In June 1998, Ichiri Fujiura headed to Baltimore, Maryland, with a handful of beers that he’d made in his kitchen. Days later he headed back to Tokyo with the American Homebrewers Association’s top prize –Homebrewer of the Year. No other non-US national had ever won the award, which was first given out in 1979. In Japan, Fujiura’s accomplishment brought some unwanted attention. Officials from the National Tax Agency showed up at his doorstep days later to issue a stern warning: stop breaking the law or you will be prosecuted. Japan has outlawed homebrewing for over a century. The ban was originally designed to stamp out the production of doburoku, a cloudy, homemade sake, and to protect small, local brewers of Japan’s national drink. The current ban makes it illegal to brew beer with more than 1 per cent alcohol by volume. As Fujiura and others have found out, Japanese regulators will even target small-time hobbyists.
Now critics of the ban are stepping up calls to legalise homebrewing. The push is being led by beer enthusiasts who say that the ban hurts Japan’s microbrewers. In recent months, the Japan Homebrewing Association has sent petitions to several ruling-party lawmakers, urging them to drop the ban. Sadahiro Yamanaka, who has led the JHA since he started it two decades ago, says that the JHA plans to target more lawmakers. “I’ll be sending out petitions by late February,” he tells Monocle. “This is our best chance in a long time.”
Why the optimism? The Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) rise to power is a big reason. The DPJ’s victory in elections last August broke the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) nearly six-decade lock on the government. Since then, the party has delivered on promises to put consumers before companies, giving grassroots organisations more say over the national agenda. That rarely happened when the pro-business LDP was in charge. Homebrewers argue that consumers and business would benefit from an end to the ban. Consider the US. Since the US legalised homebrewing in the late 1970s (three states still ban it), the number of amateur beer makers has surged. The American Homebrewers Association, based in Boulder, Colorado, now has more than 19,000 members and estimates that at least 750,000 Americans make beer at home.
The AHA’s growth has given a boost to craft brewing. Nine out of 10 pro brewers in the US started off as tinkerers at home, according to the AHA. The founders of the top three craft breweries – Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, and New Belgium Brewing Co – honed their skills that way. Today there are 1,525 craft breweries in the US, from eight in 1980, according to the Brewers Association. By contrast, Japan has just 220. (Japanese drink about one-fourth the amount of beer that Americans consume.) “We need the homebrewers,” says Bryan Baird, co-owner of Baird Brewing Co in Numazu at the foot of Mount Fuji. “They help refresh the pool of talent in the industry.”
Japanese homebrewers aren’t limiting their demands to the ban. They want to see taxes on beer reduced. Japan’s beer tax is based on volume, which explains why it’s so high – roughly 11 times higher than in the US and 15 times higher than Germany’s. As much as half of the price of a bottle of beer in Japan is due to the tax, brewers say.
They also want the government to drop its quotas on production. To qualify for a licence, every brewery has to show it can make 60 kilolitres a year. Though the level was lowered from 2,000 kilolitres in 1994, the amount – roughly equivalent to 182,000 bottles of beer annually – is a lot to ask from a small enterprise. “To open a brewery in Japan you need at least $1m,” says Toshiyuki Ishii, former COO of Yo-Ho Brewing in Saku northwest of Tokyo. “The founders of Stone Brewery [in Escondido, California] started with less than half that amount.”
One challenge for homebrewers will be presenting a united front. Nobody knows how many of them there are. The JHA claims there could be 300,000 homebrewers but it won’t disclose membership figures. Even if there are that many homebrewers, fears of a crackdown will have made many unwilling to speak out publicly.
Tatsuo Aoki, who runs Tokyo pub Popeye, thinks support from breweries would help. But the issue is likely to be too minor for Japan’s largest breweries to bother. Officials at Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin declined to comment. (“Sorry but I didn’t even know there were homebrewers in Japan,” says a Sapporo spokesman.) Last October, Aoki hosted a brainstorming session with 10 homebrewers, but after two hours they broke up without any concrete plan. They haven’t met since. “Even with the change in government, these things take time,” says Aoki. “It could take another year or two for us to get our act together.”