Book Review: Brewed in Japan (Jeffrey Alexander)

Book Review: Brewed in Japan (Jeffrey Alexander)

Brewed in Japan by Jeffrey Alexander

Of the many cool things that Japan has—anime, cars, Godzilla—beer vending machines should be included on the list as well. They’re easy to use and are almost everywhere, from rural communities to large cities. The machines are everywhere, from train stations to alleys, offering all brands and types of Japanese made beers.

It was a long road for Japan to have beer as easily available as a sports drink. In fact, there was nothing inevitable about beer being made in Japan at all. Brewing was how tea, sake and soy sauce were made. Beer did not come to Japan until very late in its history, during the 1800s. Once it arrived, beer slowly became enmeshed in Japanese society and culture with brands that are now recognized around the world.

Before Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo became global brands, beer was what the resident foreigners in Japan drank. As Jeffrey Alexander writes in his book, Brewed in Japan, Europeans and Americans imported and brewed small batches to remind themselves of their home countries. But the first reaction of the Japanese to beer’s taste was…harsh. A high-level official in the Japanese emperor’s court named the drink “bitter horse-piss wine.”

Despite the strong reaction of some Japanese consumers, beer as an imported drink became fashionable as an exotic Western item when the nation opened itself to trade from the rest of the world. Germans were key to Japan’s embrace of beer, but only after the Dutch and the Americans had made crucial inroads. The Dutch were the first to bring beer to Japan and made it available to the Japanese when playing newly fashionable games of billiards and badminton. Japanese soon began to buy beer to drink after meals, viewing it as an aid to digestion. Drinking beer as a refreshment grew quickly among the Japanese consumer with the establishment of domestic brewing in Japan. An American, William Copeland, (a Norwegian immigrant who was born Johan Martinius Thoresen) helped lay the foundation for brewing beer in Japan during the 1870s. His Spring Valley Brewery adhered very closely to the reinheitsgebot of German brewing traditions and would eventually become Kirin Brewery.

Charting these beginnings and moving through to today, the author uses his Japanese language skills to plow through company records from Japan’s breweries and documents from governmental archives to reveal how beer, primarily lagers, steadily displaced sake as the preferred Japanese drink. The development of a uniquely Japanese “dry” style of lager is also covered and how it launched Japan as a powerhouse beer exporter. The book also includes some rare examples of printed vintage Japanese beer advertisements; the artwork on the cover of the book comes from a 1920 Sapporo beer poster. This level of in-depth research makes the book an exceptionally valuable resource.

Although it is an academic book, it is largely an accessible read with many fascinating parts. The sections on the early Japanese dependence on German brewing traditions and ingredients as well as the American occupation of Japan after World War II are especially absorbing. An updated edition of the book might include more about Japan’s craft beer industry. With over 600 craft breweries, the Japanese desire for beer styles other than lager has been slowly cutting into the market share of the historically dominant, larger domestic breweries.

Japanese craft beer is available in many parts of the United States, but it is hard to find, while Japanese rice lager was a brief trend among some American craft breweries. As the history of beer in Japan has shown, there are few barriers for Japan to continue to create new beers and bring them to the world.

  • Paul R. Kan

Paul R. Kan

Donate to Maui wildfire relief; get a free book. Paul is offering to send a free copy of his book, Hawai’i Beer: A History of Brewing in Paradise, to anyone who makes a donation of any amount to help Maui relief.  It’s on the honor system, and people can e-mail Paul at, after they’ve made a donation to provide their address. If you’re looking for a beer-related way to support, Maui Brewing has a relief fund that is soliciting donations.

(Please also read Paul R. Kan’s other article about Hawaii and beer here: From Central PA to the Pacific: A Beer Lover’s Hawaiian Journey An Interview with Alexander B. Gates.)

Paul grew up in Hawai’i and knows its unique culture, traditions, and history. He is the author of Hawai’i Beer: A History of Brewing in Paradise, which the North American Guild of Beer Writers awarded second place for Best New Book of 2021. He currently lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Paul R. Kan Articles

The following are articles that Paul R. Kan has written here for The Beer Thrillers:

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