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Think Japan, think sake, right? You may be surprised to hear that beer is Japan’s favoured alcoholic beverage by quite a margin, despite the fact that it is not a native product. Imported by the Dutch in the 17th century, with local brewing only beginning in the early 19th century, beer is now a hugely popular drink in Japan. Incredibly, despite its foreign origins, Japanese brewers made beer a very Japanese drink in just a few generations - so much so that, until concerns surrounding underage drinking led to most being phased out, beer was widely available from vending machines throughout Japan. Even now, pop into a convenience store and you’ll find row upon row of beers in the fridge.
We Aussies love a Japanese brew. Crafted from rice rather than wheat, Japanese beer has a clean, crisp, pilsner-style taste that is supremely refreshing, especially in a hot Australian summer. As a celebration of Japanese beer we have compiled a guide full of fascinating facts so that you can impress your mates with your vast knowledge!
A brief history of Japanese beer
Beer was introduced to Japan by Dutch merchants in the 17th century in the form of beer halls for sailors plying the trade route between Japan and Dutch colonies. In the early 19th century the Napoleonic wars put a halt to the Dutch Commissioner’s supplies from Europe so he commissioned a local organisation primarily to keep his own stores well stocked. Later in the century, in 1870, enterprising Norwegian-American William Copeland established the Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama and a couple of years later Syozaburo Shibutani became the first Japanese to brew and sell beer.
Around the same time, the wild island of Hokkaido was found to have hops growing on it and Seibei Nakagawa swiftly travelled to Germany to learn the beer brewing trade, setting up his own Pioneers Brewery in 1875 and launching their flagship beer Sapporo Cold Beer in due course. The late 19th century also saw the formation of the Kirin and Asahi breweries so it was a busy period for the brewing industry. Indeed, in 1886 the amount of beer produced in Japan exceeded the amount imported for the first time.
That period of enterprise ended in the early 20th century with the introduction of stiff tax laws governing the production of beer. These permitted only breweries producing a minimum of 2 million litres per year to obtain a license, effectively preventing any smaller breweries from starting up. These laws remained until the 1950s, when they only got stricter, and are the reason there hasn’t historically been much of a craft beer scene in Japan.
Japanese Beer History
The Dry Wars (or dorai senso - it sounds cooler in Japanese doesn’t it?!)
Previous to 1987, the Kirin Brewery Company held 50% of Japan’s beer market but once Asahi launched its incredibly popular Asahi Super Dry that started to drop. In a desperate bid to win back its share, in 1988 it launched its own dry beer, Kirin Dry, with a huge ad campaign featuring Gene Hackman. Kirin Malt Dry and Ichiban Shibori followed and the other big Japanese brands, Sapporo and Suntory, launched their own versions (with the ad campaign Suntory Dry 5.5 featuring Mike Tyson) but none was as successful as Asahi Super Dry - still the most popular beer in Japan and the country’s biggest export beer.
The advent of the microbrewery
In 1994 the government’s strict tax laws relaxed, reducing the minimum production levels per capita to 60,000 litres and thus allowing sake brewers, wine makers and anyone else to open a microbrewery. Today, there are over 200 microbreweries in Japan and the Japanese craft beer industry is growing, producing not just lager but ales, stouts, and many others, often with a Japanese twist. For example, some beers are aged in cedar barrels often used for sake, giving them hints of pepper and earthy flavours. Premium craft beer Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale combines both sake and ale yeasts, giving it a sake character but with the unmistakeable taste of malt and hops, as well as berry and spice. The number of Japanese craft beers exported to Australia is still small but expect that to rise as more people become aware of their unique flavours.
The Big 4
Microbreweries might be on the increase in Japan but there are four main breweries which dominate the Japanese beer market and export around the globe - Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory (although only the first three are exported to Australia in big numbers).
Asahi - Established in 1889, the name Asahi translates into English as ‘rising sun’ and hails from the east of Japan, near Tokyo. Its most famous and most popular beer is Asahi Super Dry, Japan’s first, and ultimately most successful, dry beer. Packaged in its distinctive silver-labelled glass bottles, Asahi Super Dry has a clean and crisp taste, with a bread-like, grainy malt flavour and a bitter hop finish that gives it its unmistakeable dry characteristic. It’s the perfect partner to a summer seafood BBQ and its light, refreshing taste makes it a great session beer.
Sapporo - Originally the Kaitakushi Brewery, it was sold and renamed the Sapporo Beer Company in 1886 and has been producing beer ever since, although only really reaching mass popularity in Japan from the 1980s. Yebisu and Yebisu Black are malty, full-bodied beers popular in Japan. Look out for Sapporo Premium Lager here, a crisp and bitey number that has been brewed since 1887, making it Japan’s oldest beer. Incredibly versatile, it is perfect as a session beer or paired with steak or seafood.
Kirin - Named after a mythical beast that is a symbol of prosperity, Kirin has certainly been prosperous in Australia recently. Quickly gaining momentum over the past five years here, Kirin is light but malty, with a good amount of depth but without being overpowering. Its new, distinctive packaging with its single brushstroke and Japanese kanji, has helped its image and the brand seems to be going from strength to strength in Australia.
Suntory - Not currently widely available outside Japan, despite the fact it is one of the country’s ‘Big 4.’ Founded in 1899 as a producer of spirits and wines, Suntory started to brew beer in 1967. Malty in taste and golden in colour, it is perfect paired with fiery dishes.
What on earth is happoushu??
If you’ve never heard of happoushu, you won’t be alone as it is rare to find it outside of Japan. Thanks to the Japanese tax system, beers with a low malt content are taxed far less than others. Hence the creation of happoushu, literally ‘bubbly alcohol’, a low-malt beer. However, the term ‘beer’ is used lightly here as Japanese regulations forbid the use of the word beer, or biru, when describing these beverages. Because of the low tax levied on it, happoushu is cheaper than beer, but can also lack flavour and depth. The low amounts of malt used in its production mean that it is incredibly light, in both flavour and body.
Beer In Japanese 320Px
Australian vs. Japanese beers
Hops, barley and water - the basic ingredients of beer - are used to create both Australian and Japanese beers. However, most beers are also crafted from additional ingredients, or ‘adjuncts,’ which contribute to sugar for fermentation. The majority of Japanese beers imported into Australia contain rice as a secondary ingredient, which is what gives them that clean, dry, light taste. Rice lightens the body of beer, making it incredibly refreshing. The majority of the most famous Japanese beers are similar to a dry, light Australian lager. If you like your beer with greater depth and flavour, you should try an ale or a stout - perhaps one of Japan’s up-and-coming craft beers.
The crisp, clean, light-bodied character of Japanese rice lagers lend them to spicy dishes such as Thai stir-fries and Indian curries, as well as aged and chilli-infused cheeses and sharp cheddars. Their light quality equally pairs well with lightly flavoured food such as shellfish and sushi, which would be overwhelmed by stronger tasting, darker ales and stouts. An ice-cold Japanese beer is perfect drunk under a sizzling sun whilst flipping some steaks on the BBQ.
Japanese Beer And Edamame
Japanese beer etiquette
If you ever find yourself in Japan, at a Japanese restaurant, or in the company of Japanese friends, here are some dos and do nots when drinking beer:
Never pour your own drink (unless you’re drinking alone, obviously!) as it is considered not only bad manners but bad luck to do so. Pour your partner’s drink first and then allow them to pour yours. It is customary to drink out of a small glass from a large bottle which is shared.
No matter how thirsty you are, wait until everyone is ready to drink before you start to sink your beer.
Sharing is not caring when it comes to drinking someone else’s beer. To be honest, that’s weird in most cultures.
Drink every last little drop of your beer - it’s considered wasteful to leave any, and we agree!
The Japanese version of ‘cheers’ is ‘kanpai’ pronounced ‘gahn-pie.’ Its literal translation is ‘empty cup’ and originates from the expectation that you should drink your small cup of sake in one go. Don’t feel you have to down your beer every time someone makes a toast - a sip will do! As the night wears on and the drinks are flowing, expect a few calls of ‘banzai!’, which means ‘to live 10,000 years.
Frozen beer foam anyone?
The Japanese are famous for being at the forefront of technology in almost every field, from audio-visual equipment to robots. Thankfully these world-class inventors have turned their attention to what really matters - how to keep your beer cold without diluting it. In 2012 some very clever people at brewing company Kirin invented and launched a frozen foam, added to the top of a beer using a machine similar to a soft ice cream dispenser, that ensures beer stays ice cold for up to half an hour. Acting as an insulator, it can keep beer frosty and, as the froth is also made of beer, it won’t dilute the flavour. Sadly there are currently no plans to bring this ingenious foam to Australian pubs.
And now for the best part...
... how best to drink it?! As with all lagers, the colder the better. Chill it in the coldest part of your fridge (generally near the back) and serve straight from the bottle or in an ice cold glass. Sit back and enjoy!
*Not all beers listed are available in all The Bottle-O stores. See your local The Bottle-O store for special order details. Special order requirements per store will vary.