If you are like me, the recent boom in Japanese craft brewing has been a boon to your weekends. It seems that with each passing month a new brewery is popping up, and yet every time I go to the market, I’m confronted by overpriced imports of low quality ales or the same three Japanese crafts (obviously excluding Asahi’s terrible excuse for a stout). Too much of anything is a bad thing, and too much mead mediocrity will suffocate the palate. But fear not! As warmth comes back to the islands, the craft beer springs begin to thaw and flow down to us thirsty satyr in the form of beer festivals.
As the last cheery blossoms fall, the Kyoto Craft Beer Festival (地ビール祭り京都), held on May 13th, is the perfect opportunity to keep the party going and experience all the wonders of beer culture that Japan has to offer. Celebrating its ninth year, this festival has had plenty of time to perfect the art of the booze bonanza. They pull customers from all over the world to create a vibrant and lively atmosphere of springtime frivolity. You never quite know who you’ll run into.
Last year, my incessant habit of being on time to appointments meant that I was sitting around the festival waiting for my tardy troupe of friends, when I heard the confused cry of a wounded foreigner hitting the language barrier. An older gentleman was at the ticket counter desperately trying to understand how the ticketing worked while the staff was vainly trying to explain with a mixture of nouns, verbs, and gestures. The conversation seemed to reach an understanding when he handed them 400 yen and received a ticket. I thought everything was going to be all right, until he asked, “so with this I can drink all the beers?” (implying the amazing deal that was a 400 yen nomihoudai), and the Japanese staff—with emphatic drinking gestures—replied, “Yes, you can drink beer!”
Seeing as I was just twiddling my thumbs waiting for friends, I jumped up and told him there was a misunderstanding and that a 400yen ticket is the price of only one beer tasting. We got back in line together and got him a proper ream of six tickets for 2,100yen. By that point (I’m happy to say) my friends had still not arrived. So my new best-friend, Frank, and I crossed over into inebriated Narnia. We got to talking about the usual: Where ya from? How long ya been in Japan? How’d ya find out about this? Etc… Apparently, Frank had a nifty app that alerted him to any and all craft beer events and bars that were near him at any given time. “Wow,” I thought, “this guy must be a raging alcoholic.” Far from it, Frank is a lifelong employee of the beer industry in American and the father of a founding brewer at Melvin Brewing Company—one of my favorite breweries back home—who likes doing “market research.” It turned out he was a wealth of information and anecdotes about the world of beer and the history of the beer industry in the last 40 years.
After getting tickets at the main entrance, you have to go to the park (located about one-third of the way down the arcade) to pick up your commemorative glass—while supplies last. The queue for this was enough to put the British to shame. So Frank and I took turns hopping out of line to grab beers. By the time we had reached the front, one of my friends finally decided to arrive. The three of us were able to get through nearly our entire ream before the rest of our group waded through the crowd. We said goodbye to Frank who wandered off in a haze of what I can only describe as flavorful, inebriated, jet-lagged happiness. (Though it wouldn’t be the last time we saw Frank. About five hours later we would run into him and the family he had ditched at Kinkakuji to come to the festival).
Not every festival comes with this kind of story, but every festival will leave you with some sort of memory. Even if you are not interested in beer and/or have children, the Kyoto Craft Festival has all the standards of a bonafide Japanese matsuri, with succulent skewered meats, sugary sweets, grilled corn, yakisoba, takoyaki, and grilled corn (corn is the only addiction I suffer from more than beer). If you come with no taste for beer and an already satiated stomach, then park yourself in the park and dance off your last meal to live music. And if you do go for the beer, with over thirty domestic breweries in attendance, it would be difficult to leave unsatisfied.
The Kyoto Craft Beer Festival will be held on May, 13th from 11:30 to 18:00. The festival takes place in Sanjo shopping street (三条会商店街). The closest stations are JR Nijo and Nijojo-mae on the subway. You can also take a bus or walk from Kyoto station, though it is a bit of a hike. Tickets go on sale April 1st (no joke) at 10:00am. If you buy in advance, the six ticket ream is discounted to 2000yen (day-of: 1 ticket = 400yen, 6 tickets = 2,100yen). Unlike previous years, you CAN NOT use your tickets to get a commemorative glass this year. Those will cost 500yen and be sold from 11:00-17:30 at the festival. Lastly, you do not have to buy tickets to enter the venue, and food can be bought with cold, hard cash.
In an honest critique, the festival suffers from the venue. As with most streets, the arcade road is extremely narrow. With vendors taking up and lines of waiting customers extending into the road—not to mention the oddly high number of prams—it can become a stand still at points. A bit of life advice: get there early, and plan ahead. Grab a map at the ticket table and scope out the brews and foods that you want to try, and then set out on a mission. Seeing as it is a Sunday festival, finishing your day a little early will give you time to sober up and beat a hangover before work on Monday.
Beer culture around the world is a vibrant and friendly party that never ends. In recent years, Japan has been offering its own creative twist on the age old traditions. We are unquestionably in a golden age of craft alcohol, and that means carefree days with old friends and new acquaintances, flavorful drinks, and great memories. It would be a shame to live through yet never enjoy the riches all around!
For more information about the Kyoto Craft Beer Festival, please click HERE.