Getting Bigger In Japan

May 10, 2023, by Will Ziebell

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Getting Bigger In Japan

Collaborations and beer launches have long been a part of Pint of Origin but, in 2023, there's one collaboration that's set to cross the ocean a second time.

When the festival returns to Melbourne from May 12 to 21, Benchwarmer will be hosting eight nights of beer launches and tap takeovers featuring collaborations between some of Australia's best brewers and eight of their Japanese counterparts. Each new beer will be tapped as part of a showcase of each Japanese brewery's beers, most of them pouring in Australia for the first time.

The Japanese breweries in question are West Coast Brewing, Inkhorn, Kyoto Brewing, AJB Co, open air, Vertere, Black Tide and Nara Brewing, and the international collaboration won't end when the curtains come down on Pint of Origin. In July, Benchwarmer owner Lachlan Jones has lined up a reciprocal event called Hops On Oz in Tokyo.  

“We're going to do a very similar event,” Locky says, “where we’ll do the launch of the Japanese version of a collab and then tap takeovers from the Australian breweries.”

All of the local breweries involved already send beer to Japan, with the exception of Fox Friday who have plans to do so once their Richmond site is operational. So he reached out to their importers to see how they could help build the profile of Australian brewers.

“There is Australian beer there but it doesn’t get the same attention as American and UK imports because people know the names better,” Locky says.

“So I’m hoping they see these Australian breweries collaborating with the Japanese ones and their names will become more recognisable.”

The importer in Japan is LAFF International, a Tokyo-based business that, as well as working in engineering, distributes beer and runs a brewpub in Kyoto, Yamori-do in Fushimi, and a craft beer bar in the Shibuya neighbourhood of Tokyo.

Naoya Nakagawa is the general manager of craft beer imports for LAFF, a role that sees him bringing in beers from the likes of Range, Deeds, One Drop and Mountain Culture. He's spent three years importing Australian craft beer; before that, he spent eight bringing American craft beer into Japan, so it's safe to say he knows the local market well.

 

Naoya (in the middle) with Deeds' co-founder, Patrick Alé.

 

Naoya says the local craft beer industry has roots in the early 1990s but really kicked off in 2000 when Baird Brewing launched. He says it’s been slow going, reflecting on how much education was needed in the early 2010s, for example around what an IPA was. In recent years, however, he says hazy IPAs have been increasingly popular.

“I think hazy beer has really boosted the expansion of craft beer in Japan,” he says. “They’re beers that have a lot of characteristics and people can find that character really easily.”

However, the craft beer scene faces a range of challenges in Japan, including the high tax rate for beer, the higher cost of such beers, and the popularity of drinks like Sake and Shōchū; the latter of which has enjoyed a growing consumer base in recent years. 

“So a lot of people don’t only drink beer,” he adds. “The beer market is really shrinking but the really small craft beer market is expanding.”

When it comes to Australian craft beer, he likes to promote it as being highly drinkable, localised and driven by distinct notes.

“I think lagers and Australian pale ales are especially drinkable,” Naoya says. “I always say Australian craft beer is really drinkable with lots of characteristics.”

As well as importing Australian beer, LAFF have spent a lot of time promoting it in their substantial craft beer bar in Shibuya, Goodbeer Faucets; the photo at the top of this article is one of many recent events they've held featuring Australian beer. It’s been open for 11 years and, with 40 taps, they tend to dedicate around half to Japanese craft beers and half to imports.

“We can really promote Australian craft beer through it and tell that story,” he says.

It’s in Tokyo that Hops On Oz will take place; Naoya hopes it will lead to Japanese beer drinkers appreciating Australian craft beer as much he does.

“It’s a good opportunity for people to discover Australian craft beer,” he says. “Me and all my staff definitely love it and see Australia as a great craft beer country.”

 

Derrek and Grant from West Coast Brewing with One Drop's head brewer Nick.

 

Among the collaborations that will be available in Melbourne in May and Tokyo in Japan will be one created by One Drop and West Coast Brewing. Derrek Buston founded West Coast in Shizuoka in 2019 after spending decades in Japan running a construction business. Originally from Seattle, he used to return home regularly and was always excited by the dynamic beer scene and high quality of local beer in America.

Today, West Coast operates a number of different venues, including a beer hotel that pours exclusives never tapped anywhere else. Without any flagship beers, they’re a brewery that's frequently innovating: recent releases have included a thiol-boosted IPA, a CBD-infused pale ale, and blackberry and marionberry pilsner.

“In Japan, we have a very specific four seasons so the weather does really change,” Derrek told The Crafty Pint. “So that’s a great catalyst for brewing creatively.

“Being from the West Coast, I’ve had a lot of hop-forward beers and love them, but we don’t just do IPAs and it’s important to not just do the cool kids stuff.”

He says the Japanese beer scene has a number of challenges unique to the country, including the fact that homebrewing isn’t quite legal – while some people brew at home, there's little access to equipment or information in Japanese. There's a significant lack of brewers and, with new breweries regularly opening, they've had to search overseas for staff, along with everything else it takes to run a brewery.

“Everything here is imported so the price can be pretty high,” he adds.

While there is a community of craft brewers eager to learn, he believes the beer scene isn’t as open as he’s found in other countries. It’s why he hopes continued collaborations between Australian and Japanese craft brewers can boost the quality of beer in Japan. He points to another festival, Fuji To Hood, which has already brought positive results. There, Portland breweries pair up with Japanese ones and, from the start, it's helped& change the local beer scene.

“The first one was in 2016 and there were no hazy beers then,” Derrek says. “They made the first hazy beer for that event and things in Japan changed massively after that.”

As Australians start returning to Japan in greater numbers following COVID, Locky hopes craft beer drinkers here can develop a better understanding of the exciting things happening in Japan. For anyone keen to make a start, there's no better place than his West Melbourne bar this May.


You can check out Benchwarmer's lineup for Pint of Origin here

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