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The Business of Beer

US commercial and independent brewers find a sweet spot in Japan

By Martin Foster

American brewers are helping create a new generation of beer drinkers in Japan, adding a spark of excitement for younger people who have been moving away from mainstream brews.

Keith Villa, founder of Blue Moon Brewing Co., brought an admiration for Belgian beers—along with a PhD in beer-making from Brussels University—to his vats when he created the ale in Boulder, Colorado, in 1995.

Now owned by Molson Coors and produced in Shenandoah, Virginia, Blue Moon has only been available Japan-wide since November 2013.

“We want to introduce Blue Moon to Japan as a novel taste,” said Kazuki Abe, marketing director for the brand at Molson Coors Japan Co., Ltd.

Beer consumption is falling in this nation. According to figures from Kirin Holdings Company, only 43.5 liters were consumed per capita in 2012, down 0.6 percent from the previous year.

In Estonia, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, beer lovers drank over 100 liters per capita in the same period.

Molson Coors’ market research has revealed that young Japanese are moving away from pilsner-type, bitter beers, and have developed a taste for something less carbonated and sweeter.

People here have long had a taste for citrus-based flavors, such as kabosu (juicy green citrus fruit) and yuzu.

Hence, it is no surprise that the citrus tang of Blue Moon, which is spiced with coriander and often served with a slice of orange, finds ready appeal with the Japanese, Abe said.

“We feel it is the perfect match,” he added. “The citrus flavor goes well with fish, and the coriander is a little spicy, so it helps refresh the taste buds when eating meat or other types of fatty foods.”

Under its slogan of “World Beer Entertainment in Japan,” the company sees Blue Moon as a flagship product helping to extend the variety of beers on offer here.

Tapping the market
beer-1Bryan Baird takes a different approach to beer making.

“As brewers, we brew beer that we want to drink,” Baird said. “Our job is to lead, not follow, the customer.”

Ry Levell, publisher of Japan Beer Times, a bilingual beer magazine, had this to say about the American beermaker: “Bryan does not think about what beers will sell best; rather, he brews what he likes and says, ‘Ye shall like this.’”

Baird—who honed his trade in California—and his wife Sayuri began to brew and sell Baird Beer in the Fishmarket Taproom in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in January 2001.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing at first. “It was excruciatingly tough-going,” he remembered. It took investments from family and friends to kick-start the business.

Baird Beer now employs about 35 people, caters to over 500 independent accounts, and has taprooms in Numazu, in Tokyo’s Nakameguro and Harajuku districts, as well as in Bashamichi, Yokohama.

Baird’s is a success story in the craft beer arena, but he warns that the Japanese market is not for everyone.

“No brewer can succeed here without a love of Japan and a Japanese cultural toolbox,” he said. “If you lack one or the other, don’t even think about it.”

Just this summer, Baird boldly moved the brewery to bigger facilities in the Shuzenji area of Izu City. The new brewery opened on June 1 and contains three brew houses.

Two new beers are also in the testing pipeline for eager beer drinkers: Shuzenji Heritage Helles and Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale.

Betting it all on beer
beer-2Scott Brimmer sat on a prefabricated patio above the Brimmer Beer Box in Tokyo’s Aoyama district as he said, “Beer has been one of the most important decisions in my life.”

Brimmer started his own craft beer brewery in Kawasaki in 2011, after having worked for almost 10 years at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in California, and Gotemba Kogen Beer in Shizuoka.

In order to get the official go-ahead for his project, Brimmer had to prove his brewery could sell 60,000 liters of beer.

“Before we had a product, before we had a company, we had to convince bars, restaurants, and distributors to give us written permission, saying ‘We expect to sell this much of your product this year’—without even tasting our product!”

Brimmer and his wife, Yoshiko, put their entire life savings of about ¥25 million into the business, and took on part-time jobs, including delivering NTT phone books, to make ends meet during the six-month period while waiting for the paperwork.

“Eventually, we got approval. But, I swear to God, if it had come two months later, we probably would not have had a brewery.”

Brimmer favors the malt characteristics of British ales, and most of the ales he produces are based on Crisp Marris Otter, a classic British malt.

Four beers are on offer at the Brimmer Box: a pale ale, a porter, a golden ale, and a seasonal specialty ale.

Tomoko Shiguma runs a boutique nearby, and dropped in while we were there to sample the golden ale. “Very easy to drink. It has a fruity aftertaste,” she said approvingly.

Brimmer Beer tripled capacity in its first two-and-a-half years, and Brimmer is negotiating for factory space that will allow capacity to triple again.

“We are in the right place at the right time as far as the brewing industry goes,” he said.

And that is good news for beer drinkers in Japan, who will benefit from all these original beers brewed with skill and conviction.


Martin Foster is a writer who has lived in Tokyo since 1977. After a career in financial journalism, Martin has recently ventured into environmental issues.