The Portland of the Far East: craft beer is booming in Japan.

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Walking through Tokyo’s garish Roppongi district on my first visit to Japan, I found it remarkably easy to ignore the pulsing high-tech signs promoting electronics, movies, and cars. What caught my eye was probably the most modest ad: a tiny bilingual sandwich board that said “Craft Beer Bar.” When I think of Japanese alcohol, sake and mass-produced lagers come to mind. Apart from the excellent Hitachino Nest, I wasn’t aware of any Japanese craft brewers of note. Skeptical, I squeezed down a narrow staircase into a tiny, subterranean bar, expecting nothing more than insight into which foreign craft beers suit the Japanese palate, and possibly a taste of a Hitachino Nest creation that hadn’t yet crossed the Pacific.

I got neither. Instead, I found 19 gleaming taps ingeniously squeezed into the diminutive space, with every last one offering a local brew. That bar (it’s called Ant ‘n’ Bee, in case you’d like to visit) and those beers represent just a fraction of what’s available. Japan’s craft beer is little known globally, but alarmingly good. Breweries you’ve never heard of and may struggle to pronounce are making well-executed beers in a wide array of styles. I sampled a white beer from Shiroyama, cloudy with citrus and a hint of spice, subtle enough to please Belgian witbier partisans. Those who like muscular hop flavor would probably enjoy the powerful IPA I tried from Minami Shinshu.

But beyond high-quality renderings of popular Belgian, German, and American styles, many breweries are experimenting with Japanese flavors, like ginger, yuzu, or even fist-sized Uramura oysters.

This vibrant craft brew scene is a recent development—in part because it was actually impossible not long ago. Before 1994, microbreweries were illegal in Japan. Licenses were granted only to brewers producing well over half a million gallons a year. That protected the well-entrenched large brewers from any upstart competition.

Talk craft beer in Japan and you’ll soon hear grumbling about the Four Giants: the mega-brewers that dominate the market. Craft beer fans disparage them with all the disdain American drinkers have for Bud, Miller, and Coors. If you’ve been to a sushi bar in the United States, you’re probably familiar with three of them: Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin. The fourth is Suntory, a name most American drinkers probably associate with Bill Murray in …

Big Japanese beers are similar to American macrobrews, with all the flavor and aroma of air, liberally substituting rice or corn for malted barley to keep cost (and flavor) low. But the Japanese brewers who have taken up the challenge to offer something else are a bit different than their American counterparts. American craft beer has roots in home brewing. Scratch the surface of many successful American craft brewers, and you’ll uncover early horror stories of batches lost to infection and weeks of work and money literally gone down the drain. But in Japan, most craft beer is made by sake brewers, with full command of sanitation, fermentation, bottling, and aging. They needed only to master malted barley, hops, and different yeasts, so the learning curve wasn’t as steep for them. And the sake breweries’ traditional emphasis on craftsmanship and quality ingredients served them well in the specialty beer world.

That’s not to say microbrewing was a smash out of the gate. Many of the breweries that opened in the 1990s closed within a few years. And almost none of their beer made it outside of the country until 2000—the year Matthias Neidhart began distributing Hitachino Nest in America. The German-born Neidhart has a reputation for finding fine beers in unexpected places, and his company, B. United, sells a carefully curated list of international beers, from Italian ambers to Scottish bitters, even a Maltese porter for Euro-completists. But he had a tough time convincing serious drinkers that Japan had anything to offer beyond forgettable adjunct lagers. Passionate about the product, he and his team evangelized through countless tastings and promotions. Meanwhile, the beer racked up international awards.

Nobody believed in us,” he says, “But 11 years later the market is exploding.”

Neidhart says the Hitachino Nest portfolio grew 45 percent in the United States last year. In most good beer bars, it’s their only Japanese offering. Momofuku chef David Chang is a fan. Super-high-end restaurants carry it as well. At Per Se, the Red Rice Ale sits on the wine list in the lofty company of $9,000 bottles of Bordeaux and other billionaire bait.
Japanese craft brewers are thrilled with the success of Hitachino Nest, but don’t want the story to end there. Ryouji Oda, president of the Japan Craft Beer Association, is quick to point out other small breweries that export, such as Ise Kadoya and Echigo. Still, the export output is small— meaning you’ll find only a handful of reviews on English-language sites like BeerAdvocate or RateBeer— and many great Japanese beers are all but impossible to find in America.

It’s not easy for drinkers in Japan, either. The JCBA says more than 40 percent of Japanese craft beer is sold directly to drinkers by mail. In that sense Japanese beer fans outside major cities find themselves in a situation similar to their American counterparts 15 years or so ago: unable to get great beer at their local bars or stores and forced to find it through a combination of mail ordering, festivals, and brewery visits. But things are changing; Oda’s latest numbers show the craft beer market doubling from 2003 to 2009. He credits online buzz and strong interest for something new among 20- to 45-year-olds with driving the increase.

If you visit Japan, there’s a growing number of craft beer bars ready to show off the labors of the country’s talented, creative brewers. Other than Ant ‘n’ Bee, where I was first schooled, Popeye, Ushi Tora, and La Cachette all have a wide selection of Japanese microbrews (as well as international craft beers). The staff may not speak perfect English, but most of these venues offer menus and tasting notes in English, and the friendly bartenders light up when you declare a local beer oishii (delicious). You’ll also get red-carpet treatment if you name-check a rare offering you’ve had from an American craft brewery.

Barring a trip to Asia, American drinkers will have most success finding Hitachino Nest, easy to spot by its nifty owl logo. Many start with their White Ale, a cloudy Belgian-style witbier. Its flavor and aroma, fragrant with citrus, nutmeg, and coriander, has bested beers from Belgium in global competitions. The Red Rice Ale is still more complex, made in a painstaking process that involves both sake and ale yeasts, since beer yeasts cannot convert the rice to alcohol. The finished product gives the lie to the notion that rice can’t be part of an excellent beer. It has the sake character one might expect, but also well-balanced malt and hop flavor, with surprising hints of berry and spice. That’s the beer Per Se charges its deep-pocketed clients $16 per bottle for.

My favorite from Hitachino Nest is their Japanese Classic Ale. It’s a dull-sounding name, but it’s a spectacular beer. It’s a pale ale or an IPA, depending on whom you ask, and it has all the qualities one expects from those styles. But it’s aged in cedar barrels normally used for sake. This special Japanese touch elevates it, adding peppery, slightly earthy flavors. These Asian twists, which Hitachino Nest mingles with European ingredients and technique, are what make the beers stand out.

Many Japanese beers are well worth your time, so take a moment to encourage your favorite beer bars and retailers to carry Japanese microbrews. If they feel interest rising, more good beer will make its way across the Pacific. And, just maybe, there’ll come a day when you won’t need to suffer through a Sapporo just because you’ve decided to go out for sushi.