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Sake may be the first drink that comes to mind, but despite its foreign origins, beer is the most popular beverage in Japan by some margin. First introduced as a specialty import by Dutch merchants in the 17th century, some local production began in the early19th century—Hendrik Doeff, the Dutch commissioner in Dejima, saw his supply from Europe interrupted by the Napoleonic wars, so he commissioned a local operation to ensure his own supply. Commercial beer production began in Japan later in the century, also thanks to an outsider; Norwegian-American William Copeland opened the Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama in 1870.
Hops were discovered growing wild on the island of Hokkaido, and a man named Seibei Nakagawa was dispatched to Germany to learn the brewing trade; upon his return, and using German techniques and styles, he started Pioneers Brewery in 1875. Their flagship beer, Sapporo Cold Beer, will certainly be a familiar name to the modern drinker. The other brands that dominate the Japanese market also had their origins in this period—Kirin and Asahi are also products of the late 19th century. In fact, the company that would become Kirin purchased William Copeland's brewery in 1885—while not on the same scale we see today, the takeover of the smaller brewing operation seems thoroughly modern.
But the opening of new breweries came to something of a halt in the early 20th century; tax laws were enacted that protected the domestic beer market, but at the cost of new, smaller companies opening—the law required a massive minimum annual production, ensuring that it was nearly impossible for anything beyond the already-established (and largely similar) major breweries to take hold. This situation persisted until 1994, when the tax laws were finally amended to allow small brewers to operate, and Japan has wasted no time in developing a vibrant (if expensive) craft beer scene.
The first craft brewery to open in Japan was Echigo Beer, and they struck something of a balance between the entrenched 'dry' beer trend and German- and American-influenced craft brewing techniques. In addition to pale ales and stouts, they also made (and continue to make) a rice-based lager that competes with the bigger players in the market—something of a gateway beer.
Okhostk Beer also obtained their license in 1994, and while they are not globally distributed, they remain a popular local brewpub in Hokkaido. But one of the first breweries to gain international notice was Kiuchi—a long-established sake brewery—that turned its attention to beer in 1996. Its flagship brand, Hitachino Nest, is now familiar worldwide, though they make a wide range of beers beyond their well-known White Ale. They now also operate a brew-on-premises operation, allowing other brewers the chance to make beer using their facilities.
While not as well-known beyond Japan, Yona Yona Ale (translated as 'every night'), produced by the Yo-Ho Brewing Company, is often viewed as the Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams of Japan, having opened the door (or, more accurately, freed up some taps) for other craft brewers in Japan. Brewer Toshi Ishii honed his craft in America, learning valuable lessons in his three years at Stone Brewing in California. He returned with a knack for cask-conditioned ale and spread the good word to other brewers and bars throughout Japan, winning not a few awards for his other beers along the way. Ishii founded another brewery—Ishii Brewing Company—in Guam in 2010, while Yo-Ho continues to go from strength to strength.
Another award-winning brewer with overseas connections is Bryan Baird, who co-founded Baird Brewing Company with his Japanese-born wife, Sayuri, in 2000. Starting out as a small brewpub, the brewery now boasts a number of taprooms, two brewing facilities and an international following. With a focus toward consumer education as well as quality beer production, Baird has been a major player in helping to raise craft beer's profile in Japan—and there are now nearly 200 small Japanese breweries offering everything from Belgian-styled beers to entirely native-born beers.
But the global connections remain strong; after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Ishii contacted his former Stone colleagues to brew a collaboration beer to benefit those affected - and Baird came on board with the project as well. The resulting beer, Baird / Ishii / Stone Japanese Green Tea IPA is now available in the US—it's a good introduction to the creativity of Japanese craft brewers and a reminder that many in the global craft brewing community are focused on doing well through doing good—and in continuing to create a unique product.