American Craft Beer Hegemony

Walk into a bar in Copenhagen’s trendy Nørrebro neighborhood and one expects to find the occasional Danish craft beer alongside the standard Carlsberg and Tuborg offerings. In Tokyo, Kirin and Asahi mainly go over the bar, while Shanghai bars offer only Tsingtao and Snow. So no one would blame a visitor for double-taking at bottles and taps of Brooklyn Lager and Great Divide’s Oak Aged Yeti.

For a country that has never possessed much of a discernible brewing heritage, America has taken a leading role in exporting its nascent beer culture around the world. With the help of brewing trade groups, the federal government, and a band of curious American and foreign brewers, American-style craft beer can now be enjoyed in bars from Stockholm to Manila. And while this growing sphere of influence is good news for small American brewers, its expansion has created an unexpected identity crisis in the world’s richest brewing cultures.

The efforts of the Brewers Association, financially supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, has been at the heart of the confluence of events leading to the expanding global reach of craft beer. Begun in 2004, the Export Development Program helps American craft brewers educate international markets about their products and aids in distribution efforts abroad. Having completed its fifth year, the EDP assists Americans in exporting more than 30,000 barrels of beer to more than a dozen countries in Europe and Asia.

Beyond the official export efforts, a quiet confluence of events has helped expose the world to the new American way of beer. American brewers started plying their trades abroad, in Denmark, Italy, Japan, and beyond, further expanding the reach of the new U.S. brewing approach. Craft beer inspired a new generation of foreign brewers, in places such as Scotland, Italy, Scandinavia, and Australia, to start their own breweries based on American models. Add in a new generation of global beer geeks, including some influential and rabid Scandinavian raters, and a modest but expanding international market for big-flavored American beers developed.

These events have resulted in some unexpected and fundamental changes in the traditional beer world. While the growth of new American-style craft breweries in places such as Denmark and Italy, with their relatively prosaic lager brewing histories, was welcomed news, the movement’s reverberations have been particularly acute in countries with deeper brewing traditions. Reeling from the effects of globalization, small brewers across Belgium, Britain, and Germany began to see their market shares shrink as bigger players consolidated and swallowed their customers then their breweries. Younger drinkers abandoned traditional beers for the safety of bland pints of lager. In these difficult times, the success of better beer in America caught the eye of some distressed European brewers.

Faced with possible extinction, a pionerring group of Belgian brewers in particular looked to America for help. Brewers including Cantillon, De Proef, and Fantome, struck deals with American importers and suddenly saw pallets of their handcrafted beers leaving for long trips abroad. In return, hoards of American beer tourists started showing up at their favorite brewery’s doorsteps. In an unanticipated turn, Belgian brewers also realized there was money to be made in playing to the radical American palate. Importer B.United convinced the Brasserie d’Achouffe to make an unusual hybrid beer, called Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, for the American market. Other breweries followed, resulting in joint efforts with their U.S. counterparts and the birth of the collaboration beer era. Completing the circle of America’s expanding beer influence, the next wave has seen the rise of extreme breweries in Belgium, such as Picobrouwerij Alvinne and De Struise Brouwers.

Small European brewers today find themselves in a tenuous position in a quickly changing marketplace. As guardians of deep and honored brewing heritages, the task of protecting historic styles from the encroaching American beer geek palate will grow increasingly difficult. To date, these breweries have managed well the task of delicately balancing adaptation and innovation with the traditions that built their brewing reputations. In maintaining this equilibrium, we can only hope they can defend their valuable beer cultures and brewing traditions against the forces of dilution.

–Article appeared in Issue 28 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Japanese Brewing Rock Star – The Toshi Ishii Profile…

From Asia to North America and Europe, Japanese brewer Toshi Ishii is quietly spreading the message of craft beer across the globe. When I reach Ishii, the Chief Operating Officer and Brewmaster for the YoHo Brewing Company brewer, he is in London enjoying his third appearance at the Great British Beer Festival and preparing another round of his Tokyo Porter at the JDWetherspoon Group brewery. An unlikely brewer, Ishii stumbled upon an opportunity to learn the trade after emailing Greg Koch and Steve Wagner at the Stone Brewing Company in San Diego. Ishii, whose last name means ‘stone’ in Japanese, was the brewery’s intern and then third employee from 1997 to 2001.

After returning to his native Japan, Ishii helped start Yo-Ho Brewing and crafted its flagship Yona Yona Pale Ale, a hoppy, West Coast style India pale ale. While emblazoned with the figure of a classic Kabuki actor on its label, the Yona Yona was a radical departure from traditional Japanese beers when it appeared on the beer scene. While in San Diego, Ishii also encountered an unusual beverage that at first both shocked and attracted him. While attending one of Pizza Port’s early Real Ale Festivals, Ishii was intrigued by the beer’s weird flavors and aromas. The more Ishii learned more about cask ale, the more he grew to love it. Ishii founded the Tokyo Real Ale Festival, which just celebrated its sixth incarnation with more than 800 attendees. In contrast to other global beer markets, cask ale, with its depleted carbonation levels, is actually marketed towards women in Japan.

Ishii has also served as a pioneer and spokesperson for Japanese beer. At home, he helps educate other Japanese brewers about global beer styles and presentation methods. Ishii is also an inveterate traveler, bitten long ago by beer wanderlust. He spends several months every year traveling the world to learn and to promote his local beer and often picks up samples to bring back for his brewing staff to try. “Traveling the world is my fate and I like to show to beer people in the world how many good craft beers exist here in Japan,? Ishii says. Of his brewing philosophy, Ishii says “simple is best.? Despite this axiom, Ishii’s beers are anything but pedestrian. His barleywine, abbey ale, and biere de garde are solid and interesting versions of classic styles and stand out from many of the German style beers available in Japan. This unlikely brewer is an international brewing pioneer whose career we look forward to following in the future.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VIII of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Craft Brewing Goes Global – Japan

When American brewers sneezed, craft fever slowly spread around the globe. While influential brewers in Germany, Belgium, Britain, and the Czech Republic created the grand brewing traditions that underlie so much of modern brewing, these brewers have been slow to break outside of the safety of their traditions. A quarter of a century after a group of American pioneers chucked their careers for the love of beer, a new band of dedicated world brewers is beginning to deliver the craft bug to their local communities.

Boxed in by their own ideological restraints, foreign brewers have largely missed the excitement and experimental advancements of the craft beer movement. Despite this reluctance to change, hard-core beer enthusiasts have heard occasional whispers about small Italian sour ale brewers and tiny Danish experimenters, with little proof of their existence. Now, in the flash of a moment, it suddenly appears that 2008 will be the year of the world craft brewer.

While the rush of Swedish imperial stouts and Norwegian barleywines is a positive sign, the recent buzz over beer hoarding and off-the-chart reviews obscures the tales of dedicated souls who tirelessly fight against the mass-market pilsner pressures in their home markets. Their attempts to break free from traditions and create a new kind of beer culture have led to real successes in some unlikely corners of the globe. Of these, there is perhaps no more intriguing story than the development of craft beer in Japan, where more than 200 breweries produce ji-biru, the Japanese phrase for ‘local’ or ‘craft beer.’ It is here that two pioneering individuals of very different backgrounds are working to build a beer culture nearly from scratch.

Tucked away just atop the Izu Peninsula, a vacation destination known for its hot springs and clear views of graceful giant Mt. Fuji, the small coastal town of Numazu plays host to Japan’s most improbable beer story. Ohio-born Bryan Baird fell in love with Japan and its culture, brewing, and his wife Sayuri, after whom his saison is named. Moving to Japan after finishing his graduate studies, Baird landed at a time when the Japanese government was legalizing micro-brewing. Itching to leave his stuffy, corporate job, Baird headed back to the U.S., completed brewing school and an apprenticeship, and then returned to Japan to start his eponymously named brewery.

Baird Brewing Company and his adjacent Fishmarket Taproom serve a mind-boggling array of almost thirty different styles. His influences run the international gamut and include ales and lagers, barrel aged beers, strong beers, and meticulously groomed session ales made with unusual local ingredients, including the citrusy and spicy mikan. Opinionated and passionate, Baird loves the historic craftsman component of Japanese culture. In a land where industrial brewers dominate nearly 99-percent of the brewing market, it’s remarkable to see how welcome this gaijin and his peculiar beers have become in the local market and in Tokyo.

In the popular summer district of Karuizawa near Nagano, the YoHo Brewing Company is one of Japan’s largest craft breweries, producing nearly 13,000 barrels per year. While the sessionable Yona Yona Pale Ale (‘every night’ in Japanese) is excellent and widely available on cask in Tokyo, the real story here is the collegial and complicated brewmaster, Toshi Ishii. It’s the subtle things that let you know that Ishii-san is very different from your average Japanese. The earring is a start but the more obvious sign would be his Arrogant Bastard sweatshirt. Known as Toshi to his friends, the brewer was one of Stone Brewing Company’s first employees, where he learned the trade from 1997 until his return to Japan in 2001.

Reserved at first, Toshi loves talking about craft beer, especially the strongly hopped West Coast IPA’s he helped craft in San Diego. A Renaissance brewer, Toshi is also Japan’s biggest proponent of real ale, which he first sampled at a Pizza Port Real Ale Festival in 1998. Shocked by its “weird? flavors and aromas, Toshi would later introduce real ale to the Japanese market and help teach dozens of local brewers about cask-conditioned beers. He also helps run the popular Tokyo Real Ale Festival. An avid traveler, Toshi often visits breweries around the world to learn new things and sample different beer styles. His YoHo Brewing Company makes a solid line of ales, including his well-received and hoppy barleywine.

As his four daughters run around the Taproom, Baird and his good friend Toshi talk beer and the future of craft beer in Japan. Despite its tiny market share, Baird believes that Japan has the potential to become one of the world’s largest markets for craft beer. Having spent so long in the American market, Toshi and his wife clearly would love to bring a little bit of San Diego to Japan.

While Baird jokes that he is more Japanese than Toshi, who in turn laughs that he may be more American than Baird, it’s clear that craft beer crosses many boundaries in bringing people together. In breaking down barriers of culture and tradition, beer ambassadors around the world continue to undertake difficult work in the name of better ales and lagers.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue II of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Japan Wins Big at 2008 World Beer Cup…

Amidst the stream of recent posts elsewhere about the results of the bi-annual World Beer Cup, held in conjunction this year with the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, California, was a little reported story about how big craft beer is growing on an international scale. About a year ago, I spent a few weeks traveling around Japan, seeing the country and trying its beers. I was impressed with the relatively young craft beer scene across the country, with its pockets of excellent breweries.

The competition has grown quite international since its early days, with 58 countries competing this year. Breweries from 21 countries took home medals. When the Brewers Association announced its recent awards, American brewers, as expected, pretty well cleaned house with 158 awards. From there, you’d expect traditional brewing countries, such as German, Belgium, and the Czech Republic to have dominated the rest. While German brewers took home a respectable 25 medals, Japanese breweries nearly outlasted their Belgian counterparts with 10 medals to the Belgian’s 11. Here’s the interesting part: German breweries, as expected, won medals in German styles and Belgian brewers won medals in Belgian styles. Japanese brewers, like their American counterparts, won medals across a broad swath of international styles, from hefeweizen to cream ale to Scottish ale and even in the experimental category. That is an impressive achievement. Brewer Bryan Baird of the Baird Brewing Company won two medals as did the producers of the Swan Lake brands. My congratulations go out to the Japanese brewers for their impressive performance.

-Baird Brewing Co, Big Red Machine Fall Classic Ale, Cellar or Unfiltered Beer, Bronze
-Baird Brewing Co, Nide Beer – The Ale, American-Style Cream Ale or Lager, Bronze
-Fujikankokaihatsu co., LTD, Fujizakura kogen Beer “Weizen”, South German-Style Hefeweizen/Hefeweissbier, Silver
-Hyokoyashikinomori Brewery Tentyokaku Co., Inc., Swan Lake Beer Amber Swan Ale, American-Style Amber/Red Ale, Silver
-Hyokoyashikinomori Brewery Tentyokaku Co., Inc., Swan Lake Beer Porter, Robust Porter, Bronze
-Kiuchi Brewery Hitachino Nest Beer, Espresso Stout, Coffee Flavored Beer, Bronze
-Kumazawa Brewing Co., Shounan Liebe, German-Style Schwarzbier, Gold
-Nasu Kohgen Beer., Ltd., Scottish Ale, Scottish-Style Ale, Bronze
-Sekinoichi Shuzo Co. Ltd, Iwate Kura Beer Oyster Stout, Experimental Beer (Lager or Ale), Silver
-Shimono Co., LTD, Kaorino Nama, German-Style Kölsch/Köln-Style Kölsch, Bronze

Congratulations are also due to Molson Coors for its strong showing with the Blue Moon Brands, culminating in a win for the Blue Moon Brewing Company and brewer Warren Quilliam in the Large Brewing Company category.

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Japanese Real Ale In England…

Last May, I spent three weeks traveling around to various destinations in Japan. On my trip, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the country’s impressive ascendancy into the global craft beer scene. The country boasts more than 200 craft breweries (as many as 280 by some accounts), which, in a show of just how dominant the larger brewers are, only accounts for less than one-half of one-percent of total production. These small breweries produce a product called ji-biru, the Japanese phrase for ‘local’ or ‘craft beer.’

Toshi, Bryan, and Andy CrouchThe development of craft beer in Japan is an exciting story, two parts of which I document in the newest issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine (the article apparently inspired the crazy comic book, fan boy cover). The new column profiles Toshi Ishii, COO and brewery director for the Yo-Ho Brewing Company in Karuizawa near Nagano, and Bryan Baird, founder with his wife Sayuri, of the Baird Brewing Company in the small coastal town of Numazu, an hour south of Tokyo.

I recently received an email from Toshi (who spent his formative brewing years as the Stone Brewing Company’s third employee), who is one of the great breed of traveling brewers. Although he is the head of brewing for a fast growing craft brewery in Japan, Toshi spends nearly half of his time out of the country visiting other breweries around the world. According to Toshi, he’ll be in the United Kingdom three times this year and the United States another three times.

Toshi’s first trip to the United Kingdom, which is presently under way, is what caught my eye yesterday. Toshi learned of cask-conditioned beer, often called real ale, at one of Pizza Port’s earliest beer festivals. After his first sip, Toshi stared down at his glass in amazement and had to ask friends what he was drinking. Fast forward a decade and Toshi is single-handedly leading a cask ale revolution in Japan. He helps run a sizable cask ale festival in Japan and sells his popular Yona Yona Pale Ale on cask at hundreds of locations across the country.

When I met him in May, Toshi told me about his trips to the Great British Beer Festival, where he has served his beers a few times. He clearly loves the event and the opportunity to travel the country that is home to so much cask ale. Toshi’s trips to England aren’t just for fun. Instead, Toshi is happily ensconced at Marston’s Burton upon Trent brewing beer. Toshi was recruited by the JDWetherspoon Group last summer at the 30th GBBF to come to England to brew his Tokyo Black beer. The very drinkable porter is a hit in Japan, where it is very distinguishable from nearly every other ji-biru¬. Toshi is scheduled to make 40 kl of the beer, which will be placed into 1300 casks for sale at 650 pubs in the United Kingdom. The beer will be released at JDWetherspoon’s International Real Ale Festival, which will be held March 27 to April 14, 2008.

Of course, Toshi will be back in late summer for the next GBBF.

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