Beer is the third most popular drink in the world. The only things that beat it out are water and tea. Still, #3 is pretty high up there. Countries all across the globe have a variety of their own brands, styles, and tastes. In recent years, the craft beer sector of the beer world has seen an incredible amount of growth, especially in places like the USA and Europe. Small to mid-level brewers have begun making their names known (some globally) to resounding success. Japan is not exempt from this trend, and while growth has been slow for craft beer here, it has certainly been steady.
Beer in Japan is dominated by the “Big Four” – Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo. These four companies make up about 96% of the Japanese beer market, and it’s been that way for a very long time. Beer was first introduced in Japan sometime in the mid 1800’s, and the first brewery was established by a western dude shortly after, in 1869. A few years following the creation of this brewery (1884), the place was bought by Japan Brewery Company, which later partnered with Meiji-ya to market Kirin, which we still see in stores today. From that period until the mid 90’s, beers produced by the “Big Four” dominated the brew world of Japan.
In 1994, however, Japan’s strict brew tax laws were relaxed. Suddenly, if you could produce at least 60,000 liters of beer a year, you could sell to the nation! Hallelujah!
Interest was there, absolutely. From 2003 to 2009 demand for craft beer increased in Japan a whopping 100%. Pretty impressive for a relatively new industry. Today, in 2012, Japanese craft (or ji-biru, as it is called here) is popping up in supermarkets, convenience stores, and hundreds of festivals celebrating this awesome range of adult beverages. The industry grows somewhere between 8 and 15% each year.
Despite all this awesomeness, there are still some challenges. Craft beer still has somewhat of a reputation in the minds of many as a bad-tasting old man’s drink. In addition, the distribution chain here is a complex web built on tradition, faxes, and existing relationships. Wholesalers, distributors, and retailers all have cooperated for decades, and getting involved in the mix can prove to be a difficult task. It’s especially difficult if you’re a small brewer with a small team whose primary goal is to make good beer; having a sales/promotion team often simply isn’t part of what you’re capable of. Yes, the larger craft brewers like Yoho Brewing, Kiuchi, and Ginga Kogen have these resources, but there are literally more than 200 brewers out there who do not.
That’s where we come in. About 41% of craft beer sales come from online stores. 27% come from craft bars, and another 18% or so are direct from the brewer at their on-site pub or restaurant. The online sales section of the craft beer world consists largely of small websites put together by brewers. These sites, like the brewers and their products themselves, have not been experiencing resounding success due to low levels of promotion.
This summer I joined the team at CraftBeerTrader.com. We’re setting out to help these brewers in Japan, educate people about craft beer all over the world, and of course, allow all of us the opportunity to drink delicious, interesting, locally produced beer. If we’re able to help better support the industry, it can lead to expansion of the industry within Japan(and the rest of the world, someday)!
The site is made up of four basic parts: a shop (where you can buy beer), a media library (where you can educate/entertain yourself with information related to beer), an industry directory (where industry-connected individuals and businesses can form partnerships both domestic and international), and an events page (where you can see craft-beer related events going on around Japan).
Our work consists of reaching out individually to each brewer within Japan(and by no means have we accomplished this yet). In many cases, we meet the brewers in person via a brewery visit or at a festival. We share our concept with them, and ask if they’d like to be a part of it. As of writing this post, we have 11 breweries selling their beer on our website, and we’re adding more nearly every week at this rate. Everything that gets ordered comes directly from the brewer. We don’t have a warehouse or keep any stock; the brewers themselves are in control of everything that goes out, so you know it’s fresh! To say we’ve had a busy summer is an understatement. We’re still working hard on building, adding, and getting more new brewers on board!
If you’d like to, you’re more than welcome to come and check things out! You can post your own favorite media, contribute to our events section, and if you’re a business or someone connected to the industry, you can stick a listing on our site too. Oh yeah, and you can buy beer. Head over to craftbeertrader.com and check it out! By all means, send us your feedback. We’re constantly working on ways to improve our existing website. It’s available both in English and in Japanese, so be sure to tell all your friends about it too!
If you want to learn more about what we’re doing, feel free to leave a comment or email me! Additionally, if you’ll be attending the YouTube Live event this Saturday, be sure to come find me! I’m bringing some special goodies available exclusively to those at the event, and one lucky person will take home a very tasty prize.
I hope you find this as interesting and fun as I do! If you do, put down the Super Dry, go drink something good, and don’t look back!