06 February 2020
Beer in Japan
There’s no disputing lager is the most widespread beer style in Japan. Japanese craft beer is not widely known in the beer world, we do see some pretty cool stuff happening!
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. Although Asahi, is arguably the most famous. Despite this, recent emergence of the craft scene has brought to light more independent manufacturers and ingredients.
Japanese beers are famed throughout the world for their light, refreshing and crisp taste. Celebrated for its culture, 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 and although most similar to American styles it has taken on its own distinctive taste and flair.
Since the 1980s there has been an increased demand for dry, refreshing flavour in Japan, hence why the standard style of beer sold at izakayas and bars is predominately light coloured lagers. These tend to have an average alcohol strength of around 5.0%. Although lagers are the most widely produced beer in Japan, there is a trend for beer-like drinks called happoshu or happōsei (発泡性). The intricacies of the beer laws in Japan tax based on the amount of malt relative to grain used. The taxation system means brewed drinks are divided into two camps; beer and happoshu.
The happoshu taste very similar and have a similar ABV to beer but have lower levels of malt, commonly with less than 67%. These beer-like alternatives have captured a large part of the beer drinking market, due to tax incentives on these products and subsequent lower prices they retail at. There is also a third wave or “Shin Janru” beer that is 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, it’s quite dry (no surprises there), has a clear finish and offers a crispy after taste. The signature “Karakuchi” dry taste is created by the use of rice, a special yeast and premium hops. It is also a pale lager-style beer with 5% ABV. The colour is golden and it is highly carbonated. Drink with wasabi peas or spicy rice crackers. Kanpai! (cheers).
Asahi now dominates the beer market with a 38% market share, this is by far the largest proportion of the four leading beer producers in Japan followed by Kirin with 35% and Suntory with 15%.
Expansion of craft beer bars and pubs in Japan's major cities is stark, with cities like Tokyo and Osaka teeming with craft beer selling boozers. This beer vibrancy is new to Japanese culture, just a few years ago craft beer, or beer at all was not widely available. Before 1994 breweries were required to produce at least 2 million litres of beer per year to qualify for a license. This of course eliminates small scale, craft production from the conversation. Even though the majority of beers from Japan are still golden, easy to consume lagers, the reforms of the 1994 tax relief created a boom in microbreweries and henceforth expanded the beer offering. This means things are getting a bit more interesting, note the proliferation of beers made with sake yeast, sake rice, and native fruits and veg such as sweet potato and yuzu. There are now over 200 microbreweries, this craft scene has helped in broadening availability of more styles such ales, IPAs, stout and wheat beers. The flourishing of variety, quality and artistry has meant beer is quickly becoming the equal counterpart to the craftmanship often associated with Japanese food.