While it isn’t a traditional beverage, beer has become a favorite accompaniment to many Japanese meals. Moreover, it’s a great addition to the toasts that they encourage as part of their drinking culture. These are the top five beers at a glance, with more about the brewery and the beverages offered below. Yebisu, Sapporo, Asahi, Kirin, and Suntory are the major contenders in this list.
Started as Osaka Brewery in 1889, Asahi is one of the original beers in Japan. While today, Asahi Super-Dry is one of the most prevalent beers in the market, the brewery has other beverages. Super-Dry is described as an attenuated lager, without the heavier notes of malt and other flavors associated with the type. It appeals to drinkers of India Pale Ale (IPA) varieties, but has a profile reminiscent of several types of beers in northern Germany.
Asahi Lager and Asahi Gold were produced first, in 1892 and 1957, respectively. Since then, Asahi Stout, Z Lager, which is a dry lager, Asahi Black, and Prime Time, which is a pilsner-style lager only available in Japan have made their marks upon the Japanese beer market. However, none are as popular as the Super-Dry, with its trademark crispness and clean finish.
While it’s an imprint of Sapporo, it tends to stand alone and be considered as its own beer. This particular draft is tailored meant as a true styling of German Lager. Yet, it caters to a distinctly Japanese palate, with a bitterness and distinctly soft carbonation. That, however, does not detract from its overall excellence in the beer market. It has won accolades from many in the beer world since, but the makers of Yebisu prize the gold medal at the Paris Expo in 1900.
Yebisu is the name of the god of luck, and the beer bearing his name is served at every special occasion. The long brewing process stems from a larger malt content, which gives the beer its signature flavor. The golden color and bright white head are also signatures, but the soft carbonation is what gives the head its lacey, creamy texture and why it doesn’t linger. Most tasters agree that it has a malty, unbaked biscuit note with a clean, grassy finish. The sweet and bitter trade off as one swallows the beer, and leave you ready for the next sip.
Taking over the Spring Valley from its Norwegian owner in 1886, this particular brand of beer—Kirin—is one of the oldest and most venerated in the country. Kirin Lager, still drunk today, is one of the oldest lagers in this particular eastern market, first offered in 1888. The other, slightly younger variety is Ichiban Shibori.
Kirin Ichiban, as it is known now, crafts its image as one hinged on mindfulness, of appreciating each moment for its own sake. This is wedded to Japanese culture, one quite symbolic and steeped in meaning. The flagship brew of the brand is known as ichiban—first and best in the Japanese language. They use only the first press of the wort, which provides a clarity of flavors. Crisp, but malty, it pairs well with the subtle flavors and notes of Japanese cuisine.
Suntory has a long history as a whiskey distillery. They have made a name for themselves with that beverage that isn’t taken lightly. However, they decided to branch out into the beer market with their characteristic gusto in 1963. In 1986, they came out with their Barley Malt’s beer. However, their beers differ from others in the market by one crucial aspect—the foam.
Unlike many other types of beer, their brand focuses on the foam or head. In many ways, this aspect of the beer itself heightens the creaminess and the properties of the beer carried by scent. Rather than allowing the notes of malt to be carried by the taste, they also key into the post-olfaction aspect of the beer. Moreover, they’ve mastered the foam game, creating another delicious aspect of the beer-drinking experience.
The oldest beer label in Japan was started by the very first brew master. Seibei Nakagawa stole away from Japan’s shores during a period when it was strictly forbidden to do so and went on to learn the art of brewing from a German master of the skill. He brought this back to Japan with him and started something wonderful.
While this beer, brewed in the home of Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, is darker than most Japanese brews, it brings with it a refreshing waft of hops. Unlike many of the other types of beer, it is made with a balance of hops that exceeds the malt used in the mash. And although Sapporo also owns Yebisu, it’s a matter of taste which is better. The light color and ephemeral notes of Yebisu do not necessarily compare to the hoppy, light beer brewed by Sapporo.
Beer is a relative newcomer to the islands in terms of process. It’s a western beverage, with a home in western and central Europe. However, the Japanese have seamlessly aligned it with their own cultural values and integrated it into their society. This is one more example of their imitative modernity—a habit for taking aspects of other cultures and making each a Japanese custom.