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Homebrewing in Japan

Freshly bottled beer

Freshly bottled beer

The original “help page” for Homebrewing in Japan! Created in 2007. Updated April 2017.

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 (Facebook, Shop list, Beer items search)

Tokyu Hands is the only high street chain in Japan where you can buy homebrewing supplies. While it’s more expensive than the online stores below and it doesn’t have a large range, it’s a great place for an emergency supply bottle tops (link), dry yeast (though only S-04 these days: link), spray alcohol (link) – 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.

The range varies at each branch of Tokyo Hands and some sell no homebrewing equipment. In Tokyo, the Shinjuku branch has the best range followed by Yokohama and Kyoto. If you can navigate Japanese, the Tokyu Hands website will tell you which stores have a particular product in stock – look for 店頭在庫情報 at the right side of the screen (on PC) and click the button a little below it to see the full list of stores. As ever, Google Chrome is your friend when navigating Japanese websites as it can automatically translate text in webpages to English.

Tokyu Hands sell a basic starter kit (link) which includes a fermentation bucket, spray sanitiser, hydrometer, bottle lids, bottle capper, temperature gauge, and a tin of Black Rock Lager beer malt. I started life as a homebrewer using this kit! While it’s OK, there are a couple of problems with this kit. Firstly, these days very few, if any, of the stores have it these days. Secondly, it doesn’t include a bottle filler or no-rinse sanitiser for cleaning bottles. Thirdly, 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 and it’s convenient to use a credit card (no credit cards at Advance Brewing).

Google Chrome’s automatic translation works wonders for these websites but both can still be daunting if you don’t speak Japanese – and especially if you’re just starting homebrewing and are not sure what to order.

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

  1. Kit with hydrometer, bottle capper, bottle caps, temperature strip. While this doesn’t have an airlock, I use the same bucket and have never had issues. Unfortunately you can’t substitute the lager for a different beer. Any of the other kits Sakeland sell will also work well, but do make sure you get one with a hydrometer as some kits don’t include it.
  2. A pack of no-rinse sanitiser and some spray alcohol sanitiser. A product called Star San is the preferred sanitiser for most people but this is difficult to find. Homebrewing Service sell it (link), though I have never purchased from them – you can also get it on ebay.
  3. Bottle filler.
  4. Two packs of spraymalt because you’ll get way better results than just adding sugar to the included kit. Light (link) or extra-light (link) works well.
  5. Bottles – if you can’t collect enough by yourself.

I’d also recommend picking up some OxiClean from Amazon (link) as two scoops in a fermenter filled with water overnight will clean away all gunk. Make sure you get the unscented version I’ve linked to.

Most lager kits actually come with an ale yeast rather than a lager yeast. When fermenting, make sure you keep the temperature range recommended for the yeast (in the 18-22 degrees range for an ale yeast). If you ferment at higher temps then you’ll get weird flavours; if you ferment at lower temps then the fermentation may not work. Temperature control is critical for making beer!

To use Sakeland no-rinse sanitiser, dissolve 1 tablespoon 1L of boiling water and then add in 4L of cold water. I still generally rinse with boiling water after using any sanitiser.

If you don’t want a lager beer with your equipment, you can build the kit in #1 yourself from these parts: bucket with tap, budget bottle capper, bottle caps, hydrometer, and your choice of beer. I’d strongly recommend starting with a Porter or Stout for your first beer as dark beers are more forgiving to temperature control – the first lager I made went down the sink! If you do get a porter, you may want to use the dark spraymalt as your addition (link).

The Malt Shop (link) and Abracadabrew (link) both sells homebrew supplies in English. The reasons I’ve not linked to their products above over Sakeland is that I’ve never used them. I also can’t find info about Abracadabrew’s shipping cost and they push a weird membership scheme which I don’t understand.

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 used one of these kits in the UK and they’re very easy as they contain almost everything. If you do get one of these, I recommend replacing the brew enhancer with spraymalt (linked above from both Sakeland and Tokyu Hands) and buying sanitser such as spray alcohol (also linked above) as no sanitiser is provided.

More info on the Coopers kit can be found on the Australian website (link).

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. I’ve used both and there’s no issue bringing hops into Japan – there’s even a specific import duty bracket for hops. I’ve only ever been charged import duty once on hops, and that’s when I ordered over $200 of hops that lasted me over a year! The overall duty was less than 5%. Your mileage may vary, however.

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

Ebay is also a useful source of miscellaneous items – even pellet hops. And some people have success buying from Alibaba – but usually for group orders.

PicoBrew will ship the Zymatic to Japan if you’re really eager. I know of at least one Zymatic user in 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. They also sells Oxiclean, which is great for cleaning fermenters (make sure you get the unscented version!).

Home stores such as Cainz sell large 35L pots and spray alcohol sanitiser. 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 the ND-610 temperature thermostat (link) as does Amazon (link). This is perfect for hooking up to a freezer like the Haier JF-NU100G (link – though better deals are available) for controlling fermentation temperature. The Haier has removable shelves and works well with the Young’s fermentation bucket linked above (but not so well with the larger Cooper’s bucket). Controlling fermentation temperature is the #1 recommendation I give to any homebrewer as it will remove a lot of off flavours caused by temperature variation. I use the ND-610 with the Haier myself.

You can find regulators on Yahoo Auctions by searching for 減圧弁 (link). Beer Server also sells them (link), though they are more expensive. You can usually get CO2 from your local alcohol store for about 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. Ebay is your best source for ball locks, keg spare parts, picnic taps – they are usually pretty cheap.

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).

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 if you can – difficult because most prepackaged kits come with lager! Lager are the hardest beers to brew as they show off-flavours due to temperature variations most easily. A stout or porter will produce a better result. Most kit lagers actually come with an ale yeast – if you do brew one, make sure you stick in the middle of the temperature range for the yeast, which is usually 18-22 degrees for ale yeast.
  2. Make sure you sanitise everything as per instructions – this cannot be over emphasised. There are various links in the Sakeland section above.
  3. Instructions will generally recommend you add sugar to the kit. Don’t. Instead of sugar use two packs of Munton’s spraymalt. Sugar increases alcohol without malt flavour or body and gives the beer a sugary cider like taste – much better to add malt instead. See the links above for Tokyu Hands and Sakeland.
  4. Beware of the difference between UK and US gallons. The fermenting buckets sold by Tokyu Hands/Sakeland linked above come from the UK and have litre and UK gallon markings. If you see anywhere referring to gallons, make sure you know whether it’s UK or US. Much safer to work in litres.
  5. 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. Put them in a sanitised muslin bag or pantyhose/tights (yes, really) to stop the hops escaping. Leaf and whole hops work better than pellets for beginners.
  6. 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

Communities

Facebook has two communities for English speaking Japanese homebrewers: Tokyo Home Brewers and Kinki Homebrewers in Japan for brewers in the Kanto and Kinki regions respectively. These groups are a great place to ask questions.

Newcomer Abracadabrew occasionally hosts homebrew related events in Tokyo/Yokohama. These can be a good place to meet other homebrewers in person.

You can also send me questions on Facebook (link to Beer in Japan) – though I may not always be able to answer quickly.

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 the websites I know of in Japan that sell homebrewing equipment, beer serving equipment, or have things useful to homebrewers.