Beer, as everyone knows, is historically European and all the great and popular styles we enjoy today are derived from some type of European beer brewed centuries ago. It is surprising then that one of the most successful nations for brewing on the planet is an Asian one.
Beer had humble beginnings in Japan. But four centuries ago, Japan practiced sakoku, a self-imposed isolationist policy. Its first interaction with Westerners was Portuguese traders not allowed to set foot on the mainland. They were housed on an artificial fan-shaped island outside Nagasaki called Dejima. The Japanese powers that be weren’t excited to have the Catholic Portuguese spread their religion into Japan. After an uprising by the small Christian population in the Shimbara-Amakusa region of Japan, the Portuguese were booted, and the less missionizing Dutch allowed to fill their place on Dejima.
The Dutch opened a beer hall for sailors on the artificial island, and this became the first taste of Western beer in Japan. After Commodore Perry pried open Japan for trade in 1854, foreign beers became available in Japan in limited quantities in the foreign settlements. It was soon after the start of the Meiji era that trained brewers from the West showed up to jump start the local beer industry.
Kirin appeared first in 1869, set up by a Norwegian-American as the Spring Valley Brewery. In 1876, the Japanese government backed the establishment of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido to aid in economic development. What would later become Asahi started as the Osaka Beer Brewing Company in 1889. Ten years later, Suntory Holdings Limited was also established in Osaka.
Although beer had a multiple century headstart in Europe, Japan wasn’t really all that far behind in the establishment of industrial brewing behemoths. The Carlsberg Group was founded in 1847. Anheuser-Busch, in 1852. Heineken, since 1873. The key difference is that the conglomerates in the US and Europe eventually wiped out nearly all of the smaller brewers that were there before. In Japan, the conglomerates were, more or less, the first serious brewers of scale. Which means the Japanese breweries faced an additional issue the Europeans did not: getting an entire population culturally unaware of beer to embrace it.
But that’s what the Japanese have always been good at. Adaptation. Their cuisine has always borrowed from others. A Japanese curry is the Japanese interpretation of a Western curry which, itself, is an interpretation of an Indian one. Tempura and castellera cakes were snatched from the Portuguese kitchen. The Japanese car industry started out, before the Second World War, mimicking European or American models. Since the 1960’s, it emerged as one of the top three automotive producers, surpassing Germany.
Why should the Japanese be any different asserting their beers? By 1886, not long after just two of the big four Japanese breweries came into existence, the amount of domestically produced beer exceeded imports. Just twenty years after that, the brewing industry in Japan underwent major consolidation to prevent too much domestic competition and only a decade later, Japanese breweries were exporting into Asia.
Japan enjoyed advantages Western brewing nations didn’t. It was the first industrialized nation in Asia, and it was surrounded by other Asian countries with far inferior industrial capacity. As fellow Asians, the Japanese could economically integrate more efficiently with other Asian economies. And Japan, as the industrial ‘Westernized’ country, had access to Western cultural innovations most Asian nations did not.
Japan may have lost the Second World War, but ultimately, it actually achieved its objectives. Instead of controlling the rest of Asia as colonial fiefdoms, Japan did so behind the scenes by becoming a huge investor in other Asian economies. Japan is one of the largest investors in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, to name a few. Thus, it is no surprise that its products – and its beers – are found throughout the region and beyond.
Japanese industrial beers are no more diverse than the industrial beers you’d see in most other countries, tending towards the 5% pale-ish lagers seen elsewhere. The Japanese, however, have a certain aesthetic appreciation most countries lack. Balance is key. As such, whatever the Japanese make, including beer, meets a greater-than-typical standard. Moreover, the Japanese have earned a reputation worldwide for quality and care. While this may not be true 100% of the time – Japanese fish are as toxic as any other fish caught in similarly polluted waters – consumers willingly accept that the mark of Japan signifies the product won’t be a lemon and are willing to pay a premium for it.
How else to explain that three out of the Japanese Big Four breweries (Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo) have beers that nearly everyone is familiar with? And with Suntory’s purchase of Orangina, U.S. bourbon producer Beam, and the Lucozade and Ribena brands, Japan’s fourth brewery will likely be showing up on international shelves, too. Other nations are lucky if just one of their famous brews is known and available abroad.
It surely doesn’t come down to premium ingredients. Japanese chocolate makers like Meiji use shortcuts, such as substituting cheaper vegetable oil for prized cocoa butter, but the final product doesn’t taste cheap. Rather it tastes more delicious than other chocolates in the same price category. Similarly, Japanese industrial brewers aren’t above adding cheaper adjuncts like rice and corn, chemicals, and foaming agents to their beers just like oversized breweries in other nations would. It’s the care by which the Japanese execute these finely precisioned shortcuts which sets them apart.
The same mentality pervades the Japanese craft beer market. Japanese craft brewers first mimicked the new craft styles being brewed in the West, but it didn’t take them long to develop their own spin. Today’s Japanese craft brewers manufacture beers made with Japanese hops and barley (Hitachino Nest), Japanese herbs and spices (Nippon Craft Beer), and closely associated Japanese ingredients like wasabi (Baird Beer). It’s different enough to set it apart, and you know if it’s exported, it’s never lousy quality.
Everyone can drink to that.