Next time you are down at your local sushi bar, take a quick look at what beer everybody is drinking. I can almost guarantee 9 out of 10 of the beers being enjoyed by sushi-loving customers will be the distinctive beer glass-like-shaped silver steel cans of Sapporo Premium. And why not, the crisp, light taste of Sapporo Premium is ideally suited for lighter dishes like sushi. As they say, when in Japan, do as the Japanese would do!
Sapporo ranks as Japan’s oldest brewer and is also the best-selling Asian beer on the American market. Sapporo Premium by itself outsells all the other Asian beers in the US beer market, but did you know Sapporo also sells other beers in the US, including most notably Sapporo Reserve, a 100 percent malt beer?
With breweries based all around the globe, Sapporo has become one of the larger international brewing forces. Although most of us probably think of Japanese rice lagers when somebody says Sapporo, they do produce quite a diverse range of beers, including the low-calorie Sapporo Pure, Sapporo Light, and a German-style black lager or Schwarzbier called Sapporo Black,in addition to the two premium beer offerings Sapporo Premium (or Sapporo Draft as it’s called abroad), and Sapporo Reserve.
Which just begs the question, which is the better beer – Sapporo Premium or Sapporo Reserve?
A Brief History of the Sapporo Brewing Company
The roots of all Sapporo beers can be traced back to 1876 and the Kaitakushi Brewery, which was part of a Government owned initiative called the Hokkaido Development Commission. It not only ranks as the oldest brewery in Japan but also one of the oldest in the world (many of the early US brewers were starting up around this time too).
Like many of the early US brewers, Sapporo was influenced by the time-honored traditions of German lager brewing, with Seibei Nakagawa being the first brewmaster who had been trained in the art of brewing in Germany.
The brewery was to become a private enterprise in 1886, but at the beginning of the 20th Century, it merged with the major regional rival brewers of Japan to become the Dai-Nippon Brewing Company. It wasn’t until after the end of WWII that the companies would split and the Sapporo brand resumed under the Nippon Brewing Company, separating from their largest rival Asahi. The company was rebranded Sapporo Brewing again in the mid-1950s.
Although you could argue more people know the Sapporo brand worldwide, Asahi is actually the largest brewer in Japan, commanding a 37% share of the market, mainly due to the success of one product, Asahi Super Dry. You can read more about the tale of two beers, Asahi Super Dry vs Sapporo, in my other recent post on Japanese super beers.
Meanwhile Sapporo trails behind in fourth place of the largest domestic brewers in Japan with just a measly 11% share of the market. However, internationally Sapporo is the much more popular brand, especially here in the US. Today alongside the five breweries they operate in Japan, Sapporo is brewed in four other countries – Germany, Vietnam, Canada, and the USA. In recent years they have been actively seeking new breweries globally to add to their ever-growing portfolio.
In addition to the Sleeman Brewery in Canada, and the La Crosse Brewery in Wisconsin, Sapporo USA has, in the last decade, acquired some of the US’s most popular and pioneering breweries including San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing and, most recently in 2022, the Stone Brewing Company of San Diego.
Where Are Sapporo Premium and Sapporo Reserve Brewed?
Sapporo premium, which most American lager drinkers prefer, will normally come from the Wisconsin Brewery (although odd cans do turn up with ‘product of Vietnam’ on the label), while the more robust beer, Sapporo Reserve, is brewed at the Sleeman Brewery in Canada, known for their many other bitter ale-style beers such as Sleeman Cream Ale and Sleeman’s India Pale Ale. Who knows – with the acquisition of Stone in 2022, the brewing of Sapporo Reserve may move stateside!
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Flavor Profile and Taste
Sapporo Premium, the perennial favorite of sushi lounges across the US, is a rice lager similar to an American adjunct lager. The crisp, clean taste of premium recalls a classic American light beer. A smooth rice cereal sweetness is evident from your first sip with a minimal aftertaste making it an ever-so-drinkable beer. It has a little hoppy sweetness too, but overall Sapporo Premium’s flavor is not overly strong.
By contrast, Sapporo Reserve is a good example of an International pale lager similar to many European beers. Reserve is much maltier, bolder, and more grainy on the palate, and offers a fuller and more complex flavor profile. The combination of malted barley and roasted malt creates a smooth, caramel-like sweetness, which is beautifully complemented by a touch of hop bitterness.
As you would expect from a European lager, Sapporo Reserve doesn’t have too much body but it’s not quite as watery as the Premium due to the exclusion of rice in the brewing process. An aromatic beer, the grain taste of Reserve is more reminiscent of corn rather than the usual bready flour taste you might expect from a lager. There is a slight bite of pepper to the finish, but it is quite subtle.
Sapporo Reserve vs Premium: The Mouthfeel
The mouthfeel of these two beers is more similar than it is different from each other.
Sapporo Premium has a silky, carbonated mouthfeel when it first hits your tongue, similar to what you would expect from your typical American lager. Although crisp and very refreshing, it can be somewhat thin.
Sapporo Reserve, just like the Premium, is softly carbonated but is much sharper up front. Crisp and clean like the Sapporo Premium, Reserve has a slightly fuller body and a drier finish. Sapporo Reserve has a far more complex mouthfeel, just like the taste of this all-malt premium beer.
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Aroma
The smell of a beer is an essential component of the whole drinking experience, especially when paired with the taste of the beer to create an idea of the flavor. If you were to try plugging your nose next time you sip an ale, you would find only simple tastes like sweetness or bitterness coming through in the flavor.
Sapporo Premium has the aroma you would expect to find in a Japanese rice beer. The light cereal scent is often compared to the smell of a freshly opened bag of rice and is similar to the aromas found in American light lagers. There is also just the slightest whiff of grassy hops, and more trained noses may detect a slight vinous character similar to that found in a very dry white wine.
In contrast, the smell of Sapporo Reserve is all beer. It showcases a lightly toasted malt character with hints of citrus backed by plenty of sweet malted cereal notes. A faint grassy hop aroma can be reminiscent of many German beers with their noble hop smell, although not quite as strong. Sapporo Reserve is not an overly aromatic beer when compared to other all-malt brews, but it definitely has a touch more character than Sapporo Premium.
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Which Has the Most Calories?
Sapporo Premium has 140 calories per 12 oz serving compared to Sapporo Reserve’s 151 calories for the same 12 oz size serving. To put that in perspective, it’s about the same as a bottle of regular Budweiser at 145 calories per 12 oz bottle, but nearly half as much again as the current trend for light beers, which normally come in at under 100 calories per bottle.
The difference in calories between Sapporo Premium and Reserve is negligible and won’t make too much difference to most American beer drinkers unless they consume larger amounts of these drinkable beers over time when the calories could mount up. But most of the time you are probably going to be drinking these beers with Japanese food, which can be much healthier and lighter anyhow. Therefore the extra few calories in the beer really aren’t something to worry about (that’s what I tell the wife anyhow, as I’m downing my sixth can of Sapporo!).
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Alcohol Content
Both these Sapporo beers have a fairly standard ABV comparable to most domestic lagers. Sapporo Premium’s 4.9% ABV is very close to the ever-so-slightly stronger 5.1% ABV of the Sapporo Reserve. Again, the difference is so insignificant it shouldn’t make too much difference to most beer drinkers, but if you do plan on driving later in the evening bear in mind Sapporo Reserve is slightly stronger in terms of alcohol by volume percentage.
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: The Appearance
Sapporo Premium, when poured directly out of its iconic can, pours with a nice, pale yellow color. The silky white head of foam barely lingers on the glass with very little lacing as is standard for most lagers.
The all-malt Reserve pours a touch darker in color with more of a gold-honeyed shade to it. The nice white head seems a bit thicker with plenty of lacing. This is not a dark beer as such but the shade of gold with about a finger-wide head of luxurious foam looks stunning in a beer glass.
Sapporo has won awards for its packaging in the past and its attention to detail carries through to all its products. Sapporo Premium comes in an eye-catching silver can made from sturdy steel rather than the flimsy aluminum of most of its competitors in the US. Looking almost indestructible, the beer can even had a wholly removable top at one stage so it could be used to mimic the experience of drinking Sapporo from a glass. Although Sapporo has retained the beer glass-like shape of the can, it now has the typical ring-pull tab.
Sapporo Reserve comes in a similar silver bullet steel can but with a golden bottom, similar to the lovely color of the all-malt beer. It never featured the removable top as this beer really needs pouring into a glass to admire in all its splendor.
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Brewing Process & Ingredients
The brewing process for Japanese lagers shouldn’t hold many surprises for most beer drinkers. After all, the first brewmaster was trained in Germany. The process of brewing Sapporo begins with the mash, where malted grains are mixed with hot water to extract a sugary liquid known as wort from the husks of the grains. Sapporo Premium uses yeast, malted barley, water, and hops and adds rice to make their Premium beer. Buckwheat is also used in smaller amounts during brewing for a crisper taste.
Where Sapporo Reserve differs is in the 100% malted barley which is used. There are no adjuncts here like rice, buckwheat, or corn syrup, just a 100% good, old-fashioned malt.
After the beers have been conditioned, they are packaged in cans, bottles, or, in the case of Sapporo Premium, often in kegs. Sapporo Premium even gets marketed outside of the USA as Sapporo Draft, a version of the Sapporo beer you would find on draft.
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Food Pairing
Food is an important part of Japanese culture and all beers are brewed to be an accompaniment to food. Although both Sapporo Premium and Reserve would go well when served ice-cold with a bowl of Japanese ramen, the lighter crisper taste of the Premium works better with sushi and seafood dishes, where the dry finish can often scrub the oily fish flavors from your palate.
Don’t just think of Sapporo Premium as the go-to beer for a sushi night though, it can pair well with most young cheeses, especially goat’s cheese, and on a hot summer’s day it can be just as refreshing as a Coors Light.
With a fuller body and all-malt flavor, Sapporo Reserve offers even more versatility in its food pairings. The malts in this beer can calm the heat of any spicier dishes, but it will also meet the stronger flavors of grilled meats much better than its rice-brewed counterpart. Sapporo reserve is more about the hibachi rather than the sushi, it needs stronger flavors to stand up to the more complex flavor profile. Traditional German foods like pretzels or hot dogs, and American fare such as Tacos can be ideal foods, with the carbonic bite of the all-malt lager helping to cleanse the palate better.
Sapporo Premium vs Sapporo Reserve: Who Are the Brands Aimed at?
Clever advertising and a large marketing budget have seen Sapporo hold the position of America’s top-selling Japanese beer for the last 30 years, even beating off other large Asian brands such as Tiger Beer of Singapore. In 2014, a 2 million dollar integrated advertising campaign aimed to build on the brand’s popularity with hip clubbers and style leaders with the “Legendary Biru” TV commercials, fusing traditional Japanese iconography with a modern, cosmopolitan sensibility.
Sapporo Premium is much closer to an American-middle beer than Sapporo Reserve and caters well to your average American palate. This isn’t too surprising, considering it traces its roots back to traditional German brewing methods just like many of the mainstream domestic brewers of America. Sapporo tends to market itself as a more high-end product, as displayed in everything from the use of elegant Japanese culture in their advertising, the gold stars which adorn their products, and even the quality materials they use in their iconic beer cans. Sapporo Premium is marketed to the fashion-conscious younger generation who frequent sushi lounges and hip clubs.
Sapporo Reserve is marketed as more of a premium beer in their range – confusing, when their flagship product is also named Sapporo Premium. Sapporo Reserve is aimed at the more discerning beer drinkers, a slightly older demographic but not too old, who appreciate the fuller body of an all-malt beer. You are more likely to see Reserve served in bottles at an upmarket Japanese restaurant than in silver cans adorning the buffet conveyor belts of a budget sushi lounge.
Sapporo Reserve vs Sapporo Premium: Last Orders at the Bar
Both these beers from Sapporo are tasty beers and shouldn’t be relegated to only being sold at Japanese restaurants. Which you prefer is simply a matter of personal preference. Personally, I prefer the lighter, crisper, and drier finish of the Premium’s almost wine-like character. Both the aroma and taste are ideal for wine drinkers, and it’s often my wife’s go-to beer on a hot summer day.
That’s not to say I think Sapporo Reserve is a bad beer. Think of it as Sapporo Premium’s big brother, with a fuller body and bolder, more robust taste. Reserve is still a highly drinkable lager, but in an ever-expanding universe of international lagers, it’s just another imported lager, lacking the unique characteristics that make Sapporo Premium a great alternative to a domestic light beer.
Both Premium and Reserve are Sapporo beers best enjoyed with some traditional Japanese food. So next time you are chowing down on a spicy tuna roll or a steaming hot bowl of Ramen, why not try ordering a Sapporo? Who knows – you may even pick up a six-pack next time you are in 7/11 to enjoy at home too.