Craft Beer, Ninja Style
Regulation on beer production in Japan didn’t loosen until 1994, so the growth isn’t quite the same as it has been here in the US. In general, when Americans think Japanese beer, they think of the bigger producers that have been available for some time, such as Asahi, Sapporo or Kirin. A craft beer lover might mention Kiuchi, makers of the Hitachino Nest line or perhaps a few other small brewers that have some distribution stateside. For the most part, however, most Japanese craft brewers are regional and have a limited distribution within the country.
In Yokosuka, the most prevalent tap handles I saw were from Baird Beer. Baird started in 2000, and they produce a full line of styles, several seasonal offerings, and supply house beers for selected restaurants. I sampled several of their offerings, and was particularly impressed by their Kurofune Porter. A sable colored pour topped by a lovely beige head, the roasty chocolate flavors paired beautifully with the smoky beef dish I had ordered.
Two other highlights from Baird were their Angry Boy brown ale and Suruga Bay Imperial India Pale Ale (IIPA). The Angry Boy is somewhat aggressively hopped for a brown, and has a nice bitter bite over a smooth caramel flavor. The Suruga Bay packs a wallop – at 8.5% alcohol, its big citrusy grapefruit flavors and dry finish can compete with its American counterparts on every level.
Lighter beer styles such as golden ales, rice lagers and pilsners are popular in Japan, perhaps for the way they pair with seafood. Kumazawa’s Shonen Golden Ale fits this bill well, with a light grainy sweetness and a fruity hop bite, it accentuates the saltiness of seafood well without overpowering the lighter flavors of fish or shellfish.
In time, I hope some of these wonderful brews make their way to the US – and I hope I can explore more of Japan, where the burgeoning beer scene is more active. Sadly, Yokosuka is far more enamored with Chūhai, a cheap Korean spirit that they pretty much mix with anything… or just buy in cans at their local 7-11.