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Canadian craft beer is growing roots in Japan

For any Japan-based Canadians thirsty for a taste of home, the options when it comes to beer are quite limited. Japanese investors have made their mark in the sector in Canada, with Sapporo Breweries Ltd.’s buying of Sleeman Breweries Ltd. in 2006, and Kazuko Komatsu’s ownership of British Columbia’s Pacific Western Brewing. However, outside of a few brews stocked at Heavenly Vines in Ebisu, Tokyo and the Hankyu department stores nationwide, the same really cannot be said about the impact in the other direction.

Trying to change that, is Lorne Erenberg, president of the Canadian craft beer importer AMMS Japan. The company, which was granted its import licence in May 2017 and received its first shipment in July, now regularly sells Canadian beers to five establishments, including HyLife Pork TABLE in Daikanyama, as well as some wholesalers and other bars and restaurants.

Previously based in Tokyo while working in finance, Erenberg was looking for ways to return to Japan when he hit upon a new business idea. Having noticed the growth of Japan’s craft beer scene, seen the quality of offerings in Toronto, and confirmed the existence of a niche after looking at data from Statistics Canada, he initially set his sights on exporting craft beer.

“There was a big gap for alcohol and I thought, ‘Well that might be the opportunity,’”Erenberg said.

However, after acting as an exporter turned out not to be viable, due to costs arising from various middlemen, Erenberg changed tack. Following advice from the Japan External Trade Organization and other local agencies, the company set about securing its import licence. Today, AMMS Japan is based in Motomachi, Yokohama, with beer being flown in from Ontario.

“The model has been very effective in Yokohama, because the craft scene there is booming and doesn’t seem to be as congested [as in Tokyo],” Erenberg explained.

The taste test

At the moment, AMMS Japan imports beers exclusively from breweries belonging to Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB), a trade association that stipulates its members should not be significantly controlled by a non-OCB brewer, beer must be produced in small batches, and brewers must meet certain requirements as regards the use of ingredients and the brewing process.

“You taste that,” said Erenberg. “You have to define what it is you’re selling, and the taste kind of does that with craft beer.”

AMMS’s beers include Railway City Brewing Co.’s Dead Elephant IPA (its top seller in Japan), Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery’s fruity 12 Minutes to Destiny Hibiscus Pale Lager, and Black Creek Historic Brewery’s Canada 150 Best Bitter Ale, which was created to mark the country’s anniversary last year.

The wide range of tastes on offer stands in contrast to the usual range of beers found in Japanese shops, restaurants and bars which, while typically being serviceable lagers, are nonetheless fairly plain. And this emphasis on taste and quality is something that plays well with Japanese consumers, Erenberg said.

You have to define what it is you’re selling, and the taste kind of does that with craft beer.

Helping hand

Since starting the venture, Erenberg has received help and advice from several parties, including bars and other importers.

“I don’t think the craft beer scene is at its full fruition yet, and as a result people don’t feel threatened when you tell them, ‘I’m going to import seven or eight types of beer,’” he said.

In addition, a meeting with the Embassy of Canada to Japan led to AMMS Japan joining the Canadian Food Exporters Association and, as a result, joining road shows in Tokyo and Osaka. Meanwhile the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan has hosted events for the company, and its beers were served at December’s joint chamber bonenkai.

Lorne Erenberg began importing Canadian craft beer in July 2017.

“Those three [chamber] events really opened doors for us, and the [embassy] had a supermarket event in October. I wouldn’t have found all those guys without it,” said Erenberg. “Those events are key to us, because someone’s going to come across and say, ‘Where can I get this? I like it, I didn’t realise there’s Canadian beer in Japan’, and someone else is going to say, ‘We have an association with a store or our own little bar.’

“If I don’t get the beer in someone’s hand, I probably won’t be able to sell it just by a billboard or an ad in a magazine.”

This also influences Erenberg’s approach to bar and restaurant sales, for which he typically visits the establishment with a six-pack of beer and sits down with the owner or the manager as they taste it.

Future plans

At the moment, most of AMMS Japan’s beer is sold in cans, something that derives from Ontario’s government-owned liquor stores’ preference for that type of container. And, although cans have advantages in terms of shipping and shelf life, the image of beer in Japan is, nonetheless, one of draught and bottles. As a result, the company is now starting to bring in KeyKegs—disposable, one-use PET plastic kegs—and bottles of different sizes to satisfy the demands of Japanese establishments.

“The issue with the brewers is that they’ve had to adapt,” said Erenberg. “We say, ‘Listen, cans and bottles are good for the marketing, which is where our new company is now, but we won’t be new much longer and you’re going to have to do right by your client.’”

The other issue for the company is developing its retail distribution channels. For AMMS Japan, that means building an e-commerce entity, in part because Erenberg is not convinced that selling through shops is the best route.

“[Bricks and mortar is] a bit of a tougher sale, because I think to that party we’re late—the US guys got in there [first],” he said, noting that shelf space is limited and that shops—unless they are high end—often mistakenly label some beers as craft when they are not.

In terms of e-commerce, the company is currently weighing up issues of logistics, delivery times, age verification, search engine optimization, and which platform to use.

In the long run, AMMS Japan will also look to diversify its range of beers beyond those from Ontario by, for example, looking to breweries in provinces such as British Columbia and Québec. The only thing standing in the way is the logistics (currently AMMS Japan transport their beer by plane), with the economics of shipping meaning that such a range of beers would need to be sent by sea.

“It would be foolish not to [expand],” said Erenberg. “Québec has some sensational stuff, so does British Columbia, but you’ve got to think about the image of Canada people have.”

And, although cans have advantages in terms of shipping and shelf life, the image of beer in Japan is, nonetheless, one of draught and bottles.


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