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Author of ‘Craft Beer in Japan’ leaves no stein unturned

'Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide'
‘Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide’

For anyone interested in Japanese craft beer, Mark Meli has taken one for the team. Or several hundred.

Meli’s extensive sampling at breweries, bars and festivals has culminated in “Craft Beer in Japan: The Essential Guide,” labeled the first English-language guide to what is commonly called ji-biru. This insightful and comprehensive book, published on September 12, provides details about the growing number of breweries creating alternatives to the industrial lagers that dominate Japan’s drinking landscape.

Short sections of the book describe the history of Japanese beer, the differences between Japanese and Western brewing styles, and the infuriating licensing system that can stifle new brewers in this country.

Another part briefly touches on marketing for the so-called “Japanese palate,” a topic I would love to have heard more about from the author, a professor of cross-cultural studies at Kansai University.

Of course, the bulk of the 206-page book comprises reviews featuring more than 100 craft beer makers, from bigger names like Baird Brewing to hidden gems like Moku Moku Brewery and its highly praised but largely inaccessible weizens and ales. Meli rates around 800 individual beers, including seasonal offerings and one-offs, and mentions around 200 others.

His coverage extends to the chocolate beers sold for Valentine’s Day, the questionable products designed primarily as tourist souvenirs, and some drinks that seem uniquely Japanese. Anyone up for some Goya Dry?

Positive or negative, the bite-sized reviews explain what one can expect from each tipple.

For example, a top-rated lager from Miyazaki Prefecture is tantalizingly described as: “Big citrus hop aromas precede flavors of rich, juicy malts, light fruits, and perfect bitterness. Ends with a Riesling-like dryness.”

Meli also offers constructive criticism to brewers for the beers that don’t work.

The occasional typos and font errors can be an annoyance. And visually, “Craft Beer in Japan” is rather uninspired for a guidebook. Larger, better-lit photos and more creativity in the layout would have helped.

However, these drawbacks are minor and can be easily overlooked given the wealth of information about ji-biru. The guide lists bars, restaurants, shops and festivals around Japan that serve craft beer. And Meli was kind enough to explain what to expect in terms of prices, crowds, accompanying food and service.

He also provides a few pages of Japanese words that might come in handy at beer-drinking sessions, as well as best lists to help newcomers to the scene pick winners.

Written in a straightforward manner, with a bit of humor sprinkled here and there, “Craft Beer in Japan” is intended to help spread interest around the world in ji-biru. This highly-recommended book is definitely a step in the right direction.

Note: Published by Bright Wave Media, Inc. (2013); price 2,500 yen (print) and 1,000-2,000 (digital)