Japan has a long history of brewing. Before it was the modern paste, miso was brewed as a sauce from fermented grain and fish during the Neolithic era (14,000-300BCE). Rice wine, which is commonly referred to as sake outside Japan, was first brewed around 500 CE. Tea was brought to the country from China during the Nara period (710-794 CE), and Japanese soy sauce brewers have been in business since around 1580 CE. 

But the brew that tops them all in Japan is beer.

It shouldn't be surprising that a city known for the precise flavors, textures, and presentation of kaiseki cuisine and a long history of entertainment and nightlife, has embraced craft beer. While you can find great ji-biru (local beer) varieties around Japan, Kyoto is an especially good spot for craft beer connoisseurs to embrace Japanese drafts, bottles, and can styles influenced by Dutch and Belgian brews as well as home-grown ingredients. If you're curious about where to try some of Kyoto's best beers, read on.

Ji-biru is back

Japan's top four brewers — Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory — have been churning out pilsner-style lagers since the late 1800s, following the flavor profile first introduced to Japan by Dutch traders during the 17th century. It wasn’t until the industry was deregulated in 1994 that microbreweries were able to enter the Japanese beer scene.

A woman with a black bob haircut in a red shirt and a black apron with a yellow star and the Sapporo logo pours a beer from a vintage-looking brass tap in a bar full of natural light at the Sapporo Beer Museum
While big brands like Sapporo have dominated the Japanese market for years, they're no longer the only types of beer you can try when visiting cities like Kyoto © BonStock / Shutterstock

By 1997, the ji-biru business was booming with more than 300 new craft breweries offering IPAs, ales, stouts and seasonal selections. By 2009, however, the novelty had worn off and a third of them closed their doors.

Part of the problem was a lack of beer brewing experience in Japan. Homebrewing is essentially illegal; you must have a license to brew anything with more than 1% ABV. But through the country’s Craft Beer Association and the growth of Japanese beer festivals, brewers have had the opportunity to network and learn from each other and the craft of craft beer has spread across the islands once more. 

You’ll now find craft beer bars everywhere in metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka. But cities like Kyoto are giving them a run for their money and creating their own local flavor in the process, one ji-biru brewery and craft beer bar at a time.

A narrow table with a white cloth and small dishes of food sits between two rows of people, some men in button-down shirts and some women in light pink kimono, who are all hoisting tall steins of beer in a toast at the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre in Kytoo
Kyoto has long had vibrant nightlife– it's the city that made geisha famous, after all. It was only a matter of time before craft beer became part of the equation © The Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

1. Kyoto Beer Lab

Traditional Japanese tea makes for modern craft beer at the Kyoto Beer Lab, where leaves sourced from a nearby 800-year-old tea farm join grain, hops, yeast and water in the brewery’s award-winning beers.

You’ll find their flagship Hojicha Roasted Tea Stout (7.2% ABV, 25 IBU, 3.8/5 on Untappd) and Green Tea Pale Ale (5% ABV, 30 IBU, 3.63/5 on Untappd) alongside trendier offerings like Wasabi Gose (5% ABV, 10 IBU, 3.8/5 on Untappd) and Blackbeard’s Booty, a rum raisin-infused pastry stout that has a boozy 9.2% ABV (31 IBU, 3.97/5 on Untappd). 

Appropriately located just two blocks from Shosei-en Garden and the Kikoku-tei’s tea houses, the Kyoto Beer Lab has eight taps and a kitchen offering small plates like beef sashimi and bacon from Hiro, the city’s famous butcher. 

You may also like: The best Kyoto restaurants to try traditional Japanese food

A patio with plastic crates for chairs and tables is full of patrons enjoying their beers and chatting with one another against the backdrop of a grey corrugated metal building
Kyoto Brewing Company's focus on Belgian styles not typically popular in Japan is a testament to the cultural melting pot this city has been for a long time © Courtesy of Kyoto Brewing Company

2. Kyoto Brewing Company

Dark beers have a tough time in Japan. Despite the rich, complex flavors of many porters and stouts, the deep color is frowned upon. Craft breweries like Kyoto Brewing Company are working to change that with offerings like Kuroshio No Gotoku, or “Like the Black Tide” (4.8% ABV, 30 IBU, 3.6/5 on Untappd). 

A Welsh, American and Canadian partnership, Kyoto Brewing Company also produces the top-rated Ichii Senshin, or “Heart and Soul,” a Belgian-style IPA (6.5% ABV, 55 IBU, 3.64/5 on Untappd) and Ichigo Ichie, or “One for a While,” a farmhouse saison (5.9% ABV, 39 IBU, 3.6/5 on Untappd). 

Sip them in the brewery’s tap room located in a former lumber yard that’s a 10-minute walk from Tō-ji Temple.

3. Ichijoji Brewery

Founded by psychiatrist Shunsuke Takagi with the goal of providing employment for people with mental illness, Ichijoji brews beer for “people who want to live in their own way.” When they opened in 2011, Ichijoji primarily offered fruit and spice beers, but after a 2016 renovation, they expanded their lineup into other styles. 

Nowadays, their most popular offering is the English-style IPA called Destroy Angel (6.4% ABV, 60 IBU, 3.53/5 on Untappd), winner of an International Beer Cup Gold Award. 

Dr. Takagi’s business partner, restaurateur Ban Katsunobu, has spent the past five years expanding Ichijoji’s tap room offerings, which recently included a beer-and-oyster pairing event highlighting raw oysters with their stouts, fried oysters with their golden ales and smoked oysters alongside Ichijoji’s hefeweizens. 

You may also like: Get a taste of Kagawa, the udon capital of Japan

A row of six beers ranging in color from pinkish red to dark black to golden yellow are lined up on colorful descriptors, each with a small white circular ceramic dish in front of it containing a small snack selected for flavor pairings, like olives, a macaron, or tomatoes
Spring Valley Brewery pairs each beer on its flight with a little amuse bouche to bring out the flavors of the beer and tickle the senses © Mike Ballard / Lonely Planet

4. Spring Valley Brewery

Pairing Kyoto-grown hops and malt with traditional Japanese ingredients like yuzu, sansho and black soybean tea, Spring Valley offers standard beers alongside experimental brews. This is the craft beer arm of megabrewer Kirin; Spring Valley Brewery was the company’s original name when it opened in 1869. 

Start with bright choices like Jazzberry fruit beer (4.8% ABV, 15 IBU, 3.34/5 on Untappd) or the KYO Yuzu Sparkling (5% ABV, 10 IBU, 3.64/5 on Untappd). Then move to the spicy, herbal Gin’s Botanicals IPA made in collaboration with Culmination Brewing (6.5% ABV, 0 IBU, 3.62/5 on Untappd). Go deeper with the First Crossing bourbon barrel-aged strong ale (5.2% ABV, 31 IBU, 3.56/5 on Untappd), and end with the 13% ABV “brewer’s dessert,” a sweet-and-sour finisher dubbed the Cauldron (5 IBU, 3.35/5 on Untappd).

While they have a sizable food menu, a beautiful way to sample Spring Valley’s craft beer offerings is with their pairing set, which includes six small snacks and their beer matches. A macaron pairing set is also available for beer lovers with a sweet tooth.

5. Woodmill Brewery

Much like Japanese chefs, the brewers at Woodmill Brewery focus on elevating superior ingredients. Their Kyoto Raw Material Preparation Series has featured revered Hassaku oranges in the Hassaku White witbier (4.5% ABV, 0 IBU, 3.43/5 on Untappd) and, most recently, honey from the 1,300-year-old Kasagidera Buddhist temple in their Kasagi Honey Ale (5.5% ABV, 18 IBU, 3.63/5 on Untappd).

For a truly Japanese experience, try Woodmill’s sushi and beer pairings or other Kyoto-style couplings like crunchy vegetable and potato salad served with the brewery’s award-winning Yawaragi Relaxation IPA (5% ABV, 55 IBU, 3.35/5 on Untappd).

You may also like: East Asia's craft beer revolution: the ultimate guide to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China

Given the precise approach of Japanese cuisine to not only flavor but temperature, texture, and presentation of food, you can be sure the country's breweries take the same care with craft beer © Mike Ballard / Lonely Planet

6. Craft Man Beer House

With 25 different nama-bīru, or draft beer, offerings, Craft Man has the biggest game in town. They offer local Kyoto brews along with selections from around the country, giving you the chance to sample a variety of Japanese beers in one location. 

Unlike many bars that have colorful tap walls filled with logos, Craft Man takes a zen approach to decor. All 25 taps are simple, identical black handles on a background of golden wood. The bartenders have every beer memorized, and they’re patiently amused when you test them on their recall.  

A menu of small plates is available in the downstairs bar, and a full restaurant on Craft Man’s second floor provides heartier fare to soak up all the suds. 

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