Japan is the world's 7th largest beer producer, and beer and beer-like beverages accounted for 67% of Japan's 9 billion liters of alcohol consumption in 2006. Until 1994, Japanese tax laws, enacted to protect domestic brewing, set minimum production limits that instead ensured the dominance of the big four breweries Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. Combined, they account for 99% of all beer sold nationally.
However, when those minimums were lowered from two million liters/year to 60,000 liters/year, it opened the door for craft brewing to emerge in the land of the rising sun. Since then, a fledgling, but vibrant scene has developed, and Yo-Ho Brewing in Nagano is a leading player.
Yo-Ho was founded in 1996 by Keiji Hoshino, who drank his first craft beer in the United States while he was an exchange student, and quickly discovered how bad most Japanese beer was. According to Yo-Ho's president, Naoyuki Ide, the brewery sees itself as being more like an American craft brewery than any of its Japanese counterparts. Their focus has been almost entirely on ale production since the first batch was brewed in 1997, and their intended customer is "the general beer drinking consumer," as opposed to other small breweries which primarily sell locally to tourists.
Many of the brewery's current styles were developed by former head brewer Toshi Ishii, who honed his craft at Stone Brewing in California. He has since left Yo-Ho, and started his own brewery, Ishii Brewing Company, in Guam.
According to Ide, Yo-Ho maintains a very strong emphasis on quality control, focusing on natural carbonation and the use of their own yeast strands in the brewing process. The brewery uses slightly harder water than most, since it's located on the foothills of volcanic Mt. Asama, which Ide claims "adds to the depth of our beer flavors."
The company is expanding its presence in Japan and abroad. Many larger Japanese retailers have started selling craft beer, and Yo-Ho will also soon be opening a brewpub in Tokyo's Akasaka district. According to Toshi Kojima of Seattle-based importer BeverageTraders (who also kindly provided translations for this article,) Yo-Ho currently exports to Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United States, where they primarily ship to the west coast, but are in the process of signing on with a new east coast distributor.
What do the beers taste like? I sampled a few, including their newest release, a Belgian White called Suiyoubi no Neko. My thoughts are below.
Suiyoubi no Neko
Fairly smooth, faintly fruity, with hints of banana and citrus, Suiyoubi no Neko is a simple and unassuming Belgian Wheat. In addition to the fruit, it tastes yeasty and unfiltered, as is common for the style, despite not being very cloudy (I could see my fingers through the glass.) I wouldn't necessarily seek this out over, say, Hoegaarden, but it's light, refreshing, and well-executed, just right for serving with sashimi or salads. Also, I really like the cat on the can (Suiyoubi no Neko translates to "Wednesday Cat.")
Yo-Ho's American-style Pale Ale is fairly hoppy and bitter. But it's smooth and it has a certain sweetness, with some hints of citrus, and even a little maple and honey. Yona Yona translates to "Every Day," and indeed, this beer was intended to be drinkable on a regular basis. Like Suiyoubi no Neko, it's not a tremendously innovative beer, but it's a really well-excecuted version of the style. Drink it with katsu curry or ramen.
Indo no Aooni, which translates to 'Blue Demon of India', is an English-style IPA, and a bit stronger than Yona Yona at 7% instead of 5.5% ABV. It's a bit less sweet than the pale, with lingering earthy hops, though fans of American IPAs won't find it super hoppy. Drink it with a big cheeseburger and French fries.
The first note I wrote down when I started drinking this was "f***ing outstanding porter." There's really not that much more that needs saying. This one is black as night; a heavy, sludgy pour even though it's only 5% alcohol. It's smooth, smoky, and roasty—the beer tastes bittersweet, with a lot of coffee and a little bit of chocolate and vanilla in the mix. This is a porter of the highest order, in my opinion. Pair it with smoked meats or cheeses, or try it with a steak.
What's Next for Japanese Beer?
Most of Yo-Ho's beers wouldn't really stand out in today's vibrant American craft beer scene, but in the Japanese beer market, they're miles beyond what's commonly sold. And when you consider that America's first popular craft beers debuted long before Japanese deregulation and Yo-Ho's first batches, the future looks very bright for Japanese beer and this unique Nagano brewery. Now please, beer me a Tokyo Black.
About the author: Ben Jay is an editorial intern at Serious Eats, photographer, carnivore, beer and whisky drinker, and music nerd. Special thanks to Toshi Kojima for translating and everything. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.