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Homebrewing in Japan

19 August 2009
Freshly bottled beer

Freshly bottled beer

Feel like making your own beer? It’s not so difficult – there are plenty of guides around, some of them listed at the end of this article - but how do you go about it in Japan? Where do you get equipment and supplies? This article is a brief introduction to the subject of homebrewing in Japan.

But first, a small disclaimer: The legality of homebrewing in Japan is a bit of a grey area. Technically it’s OK to homebrew as long as you keep the alcohol at under 1%. Over 1%? All I can do it point you to this article in The Japan Times and let you make up your own mind:

In Japan it is illegal to brew beer with more than 1 percent alcohol by volume. Junko Saito, who with her husband sells homebrewing equipment from their Beer Club Shop in Kobe [now closed], says retailers are required to include warnings explaining the law in their catalogs and instruction manuals. Then it is up to the customer to obey the law.

The government, she says, understands the “accidental batch” exceeding the 1 percent mark, and the possibility of prosecution is remote. “As long as they don’t intend to sell,” Saito says, “it is logically impossible to arrest homebrewers. Both authorities and homebrewers know this fact.”

I’ve heard of people being cautioned for promoting homebrewing events, but I’ve never heard of anyone being arrested – even the homebrewer mentioned in the article above wasn’t arrested.

Beer in Japan takes no responsibility for your decision to homebrew. Beer in Japan has also not used all the suppliers listed here. This page is for reference only and you use it at your own risk!

Disclaimer out the way, it’s onto the suppliers. I’ve also included some tips at the end for making your first beer.

Tokyu Hands brewing kit

Tokyu Hands brewing kit

The high street: Tokyu Hands

Tokyu Hands is the only high street store in Japan where you can buy homebrewing supplies. While it’s more expensive than the online stores below, it’s a great place for an emergency supply of yeast or bottle tops – and the fact that the company is selling homebrewing equipment on the high street gives credibility to the homebrew movement. It’s difficult to argue that homebrewing is a big bad illegal thing when a major high street chain is selling malt, hops, and beer making kits.

Tokyu Hands sell a basic starter kit which includes a fermentation bucket, spray sanitiser, hydrometer, bottle lids, bottle capper, temperature gauge, and a tin of Black Rock Lager beer malt. While it’s OK – there are a couple of problems with this kit. Firstly, it doesn’t include a bottle filler or no-rinse sanitiser for cleaning bottles, nor does the bucket have a visible airlock (CO2 escapes through the seal of the lid on the bucket – not a problem but it’s nice to see a bubbling airlock). Secondly, it comes with Black Rock Lager kit, which is pretty awful (most lagers are since they are supplied with ale yeast rather than lager yeast).

The method used for making “kit” beers is detailed by Black Rock here.

Homebrew supplies from the internet

Homebrew supplies from the internet

Main online retailers: Sakeland and Advance Brewing

The two major online retailers are Sakeland and Advance Brewing. Sakeland accepts credit cards and has slightly faster delivery; Advance Brewing has a much wider range of hops and malts, but delivery is slower, and you need to pay by taking a slip to the post office after delivery. For a beginner and non-Japanese native, the Sakeland website is easier to use – they also have no-rinse sanitiser (which Advance Brewing doesn’t have and is very useful for sanitising bottles), and it’s convenient to use a credit card (again, no credit cards at Advance Brewing).

But both the websites can be daunting if you don’t speak Japanese – and especially if you’re just starting homebrewing and are not sure what to order. That’s why the Tokyu Hands option is so appealing for a starter kit, because you can just go there and pick it up – but if you can struggle through with Google Translate or someone who speaks Japanese, it’s worth it. For a start, you can choose your tin of starter beer – it’s really worth swapping the Black Rock Lager beer malt for something else. You can also add other things to your order such as spraymalt, bottle fillers, and no-rinse sanitiser. You can even buy empty bottles.

If I was buying from Sakeland, this is what my first order would comprise of:

  1. Kit without bottles, choosing the airlock option and substituting the lager for a different beer.
  2. Hydrometer – it’s possible to buy the kit above with hydrometer as one pack, but it’s actually more expensive to do that.
  3. A pack of no-rinse sanitiser and some spray alcohol sanitiser.
  4. Bottle filler.
  5. Two packs of spraymalt or an one extra can of the beer you to come with the kit.
  6. If you’re feeling adventurous and have a pot to do a boil: a grain bag, some crushed grain (eg 2-300g of light crystal), and some extra hops (such as a few packs of centennial, which are good for both bittering and flavouring of IPAs – but the actual hops you’ll choose will depend on the style of beer you’re making). Even if you don’t have a pot to boil, you can enhance flavour of certain styles such as IPAs by dry hopping (after fermentation has finished, put the hops in the primary fermenter and leave the beer for another 5 days before bottling).
  7. Bottles – if you can’t collect enough by yourself.

If you don’t want a Black Rock beer with your equipment, you can build the kit in #1 yourself from these parts: bucket (choose the option to have a hole for the airlock), three piece airlock, stopper for airlock, budget bottle capper (or the better table top model), bottle caps, thermometer, and your choice of beer.

Again, the method used for making “kit” beers is detailed by Black Rock here.

I’ve included a complete list of all the online retailers I know of near the end of this article.

Coopers kit from Australia: Wulguru

This is the only place I know of that sells the Coopers kit from Australia in Japan. I’ve not tried it myself, but if you want the reassurance of an international single box kit with downloadable English instructions, it could be an option for you. The options from Tokyu Hands, Sakeland, etc are put together by the stores themselves. That said, I wouldn’t go for the Coopers kit myself.

The English instructions for Coopers kits can be found here (pdf).

Centennial hops

Centennial hops

From overseas

Both Freshops and Hops Direct will ship hops to Japan – Freshops has a weird ordering method (you have to email them your order if you’re an overseas customer) and is a bit more expensive if you’re buying in bulk, but they have very low minimum order quantities so it’s easy to get a bit of everything.

Beerbelly in Australia will ship things like plate chillers to Japan.

28L and 35L aluminum pots

28L and 35L aluminum pots

Other assorted goods

Don Quijote sells 16L aluminum pots for 3000 yen – a bargain, and enough to steep grain and boil kit beers with hops – and also sells Oxiclean, which is great for cleaning fermenters. Cainz sells large 35L pots and spray alcohol sanitiser cheap. Super Viva Home sells water filters, copper piping and has a large range of picnic coolers to use as mash tuns – they also sell styrofoam for building fermentation chambers around fridges or freezers.

AP Minori sells temperature thermostats. Greens sells regulators for CO2 tanks (Japanese fittings are different to US fittings) – you can usually get CO2 from your local alcohol store for 3000 yen plus 5000 yen deposit for the tank. Advance Brewing and Homebrewing Service sell cornelius kegs (corney kegs/soda kegs) and spare parts - but they are expensive new and usually sold out second hand.

Yahoo auction is your best source of bar style beer servers (try searching  ビールサーバー and ビールディスペンサー and ビアサーバー for servers, regulators, cleaners etc) and Beer server sells various items related to beer servers (look for 過去の取り扱い品 and 商品一覧 at right). Finally, this place sells sanke keg openers.

Dry hopping in the primary

Dry hopping in the primary

Advice for making beer with a kit

Most people start with kits beers – tins of prehopped malt extract. They are not fantastic – you get better results if you use spraymalt with steeping grains and hops – but there are a couple of points to follow that can improve your chances of making a good beer.

  1. Avoid lagers – these are fundamentally flawed from the start because they are always (in Japan) supplied with ale yeast instead of lager yeast, because lager yeast ferments at lower temperatures. A stout or darker beer or IPA will produce a better result.
  2. Make sure you sanitise everything as per instructions – this cannot be over emphasised. Sakeland no-rinse sanitiser is good for this (approx 1 tablespoon in 4-5 L of water -  dissolve it in 1L of boiling water first and then add 4L of cold water).
  3. Assuming you’re using the yeast which comes with the kits (an ale yeast) keep the temperature at 18-20 degrees – any higher and you’ll get off flavours in the beer; lower and it will be difficult to ferment. You can regulate temperature down in the summer with aircon, or by wrapping the bucket in a wet towel and placing it in iced water, or by getting an old fridge and attaching a temperature thermostat to it. In winter you can use heating pads available from pet stores or Sakeland or keep the heating on.
  4. Instructions will generally recommend you add sugar to the kit. Don’t. Instead of sugar either use another identical kit, or a tin of Malt Extract, or two packs of Munton’s light/extra-light spraymalt. Sugar increases alcohol without malt flavour, instead giving the beer a sugary cider like taste – much better to add malt instead. Alternatively, you can just use the single kit can but use half the amount of water.
  5. Beware of the difference between UK and US gallons. The fermenting buckets sold by Tokyu Hands come from the UK and have litre and UK gallon markings. That’s OK if the kit beer tells you how much water to add in litres – but if you try for something more advanced like copying a recipe from the internet, many of them will talk about US gallons.
  6. If you’re making a beer which is traditionally dry hopped, such as an IPA, get some hops and put them into the primary fermenter after fermentation has finished, leaving them there for 5 days before bottling. Centennial, Cascade, and Simcoe are all good for American style IPAs; Fuggles and Goldings for British style IPAs; Saaz for Pilsners. 30-60g is good for IPAs (depending how much punch you want), 15g for Pilsners – assuming approximately a 19-21L batch.
  7. If you feel like getting advanced quickly, you can add more flavour to your beer with steeping grain (eg light crystal) and hops. You can make the beer even better still by replacing the kit beer and using only malt, steeping grain, and hops. By this stage, you probably should be reading the free book How to Brew.
Taking a hydrometer reading

Taking a hydrometer reading

Resources

Complete list of online retailers

Sakeland and Advance Brewing are the main places used by homebrewers in Japan because of their range, but there are also other places which sometimes have alternatives. Here are all the websites I know of in Japan that sell homebrewing equipment, beer serving equipment, or have things useful to homebrewers.