Expressing exactly how much the Japanese love beer is not easy, even if their reputation for drinking the stuff is not as established as the Belgians with their beer monks and centuries of brewing history, the Germans with their claim on the world’s oldest brewery and Oktoberfest, or the Americans with our penchant for chugging Bud Lights by the 30-pack and willingness to shell out $30 or more for a corked bottle of esoteric microbrew.
As our own boozy and debauched travels in Japan can confirm, though, beer is unofficially the national beverage there.
Cold beer is sold by uniformed workers pushing carts down aisles of train cars and from vending machines in hotel lobbies. In convenience stores it’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no laws prohibiting you from drinking it on the streets, in the parks, or on the trains (though doing so can be frowned upon). Hell, you can even get a beer at Burger King.
And anyone who’s been to a stateside Japanese restaurant has encountered at least one of the dominant Japanese brewers; Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo are all readily available at Japanese joints around the country. (Suntory is another big player in the Japanese macrobrew scene, but it’s pretty uncommon here.) These beers are excellent session beers, easy to drink and best served one after another in the presence of good company and plenty of edamame and other otsumami.
But Asashi, Kirin, and Sapporo in Japan play the same role as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller here in the U.S. And just like here at home, beneath the corporate macrobrewing machine in Japan lies a thriving craft beer industry.
After the Japanese beer market became deregulated in 1994, hundreds of microbreweries bubbled up across Japan including plenty of award-winners such as Ise Kadoya, Yo-Ho Brewing Co., Coedo, Minoh, and Biard Brewing Company, just to name a few.
In New York, where all alcohol sold in bars must be purchased from a licensed distributor, don’t expect to find every Japanese craft brew under the rising sun. For example, one of our favorite Japanese micros, Yona Yona ale from Yo-Ho Brewing Co., is exceptionally tough to come by (New Beer Distributors on the Lower East Side purveys it, but we may have recently got our paws on the last cans the place will have for a while; the beer’s importer apparently stopped shipping to the U.S.).
But you can still find a sizable selection of Japanese microbrew as long as you look in the right spots. In your search, you may notice that NYC bars and restaurants are more or less saturated by one brewer, Kiuchi Brewery, whose Hitachino Nest label you may recognize by its stocky owl mascot.
Ben Wiley, who owns the Brooklyn bars Mission Dolores, The Owl Farm, and Bar Great Harry (and the soon-to-open Glorietta Baldy in Bed-Stuy) and once lived in Japan, says there are not many Japanese craft beers that are legally distributed in New York, and getting kegs of the stuff is a logistical hurdle made more difficult by the finicky, temperature-sensitive nature of unpasteurized craft beer. “The only one that seems to do it is Hitachino,” he says. “I’m not sure if there are any others.”
Wiley tries to keep a keg of Hitachino on tap at one of his establishments at all times; you’ll usually find it at Bar Great Harry.
Hit the next page for a short list of spots to drink Japanese craft beer in New York City, including spots that go beyond Hitachino.
Kanoyama Japanese Restaurant
In addition to your standard Kirin and Kirin light, the menu at Kanoyama offers bottles of a handful of microbrews as well as the not-so-common macro Suntory Premium Malts. Those who’ve spent time searching for craft beer in Japan may recognize Ginga Kogen and Tanamo Megumi as familiar transplants from the beer aisles of Japanese supermarkets, but for our money the $10 Echigo Koshihikari–a smooth rice lager–is great on hot summer days. Echigo’s stout is also on the menu.
Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya
The citrusy Ozeno Yukidoke IPA pours a cloudy orange color that matches its flavor well, and is one of several Japanese microbrews offered in bottles at Blue Ribbon. Other selections include the Echigo Koshihikari mentioned above (which, by the way, is gluten-free) and Hitachino White Ale, a fruity, foamy witbier-style ale. Among the drafts at Blue Ribbon, you’ll also find Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace, which is made with Japanese hops of the same name.
Bar Great Harry
Ben Wiley spent five years living in Japan before coming to New York to open Bar Great Harry and its Brooklyn siblings. Wiley said when he was living in Japan craft beer was still an underground scene that he was infrequently exposed to, even in his work as a bartender. But in homage to his years there, Wiley tries to keeps a keg of Hitachino Nest beer in the rotation of his draft offerings, and it’s always available in bottles. These days that means the Nipponia Ale, though Red Rice Ale and Espresso Stout have also made appearances this year.
The Japanese palate has a preference for pilsner-style lager, a fact reflected in the lager-dominant beer selection at Cherry. Macros from Asahi and Sapporo are on draft; you’ll find craft brews like the white weizen and IPA from Ozeno Yukidoke in bottle. Another welcome find is the Orion beer from Okinawa, which is nothing more than a basic lager but comes in a 21-ounce bottle.
Not known for cutting corners, SakaMai has the most robust selection of Japanese craft beers of any restaurant we’ve found in New York City, which is even more impressive considering the place markets itself as a spot to drink sake. There are more than a dozen Japanese craft brews on the menu, including Baird Rising Sun APA, four Coedo brews, and nearly all of the beers mentioned above. SakaMai also offers enough Japanese whisky and sake to intoxicate a small army. As an added bonus, the Japan-inspired cocktail list is honed by award-winning bartender Shingo Gokan (who came to SakaMai from Angel’s Share).
Know of any other good spots? Let us know in the comments.