Land of the rising sun, I prefer to call Japan land of the rising craft beers. From Belgian-style saisons to Hoppy IPAs with the occasional Porter thrown in, more Japanese beer brands are available in the US than ever before.
In recent years, Japanese beer styles have seen an explosion similar to the American craft beer movement. For a land that was previously dominated by very dry rice beer, there is now a wide selection of beer choices available to the beer lovers of Japan.
But how does a nation known more for its sushi, sake, and premium whiskeys become such a big player in the craft beer market? Let’s take a look at some of Japan’s favorite beers and which ones we can actually buy here.
Sit back, grab yourself a cold beer, preferably Sapporo Premium or Asahi Super Dry (both readily available, even at the local 7-11), and imagine you are in one of their famous beer halls as we take you on a tour of the Japanese beer industry.
How did Japan Become Such a Big Beer Brewing Nation?
Beer has actually always been a very popular drink in Japanese households and drinking dens across the nation. Japan is well known for its ability to innovate and improve any products on the market, so why not beer?
It is thought that beer was first introduced to Japan in the 17th century during the Edo period by Dutch traders who brewed it for their own consumption. But beer was not widely available in Japan until the signing of treaties in 1854, which opened up Japan to foreign trade.
For most of the 19th century, or the Meiji period, imported beers like Bass Pale Ale or stouts were the only beers available in limited quantities and only at foreign settlements. But that was all about to change!
In 1869, a brewery, which would later be known as the Kirin Brewery, was set up in Spring Valley near the international port of Yokohama by an American-Norwegian businessman. A Japanese government initiative saw the Sapporo brewery set up in 1876 on the island of Hokkaido and Asahi Breweries soon followed suit in Osaka in 1889.
Throughout the 20th century, especially the latter half, beer consumption in Japan continued to grow, even overtaking sake as Japan’s number one alcoholic beverage. As recent as 2018, Japan was ranked as the seventh biggest consumer of beer in the world.
The Start of the Japanese Craft Beer Movement
Before 1994 Japanese beers were only available commercially from the big four players: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. They were pale-colored lighter lagers, more like a rice ale. They would typically have an ABV of around 5%.
Strict tax laws by previous Japanese governments had only granted licenses to larger and commonly government-owned breweries. Craft beer brewing, or at least the sale of craft beer, was effectively banned in the beer marketplace.
Government laws had also led to many breweries creating beer-like beverages called happoshu (which literally translates as “bubbly alcohol”) due to tax revenue being based on the amount of malt found in a beverage. These have now captured a large part of the beer market due to the lower costs.
The relaxation of the quantity of beer production needed to sell led to many microbreweries being set up across Japan. It is currently estimated there are over 200 microbreweries across Japan, although many are tied to larger sake producers, hotel resorts, and restaurant chains.
Variations of Beer in Japan
Just as tax laws were responsible for less small brewery competition, alcohol laws in Japan also dictated the amount of tax revenue on a beer was determined by its malt content.
Beer-like beverages, which many classify as beer, were created using less malt and are, therefore, much cheaper to sell.
The three main categories of beer in Japan are:
- Beer – With its regular malt content, traditionally produced beer, including many of today’s craft beers, will be more expensive than the other categories due to that higher taxation.
- Happoshu (translated as “bubbly alcohol”) – A low-malt beer formulated by Japanese brewers, has a similar flavor profile and ABV to regular beers but uses much less malt to avoid the higher taxation.
- New Genre (Shin Jaru) – These relatively new beer beverages are commonly known as the third beer and contain no malt to get around the malt taxation rules. Instead, they use wheat, pea, or soy spirits and can be sold at a much lower price, even less than happoshu.
Craft Beer in Japan
In the metropolitan cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, you will find many craft beer bars selling the beers of the Japanese brewery they are linked to (a bit like the English-tied beer pubs!). But you will also find many brewpubs that brew and sell their beer onsite. In some of the onsen (hot spring) towns, Japanese breweries will take advantage of the pure water in the springs, and we all know the importance of a good source of water for the best beers.
Japanese Beer Guide
Okay, I’ve talked enough about the assortment of beers available in Japan (and many in the American market). Let’s get down to business and look at the beers. Although not a comprehensive list by any means, I will try to include some of each beer type and focus more on what we can actually get hold of outside of Japan.
If you should feel like making a beer pilgrimage to the land of the rising sun, there are many beer halls, and some of the breweries also have museums or offer factory tours.
- Asahi Draft – a lager first produced in 1892
- Asahi Gold – premium Japanese lager
- Asahi Stout
- Asahi Z – the first dry lager
- Asahi Super Dry
- Asahi Black – a dark lager
- Asahi Prime Time – Only available in Japan, a German-style pilsner lager
One of the most widely available Japanese beer brands in the foreign market, Asahi is now even produced under license by Molson in Canada. If you have ever been to a sushi or teppanyaki restaurant, you will have come across cans of beer like Asahi Super Dry (officially recognized as the best-selling premium beer from Japan).
A great tasting beer, it is an ideal beer for food. It has a light, crisp taste, with a hint of bitterness similar to many American craft style IPAs.
- Baird Wheat King Wit – a sprite and fruity wheat beer
- Baird Single Take Session Ale
- Numazu Lager
- Rising Sun Pale Ale
- Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale
- Teikoku IPA – a very bitter hop finish
- Baird Dark Sky Stout
Formed at the turn of the century, brothers and beer enthusiasts Bryan and Sayuri Braid quit their jobs in 2000 to start brewing in the Pacific Northwest town of Numazu.
All Braid beers are unfiltered and go through two stages of fermentation, one even in the bottle. They are not always served ice cold like many pilsner beer styles, but rather at appropriately cooler temperatures.
Particularly noteworthy is the Baird Dark Sky Stout. With tasting notes of chocolate, coffee, and bitter hops, this stout has an ABV of 10% and is available in all eight tap rooms Baird has opened across Japan.
Baird also currently exports their beers to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore beer markets.
- Codeo Marihana – Japanese for hop flower, a citrus hop aroma dominates this IPA
- Codeo Ruri – a premium pilsner type of beer
- Codeo Shiro – a wheat beer with a sweet aroma and fruity undertones
- Codeo Beniaka – made with roasted sweet potatoes from Japan for a bittersweet taste
Unfortunately, you are less likely to find these beers outside of Japan, and, believe me, I have tried. Originally classified as “local beers,” they decided to call them craft beers in 2006. Founded by a family of organic farmers in the 70s, the lack of an independent malting industry in Japan caused them to hit on the idea of using locally massed produced potatoes in the beer.
The recipe was a hit, and they started to produce the first sweet potato beer in the world in 1996. With a German Brew master and small-batch artisanal brew process, their current Beniaka beer is one definitely worth hunting down if you are ever in Japan.
- Hitachino White Ale
- Hitachino Nest Weizen ( a wheat beer)
- Hitachino Nest Sweet Stout
- Hitachino Nest Amber Ale
- Japanese Classic Ale
- Hitachino Saison du Japon
- Dadai Ale (IPA)
One of the largest craft brewers in Japan, Hitachino, claims “Nest is Best” – and many beer lovers worldwide would agree. Founded as a sake brewery in 1823, the Kimchi family has produced quality sake for nearly 200 years.
With the relaxation of the beer brewing laws in 1994, brewing beer was the next challenge. One which they rose to, and just a year after opening the beer side of the brewery, they won the Best International Beer award with Hitachino Nest Amber Ale – a crisp tasting ale similar to many Belgian beers.
The choice of many beer experts, Hitachino has carried on winning many awards (45 in total), including a World Beer Cup in the US, a Brewing Industry International Award in the UK, a Superior taste Award in Belgium, and a highly esteemed International Taste & Quality Institute Award (iTQi).
Exported to the US and various other countries, you will see Hitachino Nest ales on the beer list of many craft beer bars wherever you go. I recently drank plenty of Hitachino Nest on a beer trip to Vietnam and Thailand, and they’re not short of decent beers themselves! A particular favorite was the Red Rice Ale, which adds hints of sake to the complex flavor from the use of red rice.
- Sapporo Pure
- Sapporo Reserve
- Sapporo Black label
- Sapporo Yeyebisu Beer
Although easily available outside of Japan, for the best beer-tasting experience, you should head to the Sapporo Beer Museum in Hokkaido, recognized by most as the birthplace of the Japanese beer brewing industry.
In addition to a history of Japanese beer production, the museum features many restaurants with the best Japanese food available and beer halls that serve all-you-can-drink beer; never a bad idea, in my opinion. When teamed up with an all-you-can-eat mutton BBQ, a popular local dish that dates back to the time of Mongolian ruler Ghengis Khan, it should be on any beer lover’s bucket list.
Sapporo Black Label beer may be the flagship of this brewery’s portfolio, but try to hunt down the Sapporo Yebisu, a great aromatic beer made following German purity laws for a deep and rich intensity but with a clean finish.
- Suntory The Premium Malts
- Suntory The Lager
- Suntory Rich Malt
- Suntory Premium Kinmugi
Better known in the west for its range of premium whiskeys, Suntory is also a huge food and drink distribution company with many beers in its portfolio. In 1986, they released the barley malt range of beers and all their beers use only 100% natural water from underground springs.
I have to give a mention to Suntory The Premium Malts as it is a popular beer worldwide for its very malty taste. Particularly special is the Suntory Kinmugi, which enhances the Unami ( a rich, important flavor in Japan) of the barley with Kinmugi, which has 75% less sugar than traditional beers.
- Yona Yona Ale – a medium bodied American Pale Ale using Cascade hops
- Suiyoubi No Nenko – A Belgian-style wheat beer
- Aooni – A Japanese IPA
- Tokyo Black – A Japanese Porter
Brewer Yoho was another of the artisanal craft brewers that sprang to life shortly after the microbrewery laws were changed in the mid-90s. Based in Nagano in Japan, their beers have quickly become known worldwide, with a vast distribution network in both Europe and the US.
One of my favorite beers in the Yoho range is the Japanese IPA Aooni, which has a similar eye-watering bitterness to many American IPAs, such as those made by Deschutes or even Rogue in Oregon.
Japanese Beer, The Takeaway
I hope you have enjoyed this brief guide to the Japanese beers available in many of your nearest convenience stores. It’s certainly brought back many memories for me, and I’m yearning for that next trip to Japan to sample their beer culture.
There are almost as many different types of beer drunk now in Japan as there are types of sushi, and that’s really saying something. Take a look at your local distributor’s or beer shop’s beer lists and see if you can spot any of the beers we have mentioned, or maybe even discover some new land of the rising sun lager or IPA. Let us know if you find any beers I haven’t mentioned but think I should have. I wish I could, but I haven’t sampled all the Japanese beers – YET!