Japan has 2 names for craft beer that are commonly used, “craft beer” (クラフトビール) and “ji-biru” (地ビール). When you see these phrases you need to be a little careful. Generally they can easily be lumped into the same category and you can be sure that you are getting a good beer, but this is not always the case.
Craft beer (クラフトビール) is a pretty simple translation from the English phrase that we all know and love. Like in English, craft beer is not a strictly defined name and it doesn’t always mean you are getting what you think it is. Many major labels are trying to take the craft beer label and use it in either their own brands or in their alternative brands. You will see things such as “Craft Select” or “Craftsman” used for major labels and you will see major labels with large ownership of full ownership of previously independent craft breweries. Like anywhere in the world, a lot of research is required to know which is which but generally the phrase craft beer is still pretty safe in Japan.
To understand ji-biru, we first have to break down what it means. Ji-biru (地ビール) comes from 2 words, “ji” (地) which means ground or earth, but when combined with another word it actually means “local”. The second word, “biru” (ビール) is pretty simple as it literally means “beer”. The general translation of ji-biru is “local beer”, which can have both positive and negative connotations.
Ji-biru is positive in the fact that the major beer manufacturers can’t really take the phrase. They are definitely not local manufacturers but this is a double edged sword. In the past, many local tourist boards worked with local companies to create beer that would be a tourist draw for the local communities. It was advertised as ji-biru and people bought it. The problem with this is they often didn’t know how to make good beer and ended up hurting the image of ji-biru.
This problem was resolved by many companies switching to the craft beer moniker in recent times, but many local companies are catching on and also using the craft beer to describe their beers. Ji-biru is not inherently bad and some companies that make good beer still use this method of labeling. I have no problems trying a beer labelled as ji-biru to see if it is a good quality beer but you can never be sure until you try it; but the same goes for craft beer. The basic way to tell if it is a good beer or not, is to try a lot of different beers in Japan and learn what types of label styles are usually good and which are usually poor.
Whether you buy a craft beer or a ji-biru, it takes experience to know which companies make beers that you like and which companies make beers you don’t prefer. It is always a fun adventure to see what people are making and to see what new companies are up to. I always get excited to try new beers, especially from new companies. You never know if it will be up to your preferences or not. I still go back to companies where I didn’t really like their beers to see if things have gotten better or if they make a new beer that I like. Tastes change and brewers improve so you can never discount a company with a beer you didn’t like after a few years.