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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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