Brewing beer for home consumption in Japan is legal, and there are companies here that sell brewing supplies and that is perfectly legal as well. So why does all this sound like it is leading up to a great big “but…”. Because it is! Brewing in Japan is legal, but only up to 1% alcohol. Anything above that is in breach of regulation. This puts the homebrewer in a bit of quandary, since any beer you brew or dilute to 1% is going to taste terrible, and then what exactly is the point of doing it all yourself? Luckily, nobody has been prosecuted for home production and consumption since 1989. The opinion seems to be as long as you aren’t selling it on the streets all is fine. The authorities are far more concerned with collecting the onerous liquor taxes then they are with drunken homebrewers. There are no roving bands of beer cops testing your homemade IPA to make sure it is within regulation.
Ok, so if we don’t have to worry about jail time, what do we have to worry about? The biggest hurdles to brewing here are space and temperature. Japanese apartments are small. There simply is not a whole lot of room for big 5 gallon buckets, giant boil pots, or glass carboys. Once you find a place for everything and everything in its place you have to figure out how to manage the temperature. Basements are almost unheard of in Japan, and most Japanese residences are uninsulated. Things can get quite hot during the summer days and quite cold during the winter nights. Extreme temperatures and yeast are not very good friends, and can lead to off flavors and crummy beers. I myself have worked around that limitation by mostly brewing in Spring and Fall, though even with that I have had some temperature problems. It can be hard, but every bump in the road is a learning experience.
In late October I made a nice basic hefeweizen as a malt-extract with specialty grains that turned out quite nicely. For the non-homebrewers out there that means that I used a syrup made from malted wheat and barley as the base of my beer, and steeped some grains to add more complex and interesting flavors.
This past weekend I made a Vienna Lager and tried something new and a bit more ambitious. Rather than just soaking grains in hot water and adding malt extract to that, I actually mashed about half of the fermentables. Mashing means soaking your grains in water of a specific temperature for a specific amount of time. This converts the sugars from a form fit for making barley plants into a form fit for yeast to eat and create alcohol. While mashing adds another step to homebrewing, it also adds more customization options to recipes and hopefully a better tasting end result. By mashing half and using malt extract for half I added more unique malt flavors into my beer, while keeping my required equipment as low as possible.
This latest brew being a lager is also a bit of a departure. Ale yeast is a bit easier to work with as it functions at higher temperatures and doesn’t require the long “lagering” period of cold storage. My thought with doing a lager here in late November is to make the cold weather work for me. My apartment isn’t warm enough to provide a good home for an ale, but it should be cold enough to provide a nice home for some lager yeast. And as the temperatures drop and winter proper approaches I should be able to lager the beer in the chill of my own home. This is by far the most complex beer I have made yet, so I will admit a certain level of trepidation in how it will all turn out. No matter what the end result is, it has already been a great learning experience, and I know that future beers will benefit from what I have learned and will learn as things proceed.
Homebrewing in Japan is a hobby with some extra challenges, but it is still fun and rewarding. There is something very satisfying about sipping a delicious beer and thinking “yeah… I made this!” If you are interested in starting out for yourself, the two main homebrew supply stores are Brewland and Advanced Brewing. I have ordered from both, and both have their strengths. Advanced Brewing has a better website and better selection, while Brewland has good customer service and ships FAST. For the Vienna Lager my order shipped within 15 minutes, and was on more doorstep less than 24 hours after I ordered it.
Have you done any homebrewing in Japan, or elsewhere? What turned out well? What lessons did you learn? Tell us all in the comments!