanese light, dry lager style. Despite the affinity for the frothy beverage remaining, the last few years have seen something of a shift in the types of beer that Japan dwellers consume, with the emergence of regional microbreweries fueling a surge in the popularity of craft beer. Compared to a decade or two ago, when establishments selling craft beer were few and far between, today there are literally hundreds of craft beer bars and breweries scattered over the length and breadth of the country, concocting and purveying a plethora of different brews that are finding fans with every new tap.
If there were a single testament to the prominence of Japan's craft beer scene, it would certainly be the Keyaki Beer Festival, a behemoth of a beer festival hosted biannually at the Saitama Super Arena less than an hour outside of Tokyo by train. A Mecca for craft beer lovers, thousands make the thirsty pilgrimage to the spring and autumn sessions where the Keyaki pays homage to artisan brews light and dark, sweet and bitter, by typically hosting around 60 breweries from around Japan and abroad.
Following my experience Brewing on Premises at Hitachino Nest's Kiuchi Brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture back in June, the Keyaki remained firmly at the forefront of my mind as a personal must and a highly desired destination for the subsequent Craft Beer Japan piece. After some research, preparation and considerable anticipation, the plan came to fruition and I was off to explore the 18th installment of the Keyaki, arriving on the final day of its typical five-day stretch (this year's autumn festival ran from August 30th to September 3rd, a few weeks earlier than in previous years).
Upon entering the Saitama Super Arena, which is located a few minutes' walk from Saitama Shintoshin Station, I was immediately struck by the sheer size of the festival. Rows upon rows of stalls were organized into a rough block system and represented a wide array of purveyors, 102 to be exact; the vast majority comprised of Japanese microbreweries complimented by a few foreign beer houses and the odd vendor exclusively selling food. I wanted to start the day's proceedings with something light, and fancied attempting a beery exploration of Japan from south to north and west to east. With this in mind the natural place to start was in Okinawa Prefecture with Okinawa Sango Beer.
Brewing since the early 2000's, Okinawa Sango Beer has been making waves in the Japanese craft beer world with a selection that is brewed using a rather special ingredient. The brewery, in Nanjo City on Okinawa Island, stands above a limestone cave born of coral reefs, and water pumped from this source is used in the beer. My first time to try Okinawa Sango, I opted for a taster set consisting of four samples with their IPA, Kolsch, ALT and Saison brews. The Saison stood out to me as especially delicious with fruity notes and a well-balanced bitterness.
Working north from Okinawa while trying to avoid the, erm, slight hangover that would inevitably result from drinking a beer from every one of Japan's 47 prefectures, I next headed to an old favorite of mine; Minoh Beer from Osaka Prefecture. I usually err on the lighter side of things when it comes to ale, but this time was seduced by Minoh's highly decorated Stout, which most recently took gold in the Dry Stout category at the 2016 World Beer Cup. True to its reputation, this dark, syrupy concoction aroused my taste buds with chocolaty notes and hints of coffee all with a wonderfully smooth finish. A newly fledged stout convert, I took the opportunity to chat with Takahashi Yuta, Minoh Beer brewer and the man at the helm on the day, about Minoh's experience at the festival.
"We always have a great time here. It's busy behind the bar with so many people enjoying themselves, but it's rewarding to be part of this event alongside so many great breweries from all over Japan and elsewhere. As a company, we're on the road at different festivals around the country almost every week, but luckily we switch staff so we can all have some time at home too! Out of all the festivals, this is the biggest, and so it's always a really important day for us and for Japanese craft beer in general."
Next for today's ale adventure was a trip to Aichi Prefecture, in roughly the center of Japan, where I met up with Craig Morrey, Head Brewer and CEO of Hyappa Beer from the town of Okazaki. One of more than a few non-Japanese beer masters around the country, Craig was kind enough to share a few words with me about the festival and his beer.
"Of course, it's fun to be here with so many breweries, and it really feels like there's something for everyone. We're enjoying the experience and doing what we do every day; serving quality beer and trying to give people an experience they'll remember."
A history buff with a penchant for fun themes, Craig chose to name a brew after one of the most important figures in Japanese history and a product of Okazaki (like the beer itself), Tokugawa Ieyasu. "We like, where we can, to incorporate some kind of theme into the drinking experience, and being a brewery from Okazaki, what better person to name our brew after than Ieyasu. We wanted at first to make a beer that was very bitter like Ieyasu after he lost one of his early battles. After some careful consideration, we ended up raining the bitterness in just a little, and people really seem to like it." After chatting with Craig, I made sure to order a Hyappa Ieyasu-B, and am pleased to report that the deep red brew was bitter but balanced and made for great supping.
All this excitement combined with the divine aroma of grilled meat wafting around the place had my stomach growling, which made it all the more relieving that many of the stalls sold bites as well as beer. There was something for everyone, with traditional Japanese street snacks like yaki soba being flogged alongside fare with a slightly more gourmet touch. After a wander around the stalls, I opted to soak up the first couple of beers with a decadent cheeseburger of top-grade Kagoshima wagyu beef, and a selection of succulent sausages. Tempted on the way back to the table, I couldn't resist sampling an IPA from Shiga Kogen Beer from Nagano Prefecture, thus continuing in roughly the right direction in my sweep up and across the country.
By now, the late afternoon sun was hanging low in the sky and casting a pink hue over the place that matched the color of many of the revelers' (including my own) eyes. I sauntered over to Yamanashi Prefecture and sampled a Tokyo Blonde Ale from Far Yeast Brewing. I always thought of Far Yeast as a Tokyo brewery, and technically that is true, but Moe Murata, the lady leading the Far Yeast team at the festival imparted some interesting information about the company, revealing: "Our headquarters are in Tokyo, but the beer is brewed in Yamanashi Prefecture, using the clear water from the Tamagawa River." It was my first time sampling a Far Yeast brew, and I can say that the Tamagawa waters must work their magic; helping to make the Blonde Ale crisp and full of flavor. Fortunately, the company has just opened a new bar in Shibuya, meaning it will be easier than ever to sample their tasty concoctions.
Night had now fallen and the atmosphere at the festival was more jovial than ever, with the buzz of chatter now frequently interrupted by bursts of laughter as the revelers around me continued to enjoy the day's proceedings. It was now time to talk with one of the brewers I'd been most eager to meet all day, Suzuki Hitoshi from Zakkokukoubou Brewery in Saitama Prefecture. Brewing in the small town of Ogawa, which is nestled snugly at the foot of the Saitama mountains, Hitoshi-san sources a significant portion of his brewing ingredients from the family farm, and the result is a selection of beers that are putting Zakkokukoubou firmly on the craft beer map. I have been lucky enough to visit the cozy bar adjoined to the microbrewery on numerous occasions, and so now it was exciting to finally talk to the brew master about his methods and the ethos behind the brewing.
"Being from Saitama ourselves, it feels nice to be a relatively local brewery at this festival, especially when it means we can showcase our beer amongst so many great breweries from across the country. Our slogan is 'The beginning of our brewing starts in the field' because we source around 30% of our ingredients from our farm. We believe this makes for quality beer and really love it when we see our customers enjoying our brews. We've been coming to this festival for many years now and aim to continue growing; concentrating on taste and quality into the future."
A creature of habit, I ordered my favorite Weizen brew after our chat, and was taken, as ever, with its delicate balance of flavor, rich aroma and delectable banana notes. Everything a Weizen should be, this and many more of their brews are must tries for those yet to do so.
Heading north from Saitama, I decided that my last stop before leaving Japan's main island should be up in the Tohoku region; in Akita as it turned out. I'd heard about a beer that Aqula Brauhaus brewery of Akita served that was made with a special kind of yeast resulting from a cross breed between sake and beer yeast. The brew, which I dutifully swigged down, turned out to be highly aromatic and fruity with a good fizz to it.
Coming to the end of my journey and determined, if a just a tad tipsy, I made for the final stop on my Japan beer tour, at Hokkaido Brewing. Ending the day how I'd started it, with something light, was a must, so I opted for their delectable pear ale to round off the day's proceedings.
Although the dates are yet to be announced on the festival's official website, it can be expected that Keyaki Spring 2018 Festival will begin in late May. In addition to its typical stellar line up of breweries, the spring session boasts the added draw of taking place outside the arena; something that promises to make for an ideal way for beer fans to welcome the warmer weather.