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Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009

Brouhaha stirs over Belgian brew

Japan develops taste for fragrant, full-body beers

Staff writer

Belgian beer, rich in fragrance, flavor and potency, is not like other brews in Japan.

News photo
Schooner or later: Koichi Fujita pours a Belgian beer at Brussels, Japan's first Belgian beer bar, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 9. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

It was long considered a niche market here, partly because of the relatively high price and the fact that it's not available at the local liquor shop or convenience store.

Belgian beer, however, is gradually but steadily becoming popular in big cities, bucking the trend that Japanese beer companies are coping with as young people increasingly shun suds.

According to the Finance Ministry's Customs and Tariff Bureau, Belgian beer imports doubled to 2,217 kiloliters in 2008 from 1,059 kiloliters in 2003.

The smooth and fruity taste of the beer attracts city people familiar with European culture and who appreciate good food and drink, said Keiko Fukumasa, chairwoman of Aqua Planet Co. in Mie Prefecture, operator of Belgian Beer Cafes.

"But to be honest, I never imagined it would be so popular," she said.

There are some 800 brands of Belgian beer. By using unique ingredients, including herbs, spices, cherries and raspberries, its color ranges from gold to amber to brown and it has contrasting flavors.

The increasing number of large-scale cafes like Belgian Beer Cafe, a restaurant chain serving Belgian beer with 130 seats in each outlet, is also making the beer more accessible.

The cafe chain, established by global brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev in Belgium, opened its first outlet in Osaka in 2003 and three more of them in Tokyo in 2005.

Although Belgian beer is more expensive than Japanese beer, starting from ¥700 a glass at BBC, Fukumasa said business isn't bad considering the recession.

Sales at the Marunouchi pub, for example, remained flat this year, she said.

"There have been small restaurants run by individuals who have a personal interest in Belgium. But the opening of big chain Belgian beer restaurants proves people see potential in the business," said Hitomi Sato, of the Belgian Beer Promotion Center in Tokyo, an affiliate of the Union of Belgian Brewers in Belgium.

There are about 50 such places, comprising both small restaurants and large chains, in Tokyo and Yokohama, she said.

Big-name breweries are also cashing in on the trend.

Asahi Breweries Ltd. began importing more Belgian beer brands last September, including Hoegaarden, Stella Artois and Leffe, 70 percent of which are sold to restaurants, spokeswoman Akemi Banno said.

Thanks to the popularity, small-scale Belgian beer cafes are thriving as well.

"I don't see any sales going down," said Kenji Takizawa, supervisor of Japan's oldest Belgian beer cafe, Tokyo's Brussels, which was established in 1986. He said he is encouraged by the opening of more restaurants serving Belgian beer.

Koichi Fujita, a spokesman of Brussels, added the company does not consider other Belgian beer cafes as competitors.

"We have different lineups, and we serve more handmade, less major beer brands that probably only local people know," he said.

The cafe serves from 50 to 80 kinds of Belgian beer today, while only about 20 kinds of Belgian beer were imported around the time the shop opened, said Takizawa, who has been working there for 20 years.

"Many people didn't know about Belgian beer, so our cafe was a special place," he said, recalling how sophisticated he thought it was to see middle-aged men, who probably had overseas travel experience, drinking imported beer at that time.

But customers shifted from middle-aged men to women who are pickier with food and drink, he said. "I see more women taking their male bosses to our place."

Another reason why Belgian beer is becoming popular among women is because it is not just about drinking alcohol, said Fujita. "You can enjoy Belgian beer with five senses," he said, noting the color is beautiful to look at.

He also pointed out that "Belgian beer matches well with various kinds of food." Indicating the wide range of possible combinations between Belgian beer and food, the cafe serves quiche, paella, tofu tiramisu, as well as Belgian traditional mussels.

Takizawa said he does not plan to import the whole Belgian cafe style, but prefers to keep showing customers new combinations of the beer and food.

"It is the mission of my life to tell them how rich Belgian beer is," he said.

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