Although a Bud or a crisp light American lager may be the ideal accompaniment when enjoying a BBQ on a hot summer afternoon, if I’m eating sushi or other Japanese foods I want a Japanese beer to go with it.
Japan makes some excellent Japanese craft beers, but they can be difficult to track down here in the US. You are much more likely to see better-known international brands such as Sapporo or Asahi in your local sushi lounge than a Hitachino White Nest Pale Ale.
Sapporo Premium is currently the best-selling Asian beer in the US, while Asahi Super Dry has virtually dominated the domestic market of Japan ever since its introduction back in the 1980s.
Sapporo and Asahi are produced by two of the oldest breweries in Japan and are both classic Japanese-style lagers. Both beers are brewed in a similar fashion using rice (a mainstay of Japanese cuisine) as an adjunct but have very different flavor profiles.
Sapporo tends to be somewhat hoppier, while Asahi has more of a bitter taste compared to the clean crisp taste of Sapporo. Either beer would go with a nice bowl of Ramen or some other Japanese fare such as sushi.
But which beer is better? Let’s take a look at both brands, the beers they brew, and in particular compare their two flagship beers Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo Draft (or Sapporo Premium as it is known in the USA).
By the end of this article, you will be a black belt in Japanese beers!
The History of the Sapporo and Asahi Breweries
Sapporo is actually Japan’s oldest beer brand and was founded in 1876 in the town of Sapporo on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Sebei Nakagawa, the first brewmaster at the Kaitakushi (Hokkaido Development Commission) brewery, was a German-trained brewer who launched Sapporo’s first lager-style beer, a precursor to the Sapporo Premium lager we know today, around this time.
Although the Sapporo-based brewery was the jewel in the crown of the Sapporo Beer Company, most of Sapporo’s beers were brewed in the Chiba, Shizuoka, Sendai, and Kyushu regions. Later the beers would be brewed in Wisconsin for the US market and Sleeman in Canada. Today the world headquarters of Sapporo Breweries Ltd is based in Tokyo, Japan.
Asahi is a slightly younger brewery that was founded as the Osaka Beer Company in 1889 in Osaka on the main island of Japan, Honshu. During World War I, German prisoners of war would work in the brewery. However, Osaka beers were pretty much a minor player in the Japanese beer market until the late 1980s.
A Japanese Beer Monopoly
For the first part of the 20th century Asahi, Sapporo, and The Japan Beer Brewing Company (Kirin and Yebisu beers) merged into the Dai-Nippon Beer Company Limited. From 1906 until after World War II there was a near monopoly on the Japanese beer market.
Following the split in 1949 into the Nippon and Asahi breweries, Nippon Breweries continued to brew Sapporo beers and resumed brewing Sapporo in 1956, with the brewery renaming itself to the present-day name of Sapporo Breweries in 1964.
Asahi would become Asahi Group Holdings and started producing Asahi Gold in 1957, which overtook Asahi Draft as their flagship beer until 1987. Kirn had already been bought by Kirin breweries and Yebisu was brewed as a separate brand by the Nippon/Sapporo brewery as a German-style barley beer.
The Rise of Osaka Beers to Japan’s Largest Beer Brewer
After extensive market research in the 1980s, Asahi brewmasters found that Japanese beer drinkers wanted a high-alcohol, dry-finishing beer similar to Northern German beers, and Asahi Super Dry was launched.
The innovative beer that is Asahi Super Dry proved so popular, surpassing many of the other established brewers such as Kirin and Sapporo, that it ignited a period which was to be known as the Dry Wars. The intense competition saw other Japanese brewery companies trying to muscle in on the dry beer market.
It’s obvious who won the Dry Wars – does anybody even remember Sapporo Dry, Kirin Dry, or Suntory Dry? Even when they released a dry beer offering called Ichiban Shibori in direct competition with Asahi Super Dry, Kirin ended up cannibalizing the profits of their own Kirin Lager brand rather than stopping the momentum of Asahi Super Dry.
Today Asahi Group Holdings Ltd is a Japanese global beer, spirits, soft drinks, and food business group with its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. Asahi, with a 37% market share, is the largest of the four major brewers in Japan, followed by Kirin Beer with 34%, Suntory with 16% and Sapporo trailing behind at just 11% of the market.
Discover More of the History in Osaka or Sapporo
Both Sapporo and Asahi are classic Japanese lagers and they both have brewery museums where, if you are ever visiting Japan, you can learn more about the history and brewing of these two beers.
Asahi’s brewery in Osaka has a free tour with beer tastings and a new museum. The Asahi Beer Hall located in Tokyo was designed by the French designer Phillip Starck and is considered to be one of Tokyo’s most recognisable modern structures.
The Sapporo Beer Museum was until recent years Japan’s only beer museum (Asahi put an end to that, see above) and is registered as one of the heritage sites of the Hokkaidō Islands. The building also houses the Sapporo beer garden in the south wing and is the ideal place to enjoy an ice-cold Sapporo among the cherry blossoms of a Japanese spring afternoon.
Sapporo vs Asahi – The Beers
Although American beer drinkers are familiar with Sapporo Premium and Asahi Super Dry, both of these Japanese beer brewers do make a full range of beers, many of which are available here in the US from your local craft beer bar or international beer importers and wholesalers.
Beers Produced by Asahi
- Asahi Super Dry – the flagship brand that transformed the modern beer industry in Japan.
- Asahi Draft – a lager first produced in 1892.
- Asahi Gold – the former flagship beer first produced in 1957.
- Asahi Soukai – a 3.5% ABV light beer with low carbs for carb-conscious beer drinkers.
- Asahi Stout
- Asahi Z – a dry lager
- Asahi Black – a 5% ABV dark beer similar to a German schwarzbier.
- Asahi Prime Time – a German pilsner-style lager (currently only available in Japan)
Beers Produced by Sapporo
- Sapporo Premium – the flagship Sapporo lager in the US and the highest-selling Asian Beer in America.
- Sapporo Pure – A less than 100 cals light beer.
- Sapporo Premium Black Beer – Sapporo’s take on the German Schwarzbier black lager.
- Sapporo Premium Light Beer
- Sapporo Reserve Beer – A Japanese malt beer that features a full-bodied taste and 100% malt.
- Sapporo Space Barley – A limited-edition beer brewed with barley cultivated on the ISS (International Space Station) – No longer available
Global Brands Owned by the Japanese Brewers Asahi and Sapporo
In addition to their main brands of beer, both Asahi and Sapporo have aggressively acquired many of the well-known beer brands known globally to bolster their portfolios and brewing capacities.
Asahi Group Holdings, courtesy of transactions with Anheuser-Busch InBev, now own the Dutch Grolsch Brewery, the Italian business Peroni Brewery, the UK craft Meantime Brewery, SABMiller Brands UK, and SABMiller Eastern European business. Assets and brands from countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary include beers such as Pilsner Urquall, Velkopopovicky Kozel, Topvar, Tyskie, and Gambrinus.
Sapporo, by comparison, has been a little less active but has concentrated on the North American beer market. In 2007, Sapporo Holdings acquired the Canadian brewery Sleeman and all its associated beers including Sleeman Cream Ale, Sleeman India Pale Ale, and the Canadian rights for Stroh beers such as PBR, Schlitz, and Old Milwaukee. More recently, in 2017, Sapporo Brewing Company acquired the esteemed American craft brewer Anchor Brewing.
Bringing us bang up to date, at the time of writing, Sapporo has just acquired, in August 2022, the Stone Brewing Company for a reported $165 million.
Sapporo Premium vs Asahi Super Dry in America
Without even knowing it you have probably drunk a quality beer produced by Sapporo or Asahi in the last month, if not the last day or two (I’ve certainly enjoyed a few Stone beers now owned by Sapporo this weekend!).
However, in the US today, Sapporo Premium and Asahi Super Dry are the two Japanese premium beers you are likely to encounter in your local Japanese restaurant. Although Asahi Super Dry leads the way in Japan, here in the US Sapporo Premium is the preference of beer lovers.
Both are refreshing beers, but maybe it’s the clean and crisper taste of Sapporo Premium that appeals more to standard middle-American beer drinkers. Asahi tends to be more hoppy and has a bitter taste similar to European beers.
Or maybe it’s just the marketing and more focused packaging of the Sapporo Brewing Company that makes it a runaway success in the US. Let’s take a look at these two amazing beer brands side by side in a beer showdown to see which beer you should be drinking with your next sushi banquet.
Asahi Super Dry vs Sapporo Premium: The Flavor
Sapporo Premium is the perfect beer for a hot summer’s day with its crisp and clean taste. Not an overwhelmingly strong-flavored beer, Sapporo Premium boasts just notes of malty sweetness (it definitely has the sweeter taste of the two beers) and a relatively full bitterness for a lager but with a minimal aftertaste.
Many would say it’s a similar refreshing taste to a classic American adjunct lager but with a little more body from the add-on of secret ingredients such as rice and minimal amounts of buckwheat.
On the other hand, Asahi is a super dry taste, as the name suggests. Asahi has a more grainy aroma with a very subtle sweetness. The hop and bitterness of the Asahi share the spotlight more, pretty similar to a European-style pilsner.
There’s definitely more flavor with a drying finish that causes the bitterness to linger. Craft beer lovers and those who prefer an assertively bitter beer will appreciate the flavor of an Asahi Super Dry more than the refreshing but slightly bland Sapporo Premium.
Food-wise, both beers are considered to be food beers and will accompany most Japanese dishes. They are both light and refreshing to balance out the strong Unami, citrus, and salt flavors in Japanese cuisine.
For spicier foods, most would recommend the Sapporo Premium as its subtle flavors won’t clash too much with the strong spices and will just serve to refresh and cool down your taste buds.
Asahi beer pairs with tempura, yakitori, and ramen dishes particularly well. As a dry beer product, Asahi is highly carbonated which can scrub the palate clean of the rich taste of sauces or the oily fish flavors.
What Gives Asahi Its Unique and Distinctive Flavor?
Both Sapporo and Asahi are brewed using traditional German methods of lager production. They both include malted barley, hops, water, and yeast in their ingredients list but a major ingredient added to both is the rice adjunct (Sapporo also adds other adjuncts such as buckwheat in smaller quantities).
Both can be classed as rice lagers which are known for their smooth, clean taste due to the strains of yeast used during the fermentation process and the extended cold cellaring (layering) time, which works to soften the sharp aftertaste and eliminate any unwanted flavors of excessive sulphur notes.
Asahi brewing history is known for its breakthroughs in brewing technology in a way only the Japanese can achieve. Asahi even calls it “dream technology” which serves to maintain the beer’s high-quality taste.
Modern machines use special conveyor systems that don’t harm the malt, milling machines don’t excessively mash the grain, and the malted barley is selected using over one hundred criteria including the grain species, its origins, and the methods of germination. Asahi is known to be very strict with millers who oversoak their seeds
This meticulous attention to detail makes the Asahi Super Dry an all-natural beer with distinct flavors coming from traditional ingredients. Furthermore, Asahi uses the specialized yeast strain Asahi Karakuchi 318 which contributes to its strong, super dry taste.
Appearance and Packaging of Asahi Super Dry vs Sapporo Premium
Both Sapporo and Asahi Super Dry pour as clear, pale, yellow beers with stunning clarity. The head on either beer doesn’t last too long as you would expect with a lager, but the head of the Asahi has a little more substance due to the higher levels of carbonation of the Super Dry. The white head can be nice and foamy, settling easily when poured into a glass.
When it comes to packaging and how the beer looks on the shelves of the local 7/11 or even in the cooler of your local bar, Sapporo wins hands down. One of the most recognizable things about picking up a can of Sapporo Premium in America is the classic silver can which seems indestructible and has even been called “bulletproof” (I’ve not tested this yet, I can think of a lot better things to do than shoot a can of quality beer!).
Most of the light refreshing All-American beers come in a silver can, think Coors Light, Bud Light, etc, but the Sapporo can is made of steel for that premium look rather than the aluminum of American beer cans.
Originally, the Sapporo can came with a fully removable top so you could recreate the beer-drinking experience of drinking Sapporo from a glass whilst just using the beer can. Although the Sapporo Premium cans don’t feature the removable tops anymore, they do still have that distinctive beer glass-like shape to the can which appeals more to the fashion-conscious younger beer drinkers.
By comparison, Asahi Super Dry comes in a standard brown glass bottle featuring a silver beer label on the front. It’s pretty plain by today’s standards and won’t stand out too much from the other Asian beers in the cooler on the supermarket shelves. This may be a small point when talking about the quality of the two beers, but, without a doubt, it can be considered a major factor in the marketing of the two beers in the US.
Sapporo vs Asahi – Final Call
Although there are more similarities than differences between Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo Premium, there is a clear line in the sand between the two beers. Sapporo has a firm foothold in the American beer market thanks to its clean, crisp taste and is a firm favorite of avid beer drinkers in the US. Asahi Super Dry is the preferred beer in Japan, and also throughout Asia and Europe, where they have very different beer tastes and prefer more European-style beers.
As you can probably tell, I like my Japanese beers, nearly as much as I love my Japanese food. When I’m out at my favorite sushi bar you will always find me reaching for a can of Sapporo Premium or an Asahi. They’re both quality refreshing beers but if I had to choose one, it would probably be Sapporo for its cleaner, less fussy taste. If I want a beer with a more complex flavor profile I’ll ask if they have a Hitachino White Nest Pale Ale.