January 13, 2015

Popeyes and the great Aoki san - similarity to Sam Adams and Jim Koch?

Anyone who comes to Japan in search of craft beer HAS TO go to Popeye's.
It's the Mecca, the grandfather of Craft Beer bars in Japan.

I remember when it was one of the only places to get a decent variety of Japanese and indeed imported craft beer in Japan, let alone Tokyo. They had up to 40 beers on tap - the most in Japan at that time. They set the scene.
Of course now, things have changed. My, how they have changed. They are far from being one of the few any more. A new craft beer place seems to be opening every other week.
This has often left me wondering and at times, worrying about the future of the venerable institution that is Popeye's. Where it was once the vibrant centre of craft beer, it now lies for many, somewhat on the outer circles, way out in Ryogoku, on the way to Chiba on the Sobu/Chuo line.
Aoki san, perhaps the Godfather of Craft Beer has long been influential in dealing with breweries, customers, putting on festivals and behind the scenes dealings including hosting Michael Jackson when he was over here, touring (no, not the dancer, the beer critic.).
The man knows more about craft beer here than most around, I'd wager.
 A highly recommended visit there will allow you to take in the atmosphere and see the photos and signed mementos of some of the greats that have swigged back a pint or two at Popeye's.
The bar is a sight to behold. 
Tremendous bar design and a mutlitude of tap handles form around the world.
Imagine this, relatively unchanged for thirty years, this year. THIRTY YEARS!
The only thing that has drastically changed is that his tap range has gone from 40 to up to 70!
The place is still packed most nights and doing well, it seems. However, it's relevance has perhaps shifted. Now, drinkers have so many options and there are so many new events and festivals luring them ever further from Ryugoku and towards central Tokyo and indeed my own Yokohama.
The choices offer more beer, sometimes for cheaper prices and some might even argue at times, superior conditions and service.
Popeyes has responded to the times by going non smoking (fantastic news and to be honest, unexpected but very appreciated), they continue to offer members (free to sign up) a postcard each month with the offer of a free beer or food and taster set or a pitcher of a certain beer, once a month.
For new Year, they offer free beer up to the value of the year, so this year you get 2015 yen's worth of free beer! They still run many in house events including possibly the only cask ale festival by a craft beer bar that I know of and a strong ale festival plus they should be bringing back their National real ale festival in Tokyo this year which is a refreshing change from some of the other festivals.
They increased their tap list from 40 to up to 70 beers, again the most in Japan.

I think Aoki san and Popeye's is still doing well but I wonder if they still hold as much sway and influence as they used to and are they as relevant to the craft beer scene, today?
This well written and thought provoking article about the apparent shift in reverence, respect and popularity by the craft beer community in the States towards Sam Adams got me thinking of a comparison between Aoki san in Japan and Jim Koch (founder of Sam Adams and many say the craft beer movement in the  USA) of the USA.

For me, Aoki san will always be one of THE godfathers of craft beer, in Japan.
Alongside, of course the late departed boss of Minoh beer, who sadly passed away a few years ago and perhaps one or two others.

I think he still has a lot to offer craft beer in Japan. I think he still is offering a lot.

Here is an excerpt taken form the very good Baird Beer Voice newsletter, published by Baird Beer:
A highlight of any visit to Popeye is the chance to catch up with Aoki-san. His opinions about our industry are always valuable, and the urgency with which he seeks to grow awareness of Japanese craft beer is energizing. It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn of his newest initiative. From later this year, Aoki-san, together with friend Fujiki Tatsuo, formerly with the Yamato Brewery (makers of Wao Beer), will brew small (100 liter) batches of beer on Aoki-san’s ancestral estate in Minami Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture. Aoki-san plans to dedicate two taps at Popeye to his beers.
That is great news about him starting his own brewery, small though it is. He already commissions many brewers to make special batches for him. Popeyes and Baird beer were one of the first to being out a black IPA called Divine Vamp quite a few years ago, long before this 'style' became popular in the states and indeed around the world.

Do you think things are turning away from Popeyes as a driving force? Is that fine and not a problem?
Do you see comparisons with Jim Koch in the article?
Has Popeyes had its time in the limelight?
Is it time for someone else to take up the mantle and does any one establishment necessarily need to be doing that?
Is craft beer in Japan mature enough to stand strong on its own without a strong advocate to look out for it?

So, what do you think?
I am interested in reading your comments.
Don't be shy.