Food and Drink: Will it be a pint of the Japanese, sir?: Some of the world's most innovative beers are to be found in Japan. Soon they'll be found over here, says Michael Jackson
Saturday 26 September 1992
The reason for this is that British brand-names do not succeed with that half of the beer-drinking population which prefers lager. Consumers know that lager is not a British type of beer, and so it has to sound foreign to be credible.
Most of the lager drunk in this country is brewed here; but no brand with a British name has done really well, even if its quality is relatively good. Nor do made-up foreign names succeed. So British brewers pay royalties to companies abroad for the right to use their brand-names and to imitate (with varying degrees of accuracy) their beers.
A marketing man with a big brewery once said to me: 'We in this country have a great beer tradition. Do you think our drinkers would buy a brand with a name originating from a country with no brewing heritage, like Japan?'
I had a dim recollection of hearing similar sentiments concerning the making of radios and televisions, motorcycles and cars, but was not sure my marketing friend would appreciate hearing about it.
Nor, presumably, does he appreciate the fact that style-conscious British drinkers have taken a shine to Sapporo lager - whose Post-Modern can opens up at the top to become a drinking vessel.
No brewing heritage? Since the Germans, Dutch and Americans variously helped Japan establish a brewing industry in the 1860s and 1870s, it has become one of the world's biggest brewing nations.
After Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) and Miller of the United States, and Heineken (including beer brewed under licence) of the Netherlands, Kirin is the world's fourth-biggest brewer. Guinness does not quite make the top 10 and Britain's biggest brewer, Bass, just scrapes into the top 20.
Biggest does not, of course, necessarily mean best. Give me the beer that sells most from any of those top four companies and I would tell you it was not very interesting; but my guess is that, in a blindfold tasting, Kirin lager would emerge as the least bland. Japan's brewers are, for the moment, loyal to at least some of the traditions of brewing, while also being the most innovative in the world.
The traditionalism can be remarkable. Kirin and Asahi - which has a 20 per cent stake in Foster's - both have a stout in their ranges. Asahi's is one of the most traditional, roasty-fruity strong stouts I have tasted. The big four Japanese brewers (Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi and Suntory) all have a traditional Bavarian 'black' (in reality, dark-brown) lager, with the characteristic suggestions of chocolate and toffee. Sapporo also has in Japan a big, malty, Dortmunder-style lager and a hoppy Pilsener-type.
In Suntory's experimental micro-brewery I sampled a spicy wheat beer in the Bavarian style; a fragrant golden ale like those of Cologne; and a copper-coloured Dusseldorfer type. 'Japan is not Europeanising,' I was told, 'we are simply becoming more internationally-minded.'
Some of the European-style beers I tasted in Japan were more characterful than their original inspirations, but I do not expect to see them in Britain. It is more likely that the Japanese will export beers aimed at a lower international denominator.
The standard lager from Kirin is crisp and dryish, and its Sapporo counterpart is spritzy and lightly hoppy, but they represent only the tip of Mount Fuji. I would be astonished if beer-drinking in Britain were not to see much more Japanese influence in the near future.
Until recently, Japan's exports have been restrained by the demands of its own market which, in volume, is the fastest-growing in the developed world. Profitability, and its willingness to reinvest, are both evident in the sheer beauty of Japan's big breweries.
If you think Sapporo's 'export' can (it is not available in Japan) is stylishly Post-Modern, you should see the company's Tokyo Bay brewery. Kirin even has a beer theme park, with a brew pub based on its 1869 original.
Now, despite such promotional activities, growth has slowed. Either the market is becoming saturated or it is being affected by the hesitant economy.
Asahi has made an international impact with its invention of 'dry' beer, which has been widely imitated, especially in North America (Molson's Dry, from Canada, is marketed in this country). 'Dry' beer is so thoroughly fermented as to have hardly any malt sugars left.
Unlike the similar 'diet Pils' type, it is also very low in hops (which impart dryness). It is not dry; it has scarcely any flavour whatever, and is advertised as having 'no aftertaste'.
To promote this deficiency is like boasting that a wine has no finish. 'Dry' beer is lager for people who do not like the taste of lager.
Now, the same brewery has developed an ale for people who do not like ale. I suppose it could have been called Old Inscrutable, but Japan's brewers have some newer ways with brand-names. The 'dry' ale is called 'Z', meaning 'the ultimate in beer'.
Asahi also has a hoppier lager, for people who do appreciate the hint of a flavour. Its name is Wild Beat, rendered in English even in the Japanese market.
In the matter of brand-names, I like Kirin's Ichiban Shibori, meaning First Squeeze. This is a soft-tasting beer made from the first 'pressings' of the malt.
Kirin also has a lager called Ad Lib, rendered in Latin. This is brewed to a strong 10 per cent alcohol by volume and diluted by the bartender, with carbonated water, to whatever strength the drinker fancies. It is not very pleasant at any potency, yet one cannot but admire the ingenuity of such notions.
If British brewers find themselves facing competition here from the lively, imaginative and technically adept beer-makers of Japan, I hope the contest will not be marked by ethnocentric whingeing.
A better idea might be for British brewers to try a little harder with their own products, and to take some of them to the Japanese market. The Department of Trade and Industry has been trying to encourage this, helped by the Japanese external trade organisation, Jetro.
It gave me quite a buzz to see the strong, oaky Traquair House Ale, from Scotland, in the upmarket Takashimaye department store in Tokyo. A beer for people who like whisky, perhaps? That could just work in Japan.
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