13 February 2024
A culture of crisp lagers & craft delights
Japanese beer has, for a long time, been focused on lager, of which there are four major manufacturers dominating the local market: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. Asahi, however, is arguably the most famous. Despite this, the recent emergence of the craft scene has brought to light more exciting independent manufacturers and ingredients.
Japanese beers are famed throughout the world for their light, refreshing and crisp taste. Japan has a rich history in beer brewing, producing the good stuff since the 19th century. It has been enjoyed ever since and is now the country’s most loved drink, especially at Nomikai (drinking parties particular to Japanese culture). Japanese beer is well known for its quality and premium brewing methods. Although, similar to American beer, it has taken on its own distinctive taste and flair.
Since the 1980s, there has been a growing preference for dry and refreshing flavours in Japan. Consequently, the predominant style of beer served at izakayas and bars is characterised by light-coloured lagers with an average alcohol strength of around 5.0%. Despite Japenese lagers being the most commonly produced beer in the country, there is a notable inclination towards beer-like beverages known as happoshu or happōsei (発泡性). The intricacies of Japan's beer laws involve taxation based on the proportion of malt to other grains used in brewing. This taxation system categorises brewed drinks into two main groups: beer and happoshu.
The happoshu taste very similar to Japanese lagers. They also have a similar ABV, yet contain lower levels of malt. These beer-like alternatives have captured a large part of the Japanese beer market due to the above-memntioned tax incentives (and subsequent lower prices they retail at). There is also “Shin Janru”, the latest addition to the Japanese beer landscape. This beverage contains no malt at all, using pea or soy, making the taxes even less.
One of the most famous Japanese beers, inside and outside of Japan, is Asahi Dry. Asahi is a very well-studied beer, produced as a result of consumer market research highlighting the demand for a highly drinkable, low malt beer. This was the birth of Asahi Dry. It matches Japanese food to perfection, being dry (no surprises there) with a clear finish and crispy after taste.
The signature “Karakuchi” dry taste is created by the use of rice, a special yeast and premium hops. It's best enjoyed cold with wasabi peas or spicy rice crackers.
Sapporo are famed for their premium lagers. They brew using only the highest-quality ingredients, creating their signature crisp, refreshing and perfectly balanced flavour. They have a few in their range, although the Sapporo Premium beer is the real icon. It’s crisp, it’s refined and it’s clean. The perfect beer for any meal or occasion. Kanpai!
The landscape of craft beer in Japan's major cities, particularly Tokyo and Osaka, has undergone a remarkable expansion. In stark contrast to a few years ago, when craft beer was a novelty and beer availability was limited, the current scene is vibrant and dynamic. Before 1994, breweries were required to produce a minimum of 2 million litres of beer annually to obtain a license, effectively excluding small-scale craft production. However, the 1994 tax relief reforms sparked a surge in microbreweries, transforming and diversifying the beer market.
While the majority of Japanese beers remain golden, easy-to-consume Japanese lagers, the craft beer movement has introduced a wave of innovation. Beers crafted with sake yeast, sake rice, and indigenous fruits and vegetables like sweet potato and yuzu have emerged. With over 200 microbreweries, the craft scene has not only expanded the beer offerings but has also introduced a variety of styles, including ales, IPA beer, stouts, and wheat beers. This flourishing of diversity, quality, and artistry positions beer as an equal counterpart to the craftsmanship associated with Japanese cuisine.
The popularity of Japanese beer has surged in the UK, reflecting a growing appreciation for international brews. In recent years, Japanese beer brands have been welcomed by enthusiasts exploring the unique flavours and styles the country has to offer. Brews from renowned Japanese breweries, known for their precision and artistry, have made their way into pubs, bars, and specialty shops across the UK (check out this article to learn more about craft beer around the UK).
The rise of Japanese craft beers and traditional favourites has introduced consumers to a diverse range of options, from crisp lagers to innovative and experimental creations.