THINK of a Japanese beer: Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi. All mass-produced lagers.
But isn't there something strange about that? The Japanese are renowned for their devotion to craftsmanship and unique handmade products. Think of fresh tofu skin (yuba), or kimoto daiginjo sakes, or the quest for the perfect ramen in 1986's "Tampopo."
So where are the Japanese craft beers?
A few have been showing up, including some excellent examples, but they've had a late start. It's not the brewers' fault. For many years, Japanese law made craft breweries illegal -- you had to make more than half a million gallons a year to be licensed.
The beers are worth seeking out for their unique flavors such as a red rice ale with a berry-like perfume or a stout tasting of molasses and soy. Most are good food beers. Hitachino's Red Rice Ale would be an excellent match for ramen with pork and bamboo shoots.
"Japanese craft beers are carefully made," says Mario Vasquez, beer buyer at Wally's Wines in L.A. "They come from a craft sake tradition. The Hitachino ales show traditional Japanese brewing style, especially the white ale -- it has a clean, refreshing herbal flavor."
At the moment, only two brands are available in the Los Angeles area. We can expect that this is just the beginning, because there's a lot of craft brewing activity in Japan. The law against small breweries was finally liberalized in 1994.
During the next few years, hundreds of brew pubs and craft breweries opened (craft beers are called ji-biru, or local beers, to distinguish them from the giant "national" brands). Like craft breweries in this country, they're still dwarfed by the big players, but they have enthusiasm on their side.
Probably because most Japanese craft breweries are still quite small, their products aren't yet well distributed in the U.S. It might not be an accident that Hitachino and Echigo, the two brands available in our area, are produced by well-known sake breweries with established distribution channels. The sake connection may also explain why both make at least one rice beer.
An eclectic new wave
The big Japanese brewers have always focused on lager, but the new wave, just like American craft brewers, shows more eclectic interests. The independent brewers make ales, stouts and wheat beers and experiment with wild ideas such as Echigo's tomato-flavored beer (not available here).
In particular, America's West Coast school has been influencing Japanese brewers. The brew master at Yo-Ho Brewing Co., a pioneer craft brewery established in 1996 in Karuizawa, worked at Escondido's Stone Brewing Co. from 1998 to 2001. It's not surprising to hear that, among its beers (unfortunately not available here yet), Yo-Ho makes a highly hopped India pale ale -- something new in Japan, where beer tastes incline to elegance and subtlety.
Yo-Ho brew master Toshi Ishii also seems to have picked up some of the West Coast contrarian spirit. Chris Cochran, Stone's marketing coordinator, has tasted a barley wine and a seasonal porter which, flying in the face of craft brewing's bottle tradition, Yo-Ho releases in cans. "They were wonderful," he says. "They were the best canned beers I've ever had."
In short, there's a lot of ferment, as it were. At least one of the giant brewers, Asahi, has responded by brewing a few more adventuresome beers, which it sells at a company-owned brew pub in Tokyo.
Echigo was the first craft brand to come to market in 1995. Its cosmopolitan founder, Seiichiro Uehara, had studied art history and acting in Italy and is married to a German woman. His brewery is in Niigata Prefecture, the No. 2 rice-producing area in Japan.
Niigata grows Japan's most popular rice variety, Koshihikari, and Uehara makes a beer from it.
This is an interesting choice, in light of the fact that his family owns the well-known Uehara sake company. Koshihikari is a table rice, not one of the traditional sake rice varieties. In Echigo's hands, it makes a fairly standard lager with a surprisingly intense, grassy nose.
Echigo also makes an intense stout with food-friendly notes of soy and mushrooms, something worth trying with grilled foods such as yakitori.
Three beers by the craft brewer Hitachino are fairly easily found in L.A.; another -- Hitachino's New Year Celebration Ale -- can be tasted only at Lucky Baldwins British Pub & Cafe in Pasadena. Hitachino, an outgrowth of the Kiuchi sake brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture, an urbanized area near Tokyo, started brewing its Hitachino Nest line of ales in 1996 with what it calls "a hint of our traditional sake brewing method."
There is an obvious Japanese twist to its Red Rice Ale (Kiuchi makes a sake from red rice, which has something of the same fruit-like flavor) and its Japanese Classic Ale, aged in cedar barrels in the traditional sake manner.