While the first alcohol you order on your trip to Japan will undoubtedly be sake, there’s a whole liquid landscape of delicious craft beer waiting to be explored as well. The northern region of Kyoto Prefecture is the perfect spot to dive into the local beer scene. Using locally-grown ingredients and specialized production methods, Kyoto breweries are creating beer that far surpasses the standard Japanese brands. Let’s head north to Kyoto by the Sea and savor some brews that remain unknown and untapped to all but the most intrepid travelers.
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The North Coast
The northern reaches of Kyoto Prefecture – affectionately called “Kyoto by the Sea” – have enjoyed a boom in popularity in recent years. Travelers seeking to explore beyond Kyoto City have flocked northward, drawn by the allures of this unique area. From the natural beauty of the famed Amanohashidate sandbar to the charming waterfront homes of Ine-cho, there is plenty of unique scenery to take in. The seafood is fresh and delicious, and the hiking trails are begging to be explored. Best of all, you can hop on a train from Kyoto City in the morning and be up at the coast in time for lunch.
However, there’s a new reason to come visit that most people outside of Kyoto have yet to discover. An emerging local beer industry has transformed the region into a vibrant scene of passionate producers. Against all expectations, Kyoto by the Sea has become one of Japan’s new spots for craft beer.
Backyard Experimentation Pays Off
In 2015, Hiroyuki Fujiwara, a celebrated representative of the Japan Beer Journalists Association, planted three hop seedlings in his garden in Yosano. Conventional wisdom said that hops could only grow in the cooler northeastern areas of Japan. Before long, he had three healthy hop vines thriving in the coastal climate. It was originally just for fun, he says, but the positive results were proof that hop cultivation was possible in Kyoto. His operation expanded, and soon other members of the community wanted in on the growing hop trend.
After five years, the region was producing two tons of hops annually. This provides for a healthy craft beer industry, but it’s the special nature of how the hops are harvested that makes the final product so special. The relatively smaller scale of the industry in north Kyoto allows for hand harvesting, with farmers gently plucking each hop instead of using machines to harvest the vines in large portions. With this handpicking method, each hop is inspected during the process, giving farmers the opportunity to select only the ripest specimens.
On hop farms elsewhere, the harvest is quickly dried, crushed, and turned into pellets for storage and shipping. Not in Yosano, however, where fresh hops are immediately vacuum sealed to preserve their aroma. This is perhaps the most important part of the Yosano process, and the true secret that sets craft beer from Kyoto by the Sea apart from other brands. Fujiwara credits the locally-grown hops with giving the beer a “surging aroma” that conveys a “smooth and elegant bitterness.”
One more aspect of the Yosano harvest that is worth celebrating is the fact that it comes so early. The hop buds that appear on the vines in early spring are the first to emerge in the entire northern hemisphere. Picking begins in early July, and the first batch of ale is ready to drink only a month later – while most other producers are just beginning to harvest their hops! Only in Yosano can you find beer this fresh so early in the season, just in time for the peak of the summer heat.
Once the hops industry took root, it inspired some locals to open their own breweries, as well as brought additional attention to existing beer producers in the area. The founders of these brewing organizations are a mixed group of beer visionaries and local businessmen with a common goal: to bring a seed of revitalization to the region and create a self-sustaining beer industry that provides employment and a sense of pride to the locals.
Yosano Brewery – Focused on the Hops
Fujiwara’s backyard hop garden may have started with humble intentions, but he is now equipped with the know-how – and a personal supply of delicious hops – to produce an amazing final product. As the head of the Yosano Brewery, his inland operation at the base of Mount Oe is producing one of the most popular Kyoto craft beers.
We already know Fujiwara is a hop man at heart. His beers are rich and aromatic, with the Harebare Golden brew taking the hop crown in the Yosano lineup. It’s an IPA, a full-bodied style of beer that has grown in popularity over the past few decades. This particular Kyoto-style IPA contains up to twelve times as much raw hops flavor as standard beer, providing for a unique tasting opportunity.
The first sip of Harebare – with plenty of foam as is the Japanese way – is thick and almost syrupy. It’s surprisingly heavy for an ale, but easy to enjoy once your palate adjusts. After a few swallows, a pleasant bitterness lingers in the back of your throat. This beer definitely delivers on the Yosano Brewery promise of a “smooth and elegant” feeling, while also providing a strong taste that demands your engagement as you sip.
In comparison, Yasano’s Suzukaze Golden Ale delivers a slightly more relaxed experience. The name of this beer means “cool breeze,” which calls up images of windswept rice fields on an early summer evening as the coastal air blows inland. Amazingly, a sip of this beer conveys this setting in an almost magical way. There’s a hint of young grass and earthy soil in each mouthful, and the aroma is exceedingly fresh. It’s a fantastic beer that manages to capture the special mix of mountains and coast in northern Kyoto.
Where to Drink:
Many liquor shops in Yosano sell Fujiwara’s beer. It can also be found at the Yosano Vegetable Station, a local goods and produce specialty shop. In Kyoto City, visit the Tomiya alcohol store in the shopping area just opposite of the JR 2F West Entrance for a limited selection of the Yosano lineup.
Kakehashi Brewery – Cleaning up the Beaches
Not all beer companies in Kyoto by the Sea grew solely from a love of beer. Yuta Hamada, a young businessman who founded a startup to revitalize the region in 2019, was soon drawn to Fujiwara’s hop efforts and saw beer as a potential savior for the local economy.
What Hamada was searching for was a unique approach that blended local resources with a concrete element of revitalization. He found it in the form of the beaches of Amanohashidate, the famous 3.3 km sandbar that stretches across the mouth of Miyazu Bay. The shores here are littered with oyster shells, a result of an explosion in the oyster population due to the changing nutrient levels in the ocean. Locals were at a loss for how to recycle these smelly shells until Hamada stepped in with a brilliant plan: use the shells as a part of the beer brewing process. His Kakehashi Brewery was established on the idea that “the more beer you drink, the more beautiful the ocean becomes.”
With the help of a local pottery kiln, Hamada baked and crushed the shells into a substance that can effectively treat hardness in water, an integral element of brewing. It’s an ongoing research process that will eventually find even more uses for the shells in the brewery, with an aim to continue bringing sandy beaches back to the region.
Thankfully, the flavor of oysters is not at all present in the final Kakehashi Brewery product. Their ASOBI brand beer uses Columbus hops, a breed that has a lemony scent and a grassy but only mildly bitter taste. The word asobi means play, and the Kakehashi pale ale does come off as having a very playful and cheeky flavor. It’s sweeter than other local beers, and has a beautiful amber hue that is best enjoyed from a glass as opposed to straight from the bottle.
The oyster shell connection makes ASOBI beer a highly sought-after souvenir, and a unique conversation piece to share with friends back home. If you come to Kyoto by the Sea – and especially if you visit Amanohashidate – this pale ale is well worth seeking out for a sip.
Where to Drink:
ASOBI canned beer can be purchased at a number of shops and restaurants in north Kyoto, including the TotoMart seafood center in Miyazu, and Surumeya liquor shop located just across the street from Amanohashidate Station. Check this map for more details (Japanese only).
Tango Kingdom Brewery – Meet the Seven Princesses
Following the coastline brings us to Tango, the most northwest area of the prefecture. The area is known for its cliffside ocean views, and visiting the towns here gives you a feel of experiencing the real Japanese countryside.
Tango Kingdom Brewery has been producing beer since before Fujiwara’s hop revolution, and they’ve established themselves a top brand in the region. They were founded with the goals of revitalizing the Tango region’s reputation throughout Japan and building connections with other parts of the country. Their main product is beer, but they also produce gourmet sausage made with local ingredients.
The variety in the beer lineup from Tango Kingdom is immediately intriguing, with seven different brews representing notable women of Japanese history and folklore. In their Seven Princesses line, you’ll find standards like a hearty pilsner, a solid IPA, and British-style ale, but beer lovers can also savor more unique offerings as well.
If you only try one of the Seven Princesses, it should be the meister brew. This award-winning beer is perhaps their most simple and elegant, and the one that they are most proud of. Meister is made with locally grown rice, offering an exceedingly light and airy sensation as you drink it. This may feel similar to other popular Japanese brands, but there is a notable sense of quality with Tango’s meister. It’s said to pair well with traditional Japanese food, so try to enjoy it with a local meal.
For those who want to try a style of beer that you don’t usually find in Asia, the smoked beer from Tango Kingdom stands out. The liquor itself is dark in color – almost completely opaque – with a rich taste of five different malts that matches the smoky aroma. The smokiness lingers in your mouth, but never overstays its welcome.
Where to Drink:
Visit the Tango Kingdom brewery via public bus from Amino Station, or sample the Seven Princesses at the Seaside Bar shop inside Amanohashidate Station. Tango Kingdom beer is also available in Kyoto CIty at Tango Table, located in the popular Nishiki Market. In Kyoto Station, visit the alcohol shop Tomiya in the shopping area just opposite of the JR 2F West Entrance.
Just when you think you’re starting to fully understand the beer of north Kyoto, a surprise emerges from the Kamiseya coastal mountains. In a small village hidden among forested peaks, Belgian beer enthusiast Julian Caudron and his wife Nobuko are bringing a little slice of Europe to Kyoto by the Sea.
Julian is a man of the land with a simple philosophy: “Make the beer you’d want to drink.” He makes sure to give back to nature even as he takes. The brewery redistributes the used malt from the process to farmers for fertilizer, completing the cycle of nature.
Kohachi’s standard is a wheat saison called A Saison in Tango that features organic wheat from a nearby town. This smooth, round beer is a wonderful blend of Japanese and Belgian beer culture. Their summer-limited Mezame blonde ale is even more ambitious, with hints of lemon and ginger from the coast. When winter arrives, Kohachi celebrates the olden ways of European brewing with Seya, a rich amber ale made from local black rice.
Julian’s successful introduction of foreign brewing methods into the local industry makes for a wonderful mix of Japanese flavors with European tradition. This is what craft beer is all about – a distinctly local experience that is not found anywhere else in the world.
Where to Drink:
Check Kohachi Beerworks’ online store, and look out for events where they’ll be selling next on their website and social media.
Experience These Rare Brews for Yourself
These craft beers are best enjoyed where they were created, perhaps while gazing out at the ocean and enjoying a local meal. When you visit Kyoto by the Sea, there are opportunities to purchase some of the beers mentioned above in shops near sightseeing locations and at highway rest areas that promote local goods.
The vibrant northern craft beer scene remains one of Kyoto’s best-kept secrets. The combination of passionate local experts, unique environmental factors, and a steady supply of fresh hops has produced a vibrant industry that has played an important role in revitalizing the region. Now they are ready to share their amazing beer with you – the international traveler.
Be sure to try some local beer when you visit Kyoto by the Sea, or pick some up at specialty shops during your time in Kyoto City.