There are so many craft beers available in Japan these days that deciding what to drink can be a daunting task. Limiting this list of beers that all craft beer aficionados should try to just 10 was a challenge! Even expanding the list to 50 or one hundred beers would mean not including many superb brews. To narrow things down, I based my choices on diversity, selecting various styles from various locations across the country.
I also avoided limited-edition offerings, barrel-aged beers, and special releases (of which there are many), sticking to beers that are currently available. If you asked 10 other craft beer fans to come up with a similar list, given my criteria, I believe that many or most of my choices would be included.
Know that these are all excellent beers, as are the extra "notable examples" included at the end of most sections. I hope that this information will help you on your journey of discovery.
Kobo Brewery: Premiant Pilsner
My first choice takes us to the prefecture of Toyama for a pilsner, a beer style that most people of the world associate with beer. Kobo Brewery is the brainchild of two Czech and Slovakian friends who operate a small brewpub in Toyama that produces several kinds of beer, not just the classic Czech styles. Pilsner originates from the Czech Republic, and Kobo brews one of the best Czech pilsners in Japan, possibly anywhere. Its Premiant Pilsner is a fantastic example of a highly drinkable Czech pilsner, featuring Czech premiant hops—a wonderfully drinkable yet flavorful lager that has wowed beer lovers across Japan ever since it was first brewed.
Highly recommended. Available direct from the brewery's online store (https://www.kobobrewery.jp) or on tap in craft beer bars across the country (availability varies).
Other notable examples of pilsner include Bayernmeister (Shizuoka), Daisen G Beer (Tottori), Hop Kotan (Hokkaido), and Bay Brewing (Yokohama).
Y. Market Brewing: Yellow Sky
Next, we move to Aichi Prefecture and the city of Nagoya, home of Y. Market Brewing. Y. Market is well known for its range of excellent American IPAs, among other styles. I have chosen its Yellow Sky Yuzu Pale Ale as an example of a fruit beer. Japan has many wonderful fruit beers, and this is one of the better ones. Yuzu is a classic Japanese fruit that is fantastic in beer, and Yellow Sky balances the sharp, zesty, tangy yuzu flavor with the base pale ale flavors very well. The base is a very tasty American pale ale, featuring an assertive bitterness and citrus flavors from the aptly named citra hops.
A very good introduction to fruit beers.
Y. Market Brewing's website, featuring its beers, restaurant, and shopping: https://craftbeer.nagoya
Other notable examples include Hideji Kinkan Lager (Kyushu), Baird Temple Garden Yuzu Ale (Shizuoka), Minoh Peach Weizen (Osaka), and Fujizakura Yuzu Weizen (Yamanashi).
Fujizakura Heights Beer: Rauchbier
In Yamanashi, on the gentle slopes of Mount Fuji, lies a beautifully situated brewery and restaurant that is one of the most popular among craft beer lovers. Fujizakura Heights Beer (Fujizakura Kogen Beer) makes mostly German-style beers, although recently, it has been producing many new styles of New England IPA-Weizen crossovers. Among its base four styles, its rauchbier (smoked beer) is one of its best. A smoked beer is a beer that is made using grain that has been dried or kilned using a wood fire, hence the gentle smoke flavor. In this case, the brewery uses imported German beech-smoked malt from Bamberg, a town many consider the home of smoked beers. The result is a well-balanced but dark, slightly rich, softly smoked beer that stands out among most other styles. This is a rarity and definitely one not to miss. A visit to the brewery and in-house restaurant and gardens is highly recommended.
The brewery's website: https://www.fujizakura-beer.jp/en/
Other notable examples of smoked beers include Tazawako Rauch (Akita) and
Inowashiro Rauch (Fukushima).
DevilCraft: Devil's Death Match IPA
Tokyo has a large number of craft breweries and one of the best has to be DevilCraft. What began as a beer restaurant by three home-brewing friends has turned into a successful chain of four popular beer bar/restaurants and an award-winning brewery. DevilCraft makes a large variety of styles, and from among its many award-winning beers, I have chosen the Devil's Death Match IPA (lager version) as a representative of the brewery's quality and also the popular American IPA style. This beer is an excellent example of a hop-forward American IPA. One difference is that this beer was actually krausened with lager yeast, resulting in a clear, clean flavor profile that both excites and refreshes the palate. This beer is often found on tap at one of DevilCraft's four Tokyo taprooms and a visit is highly recommended. While there, enjoy DevilCraft's Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, as it pairs perfectly with DevilCraft's 20 taps of beers.
Due to the small capacity of this and many craft breweries in Japan, availability online in bottle or can form is often limited.
The style of American IPA and DIPA is very well represented in Japan, and other notable examples include TDM 1874 Brewery (Yokohama), Noboribetsu Onidentetsu (Hokkaido), West Coast Brewing (Shizuoka), Y. Market (Nagoya), and Uchu Brewing (Yamanashi).
TDM 1874 Brewery: Best Bitter
Yokohama hosts one of the older companies but newer breweries in TDM 1874 Brewery. This company was founded in 1874 but only began brewing in 2017. The head brewer is a young Englishman who previously brewed for Hitachino Nest Beer (Ibaraki) and Brimmer Brewing (Kawasaki). Before that, he began his career with the very famous Dark Star Brewing in England. This talented brewer brought his skills to this small brewery, and already, the company has racked up awards for its range of beers that includes many excellent IPAs. The style I have chosen is an English session ale known as a Best Bitter. This is a beer most often associated with the pubs of Great Britain and is markedly different from a lager or an American IPA. Here, the focus is on the malt flavors and a basic but clean bitterness. This beer has a nutty, lightly roasted caramel flavor from using English Maris Otter malt and is perfectly balanced with the bitter flavors from the hops. The result is a beer that doesn't overwhelm the senses but is very pleasant and refreshing. At 4.5% alcohol, it will not affect you too strongly, so you can relax and enjoy one more!
A true session beer.
Not many breweries make authentic English style sessionable ales, but some other examples include Baird Beer Real Ales (Shizuoka), Minoh Stout (Osaka), Swan Lake Porter (Niigata), and Loco Beer Bitters (Chiba).
Baird Beer: Bashamichi Ale
Staying with the theme of English ales, I wanted to include a rare find in Japan: a real ale. Baird Beer has a very nice brewery and picturesque riverside campground near the historical town of Shuzenji, in Shizuoka. It is one of the very few that make real ale in Japan. It has several taprooms across the country, in Tokyo, Yokohama, Shizuoka, and Osaka. Among these taprooms, The Yokohama Bashamichi Taproom is famous for two things: American smoked BBQ and its real ale. Its house ale, Bashamichi Ale, is an excellent example of a real ale done right. An English real ale is a beer that is made with the focus of the flavor on the malt and the yeast, with the hops usually imparting a bittering balance. The beer is also not carbonated, unlike most other beer styles. Instead, it is gently hand-pumped from a keg that is held at a very low pressure, so the resulting beer may appear to be "flat" to the uninitiated. Far from flat, the beer is served exactly as it was meant to be, uncarbonated and at a "cellar temperature" of about 12 degrees Celsius. The Bashamichi Ale is somewhat unique in that it is also delicately smoked, lending a gentle richness that assists the easy-drinking nature of this fine beer. It pairs perfectly with the smoked BBQ brisket, pulled pork, and ribs that are smoked on the premises, using the taproom's giant BBQ smoker, imported from Texas.
Due to the delicate and special nature of this beer style, Bashamichi Ale is only available in-house at the Baird Bashamichi Taproom. Yokohama is a great city for craft beer and a visit to Bashamichi Taproom is highly recommended.
Minoh Beer: Stout
If you ask anyone for a shortlist of the best or most popular breweries in Japan, Minoh would definitely be on that list. It all began when a father gifted his two daughters a brewery—and it just went from there. One daughter still brews, and the brewery has produced many excellent beers in its time. Among them, the stout has won the title of the world's best. Indeed, this is an excellent example of the stout style. It has complexity of flavor that includes gentle roasted barley, along with a combination of dark chocolate and possibly, some may say, hints of soy sauce. The beer is light, complex, and refreshing, and it is enjoyed by many. It can often be found in craft beer bars, on the regular taps, or at times on hand pump, if you are lucky. The beer can be found in several liquor stores across Japan. One of the best stouts, not just in Japan but the world.
Other notable examples of stout or porter include Iwate Kura Oyster Stout (Iwate), Ise Kadoya Oyster Stout (Mie), Swan Lake Porter (Niigata), TDM 1874 Brewery's porter (Yokohama), and AJB's stout (Nagano).
It would be good to also mention the schwarz style of dark lagers, as many in Japan tend to lump all "black beer" together. Good examples of the schwarz style include Shonan Schwarz (Kanagawa), and Baeren Schwarz (Morioka).
Kyoto Brewing: Ichigo Ichie
Kyoto Brewing was founded in 2015 by three expat friends. One of them was already an award-winning home brewer with a penchant for Belgian-inspired styles. Kyoto Brewing focuses on beers influenced by Belgian styles, such as saisons, and also produces variations of standard styles incorporating flavorful Belgian yeast. Its flavorful but clean and immensely drinkable beers have become a hit among beer fans and its signature style has to be Ichigo Ichie, a saison featuring American and New Zealand hops. Ichigo Ichie is a Japanese expression that loosely means "a once-in-a-lifetime moment." This refreshing beer has a dry, clean, crisp body and mouthfeel with some pepper notes, along with hints of lemon from the Belgian yeast and lemon, grapefruit, and tropical fruit from the American and New Zealand hops used. Delicate, yet satisfying. An excellent example of a crossover or marriage of several elements in one.
Other notable examples of Belgian-inspired beers include the nearby Nara Brewing (Nara; the brewer also began his career at Kyoto Brewing), the Shiga Kogen Yamabushi series (Nagano; a popular series of barrel-aged, flavored saisons), and Songbird (Chiba).
Oh! La! Ho: Captain Crow
Oh! La! Ho, a Nagano-based brewery that makes a very good example of a session IPA, gets its interesting name from the Japanese way of calling out over long distances in the mountains. As already mentioned earlier, a session beer is one that is usually lower in alcohol and intensity but not necessarily in flavor. It is labeled as a pale ale, but for me, the slightly lighter body, firmer IPA-like bitterness, and lower alcohol leans more towards a session IPA. Captain Crow is just 5% but is still hoppy, like a regular IPA, while not as strong in flavor or intensity. It boasts a refreshing hit of hoppy aroma and flavor as well as a light, refreshing taste and a clean, lasting bitterness. You may have noticed the colorful can design in your local convenience store. The recent expansion of the brewery has meant an increase in production capacity and the ability to supply convenience stores and liquor stores across Japan. This beer is also very competitively priced and is easily the cheapest of the offerings suggested here. If a 7–8% alcohol IPA is delicious but a bit strong for you, then a session IPA is the beer to try.
Other examples of this refreshing, light but hoppy style include the excellent TDM 1874 Lawnchair Session IPA (Yokohama) and Coedo Marihana (Saitama). A good example of a similar style, American pale ale is Baird Rising Sun Pale Ale (Shizuoka).
Ise Kadoya: Neko Nihiki
The term "hazy" refers to a relatively new style of beer that has taken the craft beer world by storm. The "hazy IPA" or the NEIPA (New England IPA) has the hoppiness and flavor of an IPA but also carries a much heavier body along with a sweeter, "juicier" flavor and a light to extremely hazy or almost milky appearance. Before the arrival of hazy IPAs, the trend was for most beers to be as clear as possible. Clear was often associated with clean beer and hazy often meant turbid, yeasty beer or lower levels of quality or flavor. The process of making a hazy IPA utilizes biotransformation, whereby the hop compounds interact with the suspended yeast cells and more flavor is extracted. These "flavor bombs" can be quite strong in chlorides, so they may also taste rather salty, metallic, and almost clove-like at times. Possibly the most famous example of a hazy IPA or NEIPA in Japan is the Neko Nihiki. This beer, produced by Ise Kadoya (Mie Prefecture), caught many people's attention when it first came out. It still remains a favorite and is a great example of the style. Expect an opaque, almost milky beer with a "juicy," creamy mouthfeel, exploding with citrus and tropical fruit hop flavors.
Other notable examples of hazy IPAs are others made by Ise Kadoya, DevilCraft (Tokyo), West Coast Brewing (Shizuoka), as well as a range of hazy IPAs, double IPAs, and even triple IPAs by the very popular Uchu Brewing (Yamanashi).
There are many more great beers that I would highly recommend but could not include in this short selection. However, it is a start on what will be a wonderful journey discovering the joy that is Japanese craft beer.
At the moment, the best place to pick up most of these beers is via online stores, either from the brewery site or through online liquor stores.
Two excellent sources for further information on the Japanese craft beer scene are the Japan Beer Times (a printed magazine available for free in most craft beer bars or online) and Beer Tengoku (a craft beer website and database of bars, beer reviews, maps, beer stores, and source of online resources where you can find good beer).
Craft Beer Festivals
After the Covid-19 pandemic has calmed down, beer festivals will start up again and these are excellent ways to find many beers in one place and enjoy discovering even more good flavors. Among these festivals, the Japan Brewers Cup in Yokohama and Keyaki Beer Festival in Saitama are highly recommended.