By – Julian Silveria
Craft beer has always had an uphill battle, mainly because of the price, and it goes without saying that the prices in Japan for craft beers are absurdly high. Six-packs in the states start at around 10~12 bucks, while a single bottle in Japan starts at around ¥500, and a pint will often set you back at least ¥1,000. I am a self-proclaimed daily “budget drinker”. Even while working at a brewery in California, where you get a ton of free beer and 50% off anything anytime, I always factor in price when it comes to craft beer. An American can easily understand that a more expensive beer does not necessarily equate to a better beer, however that may not be the case for the Japanese and their spending culture. I may work in the industry, but this article speaks for the consumer.
The first thing about the Japanese bar/beer scene is the no tipping culture. This is unfortunate for the workers, but glorious for American consumers. While tipping (in the states) was considered an option, anyone with any dignity or respect for the industry tipped. Therefore, many people would always add another couple dollars to the base price. Another thing about Japan and their bar scene is their lack of a happy hour. There are some places, but it’s negligible in the craft beer scene in this case. As you can imagine, I lived for happy hour in the states. So if a pint of craft beer cost around 7~9 bucks during sad hours plus another couple dollars for tip, then you are easily spending 10 plus dollars for a pint. There isn’t much of a difference between draft prices, but keep in mind, we’re talking pints! Japan often has a 350mL (12oz) draft thing for the same price, so watch out for that.
Now we get into the bottles and cans. One can argue that if you are going for one drink, then cracking open a bottle or can at ¥500~¥900 is cheaper than the ¥1000 draft. Most are 350mL (12oz), but recently we’ve been seeing more and more 470mL (16oz) cans. I’m not a math genius in any way, but if you are having just one beer, then by all means the individual can/bottle is a cheaper deal, but who the hell only has one beer? If you have say 3, at an average of ¥750 each then you are comparing 1,000mL (36oz) to 3 pints (1,400mL/48oz) then by going the pint route, you already have 350mL (12oz) more for the same price. This of course is just an alcoholics way of saying draft is still a great deal even in Japan and we haven’t gotten into flavor, variety, or any of the other metrics. Before getting into any of that, pay close attention to the size of the pour!
Being fairly new to Japan, I have fallen many times for the ¥350 for a draft deal. You walk into a cool looking joint, order a draft, which is almost always a Kirin, Sapporo, or Asahi, which is fine once in a while, and they hand you a small plate with nuts or something. Well, that plate of nuts costs you an additional ¥500 whether you wanted it or not. This is basically like a dine-in fee or something, but that ¥350 Kirin is now ¥850 for the first one. Now in all fairness, there is a time and place for this kind of bar, but for all of the intents and purposes of a budget drinker, we avoid these places. To all the bars, bottle shops, and restaurants I’ve been to so far that specialize in craft beer, they don’t follow this practice. That being said, I do feel that these traditional Japanese dive bars are indirectly helping the craft beer scene since you can get an awesome craft beer for the same price in an equally awesome environment. The only thing going for these bars now is convenience.
Craft beer in Japan is expensive, there’s no getting around that. So then how do you justify the price and create a revolution in a county that already drinks like fish? You get beer in people’s hands; it’s as easy as that. Once it’s in their hands, we can educate and they can come up with their own reason as to why craft beer is worth its price.
About Julian: Julian has been a home brewer for many years and worked at Whole Foods in their specialty beer and wine department; which got his foot in the door of Firestone Walker Brewery as their beer educator. He knows the ins and outs of Firestone Walker Brewery but felt he needed to move to Japan. He is currently the Marketing/Event planner at Antenna America, where he educates the staff and customers of different beer styles and breweries.