Is Japan Developing Its Own Voice?

A group of Japanese brewers has descended on the city of Portland. (What's the plural?--a "wort" of brewers, a "tank," a "grist?") They are here for the Oregon Brewers Festival, and last evening they were at Belmont Station to discuss their breweries and beer. I can't say how much they represent new trends in craft brewing, but I did detect a few proclivities that might, if nourished and supported by Japanese drinkers, evolve into something recognizably Japanese.

Let's start with the now. Like so many other countries, the new breweries of Japan are following a typical American model of craft brewing. We were served a Baltic porter, a stout, an IPA, and a pale ale last night, and none of them would have raised an eyebrow had they been labeled "Widmer Brothers" instead of Y Market or Shiga Kogen. German brewing formed the template for the first breweries of Japan, and it seems like that tradition still exerts some pull. Kumazawa Brewing (which makes Shonan Beer) has a lineup of mostly-German styles, for example. But that is quickly giving way to IPAs, stouts, and saisons.

At the margins, however, there are some interesting developments. Several of the breweries in town are also very old sake makers. Unsurprisingly, the use of rice in their beers is common. This is also common in mass market lagers, and the Japanese propensity toward highly-attenuated, drier beers seems to carry through. One of the most popular Japanese beers at the fest is Shiga Kogen Number 10, a burly 7.5% IPA. It is a dead ringer for an American beer in the nose and the front of the palate, but it is noticeably dry in the finish. Curiously, all that dryness doesn't make it seem alcoholic--on the contrary, the booze is very well concealed.

Japanese breweries regularly use local ingredients as well, like yuzu (a citrus fruit), green tea, and Sansho peppercorns. And of course, they have access to barrels from local whisky distilleries, some of which are counted among the world's best. (Japanese whisky is largely made in the Scottish mode.) Hitachino Nest, the most well-known Japanese craft brewery (but which was not among the attendees), also uses ginger, local barley, and ages one of their beers in sake barrels. All of this seems very promising.

According to Jeff's Unified Field Theory of Beer Evolution that I just now invented, what happens when a country enters its "craft" phase is imitation. In the US, we made mainly English ales. The next phase is experimentation, when breweries start fiddling with style and trying to do something creative. That was when, in the US, we started to pimp out our pale ales with extra pounds of American-grown hops. The final stage is creation, when the communication between brewer and drinker results in a brand new beer idiom. A process that resulted, in the US, in these intensely flavored IPAs.

Japan is well into its experimental phase. The final stage is an organic process where styles enter the wild (which is to say the marketplace) to see if they can survive. We'll see what comes next in the next decade or two.