Aoki Tatsuo 青木辰男

Mr. Aoki Tatsuo is like the godfather: successful, respected and not afraid to look after the interests of the ‘family.’ Mention the neighborhood “Ryogoku” and most people think of sumo; beer lovers are instantly reminded of his beer pub Popeye, which serves 70 different varieties of draft beer. This mainstay is but one of several successful operations he has been involved in over the years. Beyond Popeye’s, Aoki is also a key figure in the Real Ale Festival, the Craft Beer Festival and the Good Beer Club. He has an eye to the future as the craft beer industry in Japan burgeons, but recognizes the political and bureaucratic hurdles stymieing its growth. Sipping on a Weizen, Aoki talks about the work he has done and the work that remains.

Koe: How did you become involved in the craft beer industry?

Aoki: A friend of mine was connected to Echigo beer, which was Japan’s first craft beer. We sold it here in 1995. About a year later, we started importing barrels from overseas—Rogue was our first. Popeye’s was just a simple pub until then, though I had been lining up Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo at the bar—that was very taboo in those days.

K: When and why did you start the Good Beer Club?

A: It was 2004. People were just thinking about business all the time. What about the beer itself? I wanted to introduce new beers. I wanted to think about how we can better enjoy beer. I had also discovered real ale and wanted to share that with other tasters.

K: What’s necessary for further growth in Japan’s craft beer industry?

A: A 1994 law states that you have to produce 60 kiloliters of beer per year. Before that, it was 2000 kiloliters! If you don’t have money and space, you can’t possibly do it. But even 60 is too much. It’s like telling a rice farmer with the average paddy that he has to produce ten times that much if he wants to farm.

K: Who determined this number?

A: Nihonshu (sake) brewers allegedly pushed those numbers so they wouldn’t loose market share to beer brewers. And there was probably some conservative thought among bureaucrats that they had to protect these traditional businesses. It was the government’s call, but beer is beer and nihonshu is nihonshu. There is not a lot of crossover among the drinkers. I don’t think we affect each other.

K: So why hasn’t anything changed?

A: Brewers had actually proposed 30 kiloliters as a compromise because 10 kiloliters was what most of the beer world really wanted. I still think that’s too much if you look at places like California where home brewing has lead to some good brewers—Japan has got to do something about those restrictions.

K: What would the effect of eliminating this law be?

A: I think you’d see the number of micro-breweries expand from 200 to about 500. It could affect some of the bigger companies now producing lines of premium beers.

K: Are they pushing back, too?

A: Yes. They give the impression of cooperation. We get certain tax benefits when buying ingredients from the bulk importers with which they have huge contracts. But the big beer companies control distribution like a cartel. Take Ginga Kogen Beer, for example. The owner was criticizing the zaibatsu conditions and laws. So some big beer companies, using their power over distribution channels, supposedly threatened to pull their beers from any place also selling GKB. If you are an alcohol retailer, that would destroy your business. A big beer maker later started pushing 100-yen beer promotions around the city to lure more customers to their brand. Well that’s unfair competition; it’s like dumping.

K: What would be your ideal?

A: Just allow home brewing. A license to sell should still be necessary, but no production minimums. The economic benefits would be enormous. You’d see brewing schools and research institutes. Suppliers would increase. Retailers would increase. Japanese craft beer could be world famous. Japanese have distinct tastes and this would reflect in the beer. It wouldn’t be better beer, per se; but there would be possibilities for new flavors.


















Popeye Beer Club
130-0026 Tokyo
Sumida-ku, Ryogoku 2-18-7
(note that the “40” of the web address speaks to an older time)

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