“It’s like crack!” – declares a group of Americans, walking away from one particular stand at Tokyo Craft Beer Festival 2017 held in Ebisu Garden Hall. It’s time for last call at the event, and after 3.5 hours of intense beer tasting we’re forced to come back to reality… which isn’t as pretty as one might like. The number of people barely able to stand straight or walk is staggering and those pretty tasting glasses keep crashing to the ground one after another. It’s the worst of Japan we’ve seen in one month and, honestly, we’re amazed they managed to get hammered like that in an event meant for beer lovers. But perhaps when you pay 40 euros to get in, any talks about beer culture and pacing yourself go out the window — you just have to drink your share! Or maybe Japanese are real lightweights when it comes to alcohol, and even special liver tonics do nothing to lessen its effect.
The crack-like beer the Americans were talking about was one of the stars that day. And it wasn’t even Japanese craft beer! It was a barley wine from Cambodia, barrel aged for 2.5 years and generously offered by a joyful man behind the stall. Other stars included another barley wine from Alesmith (USA) and (surprise surprise!) another barley wine, although this one was from Japan’s Nasu Kogen Brewery. It sold out so quickly that we didn’t even get the chance to try it. One minute the hall was empty, another there was a huge line in front of the Nasu Kogen stall. The line dissipated pretty quickly, but the beer disappeared with it, too…
Tokyo Craft Beer Festival wasn’t the only beer fest we went to while in Japan. It turns out that Japanese, much like Koreans, like to party the hard way and have multiple beer events lined up one after another. Some of them are not really festivals, but more like semi-permanent beer gardens with food and music. Another one, held in Shinjuku, reminded us what we imagine Oktoberfest to be – rowdy, dirty and crowded, only with more polite people. For example, beer stands in Shinjuku were a graphic designer’s nightmare – tacky and terrible, with no sense of how creating an image works. On the other hand, Hi-Beer Garden in Hibiya Garden between upscale Ginza district and Emperor’s palace was the former’s antidote. High-end snacks (oysters, anyone?) and beer so expensive we wanted to cry. But, for a 1000 yen deposit (that’s around 8 euros) you get to drink from a real glass. You lose it – you don’t get your money back, but at least you can enjoy a short-lived sense of sophistication.
After spending two months in East Asia, there are a couple of things we miss beer-wise. First, decent sized glasses that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. Like, just to be able to sit down, buy a pint for a decent price and happily down it in several gulps. If Korea seemed stingy with their 0.4 l glasses, Japan made us completely miserable, offering glasses as small as 0.2 ml! And for a price of half-decent pint in Lithuania! Another thing we miss is strong, bold flavours. Although Asians are stepping up their craft game, their production is still a bit tame, a bit boring. By the way, someone said that Japan is ahead of South Korea, but we think it rang true a couple of years ago. Now, in 2017, it seems that craft beer in South Korea has stronger identity and has adapted to international trends, while Japan… well, in Japan everything is ‘my pace’, the sometimes baffling, sometimes infuriating reluctance to do stuff the way it’s done everywhere else. The same with beer — even after a month in this country we couldn’t get a decent picture of craft beer scene. Are there enough beer bars? Sure! Are they full of smoking people? Why, yes, of course! Does it bother us? Not anymore! Are there enough breweries? Yup, more than we could count! What are the best/most interesting? Heck if we know — there are just too many names, although most of them offer very average brews.
In short, we faced more challenges than successes in Japan. We have no sense of real craft beer scene, we can’t name the best breweries because there weren’t those who stood out among the rest. But what we do know that again, just like in South Korea, women are avid craft beer drinkers and that’s the thing we like the most about East Asia.
With this, our time in Japan comes to an end. More adventures await in Taiwan – the beautiful island!
And if you’re interested to know what we do in East Asia, we have a Facebook page set up – like, share, comment!