Dining & Drinking | Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide

Mark Meli, a professor of cross-cultural studies at Kansai University in Osaka, has tasted over 1,700 varieties of ji-biru, or Japanese craft beer. As an exchange student living in a dormitory in Kyoto, Meli first developed a taste for Belgian Duvel and other European brews introduced to him by a dorm buddy. Japan’s beer, though, was to him, “… expensive and usually not very interesting.” While on a number of sabbaticals researching European approaches to the study of Japanese culture, friends in Belgium, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary took him round to their local bars and brew pubs where he fell in love with their traditional lagers and became consumed with a new research topic.

When he settled back in Kyoto, he thought he would have to return to drinking the bland lagers of the big Japanese brewers—then he tasted a stellar Ginga Kogen weizen purchased at a shop in his neighborhood. He’s spent the following six years immersed in the world of Japanese ji-biru and the result is Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide, the first English-language book on Japanese craft beer.

As its title suggests, this is not a treatise on the history of beer and brewing in Japan. Meli does spend a few pages introducing the history of beer in Japan, detailing it’s resemblance to sake production (rice wine is brewed very much like beer), dispelling the propaganda of the refined Japanese palette, explaining the economics and taxation of the drink (beer, happoshu and more) and dispensing some beer-related Japanese vocabulary; but the bulk of this pocketable guide is all about how and where to experience the joys of this country’s quality microbrews.

Those readers who just want to know what beers to try or to cross off their list will benefit from the “Best-of Lists” supplied right up front. No need to scour the book, Meli provides his lists in alphabetical order within sections on small and large brew pubs, beers by style, top overall breweries as well as special mentions and up-and-comers to slake your rising thirst. Then he presents a section of all the ji-biru fests on the yearly calendar so you can plan your drinking ahead of time. The rest of the book is a guide to over 219 breweries in Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, complete with ratings, origins, full contact details and independent tasting notes.

Meli also lists the big four and their premium beers with tasting notes, as most are bound to down them on occasion. He caps off the book with recommendations for 136 bars, pubs, taprooms markets and shops to buy and drink quality Japanese microbrew.

If you love quality beer, this is an easily recommended book to stash in your attaché or backpack.

Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide (Bright Wave Media, 2013, 206pp, ¥1,250) Available at Amazon.jp and the Japan Beer Times website.


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