Microbreweries are taking over the east Asian beer scene

By / Wine + Drinks / November 8th, 2017 / 8

The Western world, particularly North America, has exploded with small breweries crafting a diverse range of flavourful beers — and this has been amped up over the past five years. However, this microbrewery explosion is not unique to the West as the East Asian beer scene is now also seeing major growth.

Although there is evidence that early fermented beverages in China — those dating back to before 5000 BC — were at least partially made from grain, and could thus be called beer, the modern history of beer in Asia began with the German influence in the late 1800s. A good example is Japan. German influence resulted in the big brewery Japanese beers most people know today, including Kirin, Sapporo (founded in 1876) and Asahi. As explained in Rod Phillips’ book, Alcohol, A History, the commercial production of beer started in Japan in the 1870s, based on German practices and style, and it quickly displaced much of the foreign beer imports. The first beer hall opened in Tokyo in 1899, but beer was also a popular beverage in teahouses and restaurants. To get a feel for the scene at that time, you can visit the Sapporo Beer Museum and Biergarten in Tokyo, housed in a beautiful 1890 building that was originally a sugar factory.

Similar crisp, hoppy German-influenced lagers are the core of the industry in much of the rest of Asia, including in China (Tsingtao, founded in 1903 by German settlers), Thailand (Singha, Chang), and India (Kingfisher). Just like Bud and Coors — although the Asian lagers are generally more bitter and flavourful — they are still the biggest selling beers in their markets, but microbrewery beers (or Jibiru, as they call them in Japan) are growing in popularity. Pretty much all of East Asia is experiencing a good beer boom.

And, just like in North America, the big breweries are getting into the game, brewing classic European- or American-style beers in addition to their basic golden lagers. But it is the small breweries that pioneered the movement towards full-flavoured beer.

A great example is Shiga Kogen, which I visited way back in 2006 while in the area to see the famous snow monkeys. Produced by the pioneering Japanese microbrewery and historic (since ~1805) sake producer Tamamura Honten in Yamanouchi, near Nagano, Shiga Kogen beers could pass for West Coast microbrews. Their pale ale was inspired by Sierra Nevada — a worthy role model — and they have been brewing Western-inspired hoppy IPAs and porters since 2004. Although, thanks to such pioneers, it’s increasingly easy to find West Coast-style IPAs in Asia, there’s much more on offer.

Charles Guerrier is Conference Director for the Southeast Asia Brewers Conference (SEA Brew, held this year August 17-18 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), and has over 20 years of food and beverage experience in Asia.

While he notes that American-style hoppy beers are one of the two biggest trends in Asia, the other trend is using local ingredients. “Many breweries realize the need to develop their own identity,” he explains, “and work hard to create beers using ingredients their patrons are familiar with.” Examples include Passionfruit Wheat from Pasteur Street Brewing Co., Vietnam; Puppet Master ThaIPA from Full Moon Brew Works, Thailand (a collaboration with Australia’s Stockade Brewing); and Sticky Mango from Lamzing Brewery, Thailand.

As for American-style IPAs and their ilk, “These may not necessarily be the best thing for the Southeast Asian region,” notes Guerrier, “where the weather is hot all year round and not entirely suited to big, bold hoppy beers — more breweries are now starting to move into more subtle varieties in order to grow their market share.”

Guerrier cites these as three of the most exciting breweries in South East Asia:

Pasteur Street Brewing Company (Ho Chi Minh City) – “They have a huge repertoire of fantastic beers and are the leaders in the SE Asian market at the moment. Their Jasmine IPA is a must-have in Vietnam: clean and crisp with a delicate hint of locally grown jasmine.”

Boxing Cat Brewery (Shanghai, China) – “Anything from their barrel-aging project.”

Encanto Brewery (Philippines) – “They are brewing very good lighter beers, less full-bodied, with an aim to opening up the craft beer market in the Philippines and making their flavours more accessible to new craft beer converts.”

The relatively new microbrewing scene in India started in 2009, according to Ajit Balgi, a certified wine educator who runs The Happy High, a Mumbai-based beverage consulting and marketing company. “It started in 2009 in Gurgaon and Pune,” he says, “and then Bangalore, and now there are about 100 brewpubs in India. The number of breweries in Bangalore and Gurgaon in the Indian context is unparalleled, with Mumbai and Pune at a distant third.”

Balgi explains that the Indian consumer is just beginning to wake up to good beer. “Wheat beers, stouts and IPAs are understood by most people,” he notes, although extremely high IBU beers are far from mainstream. “A few trends in the craft scene in India are bottled beers from brew pubs being sold at retail and institutions, and apple ciders,” says Balgi. “Indians have a sweet tooth and these ciders get them initiated into the beer scene.” He, like Guerrier, notes the local trend. “The use of local flavours has been rampant across the country, with some flavours being mango, coconut, jaggery, hibiscus, Indian spices and more.”

Bajit’s two favourite breweries are The Biere Club in Bangalore and The Barking Deer (Mumbai’s first), which opened in 2015. “I like the Fallen Angel Chocolate stout from the latter,” he says. He also recommends Independence Brewing from Pune and Biergarten Bengaluru.

According to Theresa Pinhey, a beer lover from Calgary currently teaching high school English in Japan, the German influence is still strong there. “Nowadays, the most common styles you’ll see here are kölschs, pilsners, and weizens. Some breweries do make ales and other styles as well, but what I have noticed is how the German styles sell big. All the Japanese people here are used to Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, so they generally prefer those flavours, and the microbreweries are reflecting that.”

She has been dipping her toes in the Jabiru scene, including attending the recent Kofu Kraft Bier festival, in Kofu, Yamanashi, featuring breweries from the area. “There were around seven of them,” she says, “which is six more than I anticipated.” In addition to Tokorozawa, from Yamanashi, she was very impressed by Minoh, from Osaka. “They had something different than the others. Most microbreweries in Japan are trying the same thing as everyone else — get an ale, a pilsner, an IPA, a golden … basically everyone is starting with the same formulas. Which is still awesome but Minoh had a lot of different stuff to show.”

In yet another example of the local trend, Minoh brews seasonal beers with ingredients like yuzu, a bitter citrus fruit, and umeshu, Japanese plum wine. “If I had to pick a specific Japanese-special beer,” she says, “that yuzu IPA is definitely up there.”

So, whether you are in Canada or Asia, it’s clear that local is most important when it comes to good beer — and that’s as it should be.


Craig Pinhey discovered good drink circa 1985 at Ginger’s Tavern/Granite Brewery in Halifax and has been writing about beer, wine and spirits for 25 years. A Certified Sommelier and BJCP judge, Craig lives in New Brunswick where he runs his own writing and consulting business and is the beverage columnist for Brunswick News. He is the only person to have judged all of the national wine, spirits and beer awards of Canada.

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