When I first arrived in Japan, I was somewhat disappointed by my perception of limited decent beer selections. It seemed that no matter where I went I could find nothing more on draft than the near identical brews of the ‘big 3’: Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi.
While these can be refreshing and are fine for cooling you down on the hot summer evenings, I still craved more. However, I soon found a burgeoning microbrewery movement that, in the last six months in particular, has exploded with a new craft beer place opening seemingly every week.
The Great Japan Beer Festival
Yes, craft beer (typically beer that is made by small or ‘micro’ breweries independent of the large brewing chains) has taken off in Japan in a big way, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Great Japan Beer Festival. Hosted by the Japan Craft Beer Association (JCBA), the Great Japan Beer Festival (also known as Beerfes) is Japan’s largest beer festival and has been going strong since its inaugural hosting in 1998.
The festival consists of three sessions of three and a half hours each over two days, essentially working on a nomihoudai, or ‘all-you-can-drink’, basis. You will be given a tasting glass on entry along with a list of the available beers. You take this glass to one of the stands with a beer you want to try, and you will be poured a small measure to taste, after which you can move on to as many stalls as you wish to sample.
Being indoors, the Great Japan Beer Festival is a little more formal than the many Oktoberfests and beer festivals that frequent the city. However, whether you are new to craft beers, or are a long-time enthusiast, it is a great introduction to some of the best beers of Japan as well as around the world.
Beerfes Tokyo tips:
- Do choose your time to suit your needs – There is invariably a long queue for entry, so if you are serious about your beer, it is advisable to get there early, as some of the more popular brews can vanish quickly. However, if you just want to enjoy the day at your own pace, after the first hour queues for the beer thin dramatically meaning you can go at your own pace.
- Don’t lose your glass – Your glass is your admission ticket, and with no glass you get no beer. Also, it is a nice little memento to take home with you.
- Do drink water and eat – Take plenty of water breaks, and have a bite to eat now and then, particularly if you are not a strong drinker. This helps you not only cleanse the palette so you can enjoy the next beer, but also to keep you upright.
- Don’t go overboard – The tasting glass may be small, and some breweries may only serve the tiniest of amounts, but it all adds up. If you are there from the beginning, you can be there for more than three hours of drinking, and some of these beers fall into the double figures alcohol by volume percentage-wise. Pace yourself if you want to enjoy the full day.
- Do rinse you glass – Using the rinsing stations regularly is important to ensure that the beer you are tasting isn’t being affected by the previous brew.
- Don’t forget to rank – Many enthusiasts will rank or keep notes on each beer. While this is not imperative, it really helps you remember which ones you enjoyed for future consumption, as after three hours the memory can get a little hazy.
- Do repeat things you like – Just because there are 200 beers to try, it doesn’t mean you can’t go back to something you have enjoyed, and the attendant staff are more than happy to refill your glass.
- Don’t drive – Both venues are easily accessible by public transport, so there is no need to bring your car. However, if you do drive, appoint a designated non-drinking driver. Stay safe, don’t drink and drive.
Great Japan Beer Festival 2017
Where: The Garden Hall at Yebisu Garden Place in Tokyo
When: June 3 and 4, 2017
Afternoon session 11:30 – 15:00 (Last call 14:45)
Evening session 16:00 – 19:30 (Last call 19:15)
Sunday session 13:00 – 16:30 (Last call 16:15)
Price: Advance 4,800 JPY, at door 5,200 JPY
By Mark Guthrie