Japan Eats

Japan Macros Posing as Craft Beer

Suntory will debut its "Craft Select" line in May 2015.

Suntory will debut its “Craft Select” line in May 2015.

Finding decent beer in Tokyo used to be as bitter as a custody hearing.

But beer lovers have more to smile about these days. Domestic craft breweries have stepped up, and importers are sourcing decent brews at (increasingly) reasonable prices. Don’t believe me? You can’t do better than to read through the Japan Beer Times for ongoing commentary on Japan’s growing relationship with craft beer.

Unsurprisingly, macro brewer Kirin recently purchased Yo-Ho Brewing in order to stay abreast of the trend towards small(er) batch beer and drinks with more complexity and depth. Nagano-based Yo-Ho makes the surprisingly easy to find Yona Yona (American Pale Ale) as well as Aooni (American IPA), Tokyo Black (Porter), and several Karuizawa Kogen branded labels. Now that they’re privy to Kirin’s distribution network, look for them to pop up just about everywhere in the coming months. They won’t blow a true beer otaku’s kilt up, but they’re a good deal superior to anything that the macros have ever made.

Shots have been fired, so to speak. Consider this the first obvious example that Japan’s biggest brewers are going to start absorbing decent craft outfits. Expect several more before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, all of which will stab beer geeks straight through the heart.

Another one of Japan’s macros, Suntory, is about to throw its hat into the ring with a pair of “craft” beers on May 12th. They plan to offer canned pale and brown ales to their suddenly choice-flooded fans under the “Select Craft” label. The pale ale allegedly uses cascade hops which guarantees that many folks will try at least one.

All of this raises an important question, however. Should beer lovers be receptive to the sudden change of face on the part of the macro breweries? After all, they’ve resisted, and in many cases actively thwarted, the rise of Japanese craft for about 20 years, a mirror image of what’s happening in many other parts of the beer-adoring world. Sam Calagione, the head of the inimitable Dogfish Head, argues that we most definitely should not give them our money because their endgame is to limit choice.

And at this point, Japan Eats agrees. Remember, the battle to find good beer in Japan isn’t nearly as bitter as it used to be. So no matter where you are, support your local brewer.

Japanese cuisine inspires beer, wine, and shochu creativity

Japan imported 2,458,013 cases of sparkling wine during the first nine months of 2014. That’s a 10% increase over the same period last year, and overall craft beer sales were up seven percent through August. This is no doubt splendid news for consumers, but these trends represent tart slices of a migraine pie for Japan’s brewers and distillers.

Beer for "washoku."

Beer for “washoku.”

Izakaya revelers and grocery cart pushers alike are enjoying an agreeable selection of wine and whiskey at bargain prices, and the craft beer selection is perpetually at an all-time high. That’s all well and good, of course, but don’t expect manufacturers to quietly cede territory to alcoholic upstarts and recently arrived, exotically labeled tourists.

Indeed, maturity in all segments of the market is inverting old marketing principles and allowing restaurants and bars to more carefully cater to discerning palates. Japanese food, drink, and advertising companies have reacted to the changing landscape in varied ways, with equally varied success.

Big trends in the drinks industry this year? Well, it seems that one of them is creating the perfect mealtime beverage.

Suntory, makers of one of the pricier macro-brewed beers in Japan, tried earlier this year to market a product that pairs well with washoku, or traditional Japanese dishes. “Wazen,” Suntory’s watery attempt at home-cooked food and beer harmony, has since disappeared from most store shelves, so we may not know until next year whether Wazen sixers were able to steal shopping cart space from Asahi’s bestseller, Super Dry.

“Wa” went well with wagyu, too.

Earlier this year the Westin Hotel in Ebisu hosted a sushi and white wine pairing to show off a collaborative effort by Australia’s Jacob’s Creek winery and Ginza Sushiko Honten. The tandem created a white wine that pairs well with sushi, and “Wa,” the label released in 2013, makes a good argument for inclusion in any sushi establishment’s drinks list.

Guests were not only treated to several plates of Ginza Sushiko’s finest sushi, but also to head chef Sugiyama’s commentary on the process of blending the perfect wine to complement different types of fish and soy sauce. Participants started with spoon sushi, before being treated to everything from squid and sea urchin to tuna and halibut.

The white wine was inspired by Sugiyama’s desire to find new pairing possibilities for the sushi that he serves in Ginza which averages US$200-300 per head. He collaborated with winemaker Rebekah Richardson to create a drink that would accentuate his shop’s well-regarded menu. The result is a white wine that feels at ease next to the flavors of a well-crafted sushi meal.

Try this with your sushi.

Try this with your sushi.

And here’s another new drink that you should try with your raw fish. According to Shochu Pro, Satsuma Shuzo recently released a soft sweet potato shochu that was produced specifically with a fish dinner in mind. The mild-mannered “Jan,” which works wonders served oyuwari, straight, and on the rocks, is especially suited to red (fish) meat, and you know what that means–maguro!

Shochu and awamori have always been at ease cozying up to sushi, sashimi, and grilled fish, but Shochu Pro reports that the Kagoshima Sushi Association reached out to Satsuma Shuzo for something new. The makers of the well-traveled Shiranami and Kannoko brands responded with “Jan,” and although the new kid on the block has yet to be featured heavily outside of Kyushu, it has been well-received at home.

You may recall that UNESCO recognized washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage last year, so it’s no wonder that all corners of the drinks industry are clamoring to find a steady perch beside it.

With the 2020 Olympiad looming, prepare yourself for a swarm of drinks begging to accompany your meal. Here at Japan Eats, we’d encourage you to give them all a fair shot.

But take it slow. Leave the headaches to Japan’s alcohol industry.

Japan Booze Blind: Vodka

Is there any real difference between so-called premium vodkas and the cheap stuff? Albrecht Stahmer and Junko Wada join Christopher Pellegrini to test three different brands.

Guests Junko Wada and Albrecht Stahmer sit down with host Christopher Pellegrini to blind-taste three kinds of vodka: Suntory (Japan), Skyy (U.S.) and Okuhida (Japan). Once again, the show was recorded at Kokubunji’s The Lighthouse.

Thanks once again to Duncan Sculpher and The Lighthouse team for inviting us to film there.

Japan Eats Podcast, Episode 18: “The 19.6 minute lunch break”

On this week’s show, we cover recent travels and the evolution of the Japanese lunch hour

The Japan Eats Podcast is presented by Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt and Christopher Pellegrini. To listen, click play on the audio player below:

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Boozehound: Suntory’s Yamazaki 1984 Wins Int’l Whiskey Prize

It was recently reported that Japanese beverage giant, Suntory, brought home top prize at the recent International Spirits Challenge held in London, England.

Entered in the ‘Whiskies – Other’ category, Suntory’s Single Malt Yamazaki 1984 won one of several gold medals awarded to whiskey distillers from around the world. Later on, in a second round of blind tasting by several international judges, Yamazaki 1984 was awarded top prize in the category.

While this category does not include Scotch, which has a category of its own, Yamazaki 1984 beat out major competition from several Irish labels (Jameson, Bushmills, etc.) in taking the trophy.

Suntory was then awarded “Distiller of the Year” honors for its contributions to the global spirits industry. And on top of that, Yamazaki 1984 came away with the “Supreme Champion Spirit” award. Both honors are a first for a Japanese distiller and product, respectively.

Yamazaki 1984 sells for nearly 100,000 yen per bottle (700ml) in Japan, and Suntory actually had several other entries in the same category that were also assigned gold medals by the auditors.

Asahi also managed to score two gold medals for Japan in the same category with its “Taketsuru 21 y.o.” and “Yoichi 15 y.o.” labels.

What we’re drinking: Yamazaki 12y.o.

At around 3700 yen a bottle, Suntory is proud of their flagship single malt, as they should be.  If Kaku-bin is the whisky that made the Yamazaki distillery famous, Yamazaki 12 year old is the tipple that made Japan’s oldest whisky distillery its most prestigious. Read more

What we’re drinking: Suntory “Kaku-bin”

Whisk(e)y fans sometimes talk about the three main types of the king of tipples: Scotch, Bourbon, and Irish.

Now Christopher will surely be asking, “What about my Canadian Club? My Crown Royal? My Seagram’s Royal-freaking-Reserve?! Where is Canada on the list?”  But anything best served drowned in cola is best not served.

Fans of Japan’s ever-improving product, Scotch-like as it may be, may be in a better position to ask when their country will get its due. Read more

What we’re drinking: The Premium Malt’s (Suntory)

The gold can excites me.

The gold can excites me.

Why does it have a possessive apostrophe in the name of the beer? What is it possessing exactly? Me? Well, maybe.

This is definitely one of my favorite Japanese lagers, of the German Pilsener persuasion to be exact, and I drink more than my fair share of it each week. It also accompanies me on any occasion where BYOB is in order: picnics, ball games, work, etc.

From front to back, this beer doesn’t disappoint. It sports a good balance of hops, malt, and carbonated burn, and it doesn’t get too nasty if it warms while drinking pensively. This beer, to my knowledge, can’t be purchased in Japan for less than 200 yen, and the best price in my neck of the woods at the moment is 218 yen at the Seiyu on the corner.

And it can be found everywhere. It’s a staple in restaurants where it can frequently be had in draft version, and nearly every convenience store in the Tokyo metropolitan area carries it. It’s my recommended choice of brew if you’re going to a friend’s house for a party and you want to look like you care.