Craft beers can be very interesting, downright fascinating even, but let’s be honest: The most interesting ones are usually not those you would buy in bulk to enjoy repeatedly. And yet, there are some craft beers that wear the label with pride and still make for fulfilling long-term relationships rather than wild one-night stands. Japanese craft beers are no different.
The ones on this list come with an added advantage. Chances are, you won’t have to travel to swanky specialty stores to sample them. With a bit of luck, you can find them in your local convenience store (Lawson and 7-Eleven are the most likely at the time of writing, but unpredictability is the blessing and the curse of the convenience store).
Here come five repeatably good Japanese craft beers from smaller breweries that provide just that little extra bit of zing the mainstream competition is lacking.
1. Boku Beer, Kimi Beer
Even if this somewhat hazy ale tasted godawful (it doesn’t), you might still want to buy it just for the irresistibly cute can with the frog mascot. Boku Beer, Kimi Beer (meaning: my beer, your beer) is a Saison-style ale which means you can expect a certain degree of fruitiness and a high amount of carbon.
This one is relatively low on alcohol but so full in taste that it feels like it’s packing a much harder punch than its 4.5 percent. Said taste goes strongly into the citrus direction, which might be psychologically enhanced by the yellow can. Or they put that color on it because of the taste (it used to come in an equally cute white container before). In its sourness, Boku Beer, Kimi Beer might stretch the definition of ‘drinkable’ for some more conservative beer drinkers. But if it’s an acquired taste you’re after, then this one’s relatively easy to acquire.
2. Coedo Ruri Pils
Pilsener-style beers are pretty much the standard brew in many countries, including Japan. That’s why dogmatic craft beer lovers often turn up their noses at them. This pilsener from popular craft brewery Coedo reminds us why we shouldn’t. And that there is a reason why pils was the first love for many of us. Ruri runs down the palate and throat smoothly and velvety, yet is not fuzzy. It’s a drink, after all, not a garment. I had craft beer skeptics hold up cans of Ruri at me, declaring in amazement: “This is actually not bad!” I would go even further in my praise.
3. Echigo Weizen for a Relaxing Time
Yes, that is the beer’s name. Not to be confused with the regular Echigo Weizen (evidently not for a relaxing time). This is definitely one of those beers I initially only bought because of the very Instagrammable can. My weizen (wheat beer) phase was supposed to be over after over-indulging in my early youth. But I feel a second one coming and Echigo Weizen for a Relaxing Time is to blame for it.
Generally, weizen is a strange brew. It looks heavy in its murkiness, yet it tastes rather light. The more you drink, however, the heavier it gets. Admittedly, that is true for any kind of liquid. Still, I always found it especially true for weizen. Drink one and you feel refreshed. Drink two and you feel bloated. Fortunately, weizen beers are more expensive in Japan and come in much smaller portions than in their Bavarian birthplace. Echigo Weizen for a Relaxing Time gives you a full mouth of subtle fruitiness and it’s gone before it overfeeds you.
4. Coedo Kyara India Pale Lager
India pale ale (IPA) has become such a craft-beer cliché that I decided not to mention it in public anymore (except when I mention that I’m not mentioning it). I will sneak one of its gentler siblings onto this list, though. Coedo’s lager version has a similar spiciness to IPA, yet it won’t make you feel like your tongue is covered in fur and will never be able to taste anything again. Drink this if you prefer your beer to have a bit of character, but not more than you.
5. Yona Yona Ale
If you have never seen a can of Yona Yona Ale (every night ale), you probably don’t get out much. And that is perfectly fine in times like these. Yona Yona Ale transitioned from specialty stores to supermarkets, restaurants and beer gardens before any other domestic craft beer. If your conbini only carries one craft beer, it is most likely Yona Yona.
There is, of course, a reason for its popularity. Okay, there are two. Relentless marketing is one. But the other one certainly is its mildly sour, citrusy flavor that refreshes without menace. To get into sour beer, start here, then proceed to Boku Beer, Kimi Beer (see above), finally ask your trusted craft-beer sommelier for something really sour. It will certainly be an experience. Afterward, you might want to return to one of the choices on this list.
The Way of the Beer
Beer can be many things. When you first encounter it, hopefully at a legal-ish age, your beer of choice (although it was most likely chosen for you by others) becomes something like your local football team: You are convinced, without any evidence, that it is much better than that other beer from the neighbor village. You suffer when it’s not doing well. You suffer more when it’s sold away to some foreign beverage conglomerate. When they start taking shortcuts in getting their product from the fields to the glass. When you don’t recognize your old love anymore without looking at the label.
Once you have been disappointed and disillusioned by the beer industry, ‘Big Beer’ if you will, you might turn to craft beer. A whole new world opens. You never knew that beer could taste this way. When sampling my first certified craft beer many years ago, I was convinced it had gone bad. Nevertheless, I persisted. And I’m glad I did.
Featured photo by Ned Snowman via Shutterstock.
All other photos by author.
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