Around the world there are 3 major types of beer and all of them have their pros and cons. You have the major companies, also called big or macro beer, with companies in Japan such as Kirin and Asahi. You then have craft beer, the smaller guys trying to make interesting beers, such as Shiga Kogen and Iwate Kura. Lastly you have the homebrewers of Japan, like those around the world, strive to make great beers at home for their own consumption or to share with friends and family.
Big beer in Japan is really good compared to America and Canada. While they specialize in lagers and pilsners, they are really good at making a high quality product in mass quantities. As Mitch Steele, a brewer with Stone Brewing and a former brewery of Anheuser-Busch, big beer always strives to make consistent beers that are of the same taste and quality. I believe Japan has strived to do the same with a few differences to their processes. They often add rice as an adjunct, rather than corn in North America. The biggest change comes from Asahi with their Super Dry label which has a special enzyme that helps create a crisp dry taste that is really popular.
The other major difference of big beer in Japan to North America is that they don’t have as many alternative brands. In North America, big beer relies on a variety of brands with a product overlap in some areas. In Japan they tend to rely on their namesakes. The big beer companies are Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, Suntory, and Orion. Kirin and Asahi are the kings with light rice lagers being their main staples. Sapporo is the king of Hokkaido but has a respectable market share throughout Japan as well, especially their Yebisu brand. Suntory is one of the smaller big beer breweries but they also focus more on a fuller bodied beer compared to the others. Orion is the undisputed king of Okinawa and trying to expand into the rest of Japan and has a distribution deal with Asahi for areas outside Okinawa.
Craft beer in Japan is relatively young compared to North America and Europe. While beer has a long history, since Europeans visited Japan, craft beer is something that has never really flourished until the 2000s. With most of the pioneers of this market having to fight really hard against big beer that had the law on their side, craft beer in Japan can trace its birth to 1994 when the government relaxed their beer laws to allow microbreweries. It was very slow at first and while the laws are still prohibitive of nano breweries it is showing promise with new breweries popping up every year. Currently it is getting harder and harder to keep up with the new breweries around Japan as they keep popping up.
Craft beer restaurants are also popping up in droves around Japan. Currently craft beer is experiencing its biggest boom since it got started. With new craft beer restaurants and bars seemingly opening up every month, or even every week, it is hard to walk around an area without running into a shop without craft beer. While lower end shops such as neighbourhood izakaya and large chains still stick with big beer, independent upscale restaurants and bars are starting to flock to craft beer as the market is expanding. Education is still a problem within Japan but with time the general people of Japan will learn more about craft beer as other markets around the world have as well.
Homebrewing in Japan is not popular and very hard to do in Japan. Technically, it is illegal to make regular beer at home, but it is also completely legal within the definition of the law. Brewing beer in itself is not illegal, but fermenting your wort above 1% is illegal. I am unsure of whether or not you are allowed to ferment above 1% and then reducing the alcohol content via various methods.
While it is technically illegal to brew beer over 1%, there are several ways homebrewers are able to brew beer in Japan. There are a couple of major online homebrew retailers that specialize in both beer and wine. The products they have are limited compared to other countries where homebrewing is popular. Getting fresh hops and liquid yeast is also more difficult as suppliers cannot justify importing them in small quantities. Basically, if you plan to make your own beer in Japan it is a challenge but it isn’t impossible. You just need to be resourceful with what you have and realize you will be limited in what ingredients and what equipment you have unless you import it from overseas yourself.
As you can see, the beer industry in Japan is varied and pretty similar to many other markets. The craft beer market may be young but it is growing and maturing. The quality of craft beer in Japan continues to grow and they continue to fight big beer to keep their niche of the market. There may not be any change in the homebrewing laws anytime soon but the market also seems to be holding steady. Beer in Japan is here to stay and you can be sure it will continue to grow and mature in its own unique way here in Japan.