Has Sapporo Become Asia's Beer Capital?
Author & Photographer: Jonathan Mott
Sapporo is synonymous with beer, so much so that many summer visitors to our northern city will inadvertently stumble upon it. The annual Sapporo Beer Garden held in Odori Koen (park) is the second largest festival in the city following the iconic Snow Festival. Started in 1959 and gaining popularity every year, beer-guzzling revelers flock to the city center to grab one of 12,000+ seats and enjoy a cold one outdoors. Beginning about the 3rd week in July and continuing through the Obon holiday, this beer garden is a tribute to Sapporo’s sister city Munich, famed for its legendary Oktoberfest. From western blocks five to ten, all of the big breweries are in attendance, as well as a block dedicated to world beers. Although now tamer than previous years, a Bacchanal atmosphere permeates the air, inciting strangers to toast, exchange phone numbers, and sometimes wander off together.
The Godfather of all beers Japan, Sapporo Beer - with its tall statuesque silver cans - has long been available in North America and Europe, while a variety of export and domestic labels color Asian markets. The brewery, Sapporo Beer LTD (札幌ビール株式会社) was founded in 1876, making it Japan’s first proper beer brand. A lot has happened in 141 years. Other major brewing companies such as Kirin, Asahi and Suntory have become equally as popular, both home and abroad. And thanks to the lowering of minimum brewing quantity requirements for beer manufacturing licenses in the past 25 years, smaller regional breweries have popped open all over the country. Literally called local beer (ji biru/地ビール), these pioneers of smaller scale brewing are smartly styling themselves after American craft scene juggernauts.
As the major breweries depend on revenue from mass-produced pale lagers and pilsners, the microbrewery beer scene flourishes by satisfying the flavor-starved palates of thirsty drinkers, leaving the big boys scrambling to get a piece of the market. In Hokkaido alone new craft breweries are opening up every year. While giants like Suntory have recently introduced microbrewery-style wannabes like the not-so-subtlety-titled The Craft Select IPA (think darkish lager with a shot of pine-scented hand soap), North Island Brewing in Ebetsu has a citrusy 7% IPA that is a long-standing favorite.
Travel farther out across the island and a number of craft beer destinations open up. Niseko Brewery, located in the once sleepy town famed for its unreal annual snowfall, entered the stage in 2015 with a strong selection of beers. My personal favorite, The Oyster Stout, has a rich chocolate sweetness and a touch of brine from the oysters that make each sip a mouthful of umami goodness.
Heading to Noboribetsu for an onsen? Why not swing in to the Noboribetsu brewpub for a post-bath pint? With its award-winning Oni-Dentsu Double IPA and line-up of main and seasonal beers, you’re bound to find a few brew to please your palate. This brewery is unafraid of experimentation, having produced white peach, strawberry and raspberry beers as well as 6.5% Sicilian Rouge Tomato Vegetable Ale that uses tomatoes, basil and coriander. I call that dinner in a bottle.
Going as far as the Sea of Okhotsk? Abashiri is well known for its prison-turned museum and delicious seafood, but the Abashiri Beer Brewery is not to be overlooked. Originally founded in 1994 by the Tokyo University of Agriculture as a biological industry research center for developing local beer, the brewery went commercial in 1998. Most famous is its Ryuhyou (Ice flow/流氷) Draft, noted for its gardenia pigment derived blue color, which evokes the winter ice flows even on a hot summer afternoon.
While these are but a few of the innovative breweries rising from the Hokkaido landscape, one needn’t leave Sapporo to try them. Over the past several years, craft beer-centric restaurants have been multiplying throughout the city. One of the oldest and best in Kalahana, located right in the center of downtown Sapporo’s Tanuki-koji shopping arcade. Stroll down to the west seven block and pop in for an up-and-coming Japanese brew or an American craft favorite. Tsuki to Taiyo (Moon & Sun/月と太陽) is just 8 blocks in the opposite direction. This working brewpub has fresh tap beer made on location, with a gourmet menu that compliments each beer perfectly. Since opening in 2015 it’s been an instant success among locals and foreign visitors, with no decline in sight. They’re setting the standard for in-house-production brewing, and here’s hoping we see more and more of them in the years to come.
Another favorite of mine is the aptly named Beer Cellar, located near the Prince Hotel. This wood-paneled den of mirth features eight beers on tap and a variety of Portland imports, as well as domestic craft bottles. While there isn’t much of a food menu going just yet (as they don’t have a proper kitchen), Beer Cellar is a great place to go before or after dinner. The vibe is friendly and the $10 sampler set is a sure way to put you in a good mood.
And that’s just Hokkaido! Hop down to Tokyo, Osaka or any of the other southern metropolises and there is no shortage of craft beer options. There are literally thousands of pubs and alehouses to visit, as well as local breweries to tour and beer festivals to attend. Just last week, I moseyed up to the Sapporo Craft Beer Forest, an annual event that grows in popularity every year. It was a blast. Any city worth its suds is doing something similar, and there’s no better time to visit Japan and surf the craft revolution wave than now. Kanpai!
Our blog covers any and all topics of travel in Hokkaido - from the best gourmet oysters to off-the-beaten-track adventures - and everything in between.