It started with a blog. Before there was Umami Mart, the carefully curated Japanese housewares store in downtown Oakland, there was Umami Mart the blog -- a space for two old friends to talk about food while bored at their jobs at opposite ends of the world.
The friends, Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori, who met as teens growing up in Cupertino, used the site to discuss their culinary discoveries after Kumano moved to Tokyo and Akabori moved to New York City. The blog covered snarking on Morimoto, eating tofu skin in Nikko, and how to survive the rest of the week with just $26 left in the food budget. Eventually the blog grew to 10 writers, some of whom were curious about specialized Japanese barware tools. (America's recent cocktail revival spurred an interest in Japanese cocktail culture). Kumano and Akabori decided to import a few items and opened an online shop.
When they both ended up back in the Bay Area in 2010, they seized upon a new program to move their online store into a brick-and-mortar shop. Small business incubator Popuphood was offering six months of free rent to a new independent retail store. They applied, moved into the space in 2012 and have remained in the same Old Oakland location ever since, selling a carefully curated collection of Japanese kitchen and home items ranging from delicate matcha whisks to wasabi graters.
Kumano and Akabori had wanted to start carrying alcohol in the store for a while, a fitting companion to their collections of Japanese barware: elegant 24-karat gold barspoons, spherical ice trays and cedar sake cups. And finally, after two years of wrangling with Oakland and wading through red tape, they were granted a license to sell beer and wine at the end of February. Now, the back wall of the store is filled with shelves of imported sake, wine and beer. Kumano, a certified sake expert, is happy to guide you through their large collection.
While sake fans can find a wide variety of options in the Bay Area, for many people this will be their first introduction to Japanese beer outside of the mild lagers found in sushi restaurants across the country. That’s because for years those beers -- Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory -- were also virtually the only ones available in Japan. The country’s tax law required that brewers had to produce a staggering amount of beer -- more than half a million barrels a year -- to get a beer license, allowing a few major breweries to dominate the market. When the law was changed in 1994 (requiring just 500 barrels a year) a craft beer boom began, and the current 200-plus craft breweries in Japan have become an increasingly major presence in the Japanese beer world.
“I don’t want to generalize, but the Japanese, they tend to get super geeky about things,” Akabori said. “They’ve been taking these styles that are European, or Belgian, [that] have been made for hundreds of years, and they’re kind of perfecting it, or putting their own take on it.”
Like the U.S., the Japanese craft beer scene includes lots of brewers playing with the traditional styles, leading to beers aged in shochu casks, brewed with rice or incorporating specialty ingredients like miso or daidai. Unlike the U.S. craft beer market, however, the taste tends toward lighter beers. Lagers still dominate even the craft market, and IPAs are rare. If IPAs do show up on a menu, they’re much milder than the hoppy kinds Californians adore.
There’s also a lingering German influence on the beer scene. After the tax law changed in 1994, many brewers learned to make beer from Germans, leading to a large number of kölsches and hefeweizens.
Currently, beer is the most consumed type of alcohol in Japan and plays a major role in the social lives of city dwellers. Colleagues will typically go out to drinks and everybody -- even the nondrinkers -- are expected to cheers with a draft lager.
“It was almost socialistic. I don’t drink that kind of lager, and I wasn’t used to that when I moved there,” Kumano said. “But everybody goes. The beginning kanpai -- the cheers -- is always that beer, the house draft beer.”
That tradition, coupled with the increasing number of young Japanese who don’t drink, has led brewers to develop tasty, complex, nonalcoholic beers for the abstinent, like the Kirin’s Free, which Umami Mart carries.
Umami Mart currently offers 50 beers, but Kumano and Akabori are already hoping to acquire more -- a somewhat difficult task, given that they’ve exhausted the Japanese beer selection of most of their distributors. But customers have already started clamoring for a wider selection. The addition of beer and sake has brought them a new group of customers, some coming in asking for specific Japanese beers they remember from their travels, and some who are just craft beer obsessives looking for the latest interesting beer.
“People really seem to be into Japanese beer,” Akabori said. “Beer drinkers here are very geeky. The real aficionado types come in and they’re really into it. I hope that the demand with grow and hope more Japanese beer will start being imported.”
So … What should a newcomer to the world of Japanese beer drink? Kumano and Akabori rounded up a few of their favorites that run the gamut of their offerings, which I tasted with a group of friends (including professional coffee taster Jason Sarley):
- Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale: A cheerful, easy-to-drink beer with a mild toasted rice flavor. This beer is relatively easy to find compared to other Japanese craft beers, but Umami carries a wider selection of this popular brewery, including their IPA and espresso stout.
- Ozeno Yukidoke IPA: Hoppy, crisp and familiar, with an initial bite that quickly softens and an almost woodsy richness.
- Ginga Kogen Weizen: Vaguely skunky, definitely assertive, this wheat beer was a bracing shock after the lightness of the other beers. The name means “plateau of the galaxy” and it’s bright, sharp and very, very interesting.
- Niigata Golden Kolsch: This is definitely not your traditional kölsch. It’s darker (a deep amber instead of yellow) with a deep savory richness and smoothness, and has notes of blueberry and molasses.
- Yo-Ho Wednesday Cat: The packing of this beer raises a lot of questions: Why does the cat look so morose? Why is it “made for hump day?” A mild Belgian style wheat, it has the typical banana, citrus and spice combination familiar to anyone who's had a Blue Moon. Sweet, non-threatening and easy to drink even if it’s not a Wednesday. Its sweetness also makes it an ideal complement to salty foods.
- Yo-Ho Yona Yona Ale: A lager from the country’s most popular craft brewery, this smooth, slightly fruity and sweet beer boasts notes of pear and honeysuckle.
- Kinshachi Nagoya Red Miso Lager: Yes, you can taste the miso -- but only barely -- it's just enough to add an interesting salty note to this full-bodied, malty beer.