Beer in Japan is consistently high quality, with some of the best breweries in Asia and an amazing craft beer scene. I’ve always been impressed with Japanese beer and thought that an article answering the question “what beer do they drink in Japan” would be very interesting.
Kirin Ichiban, Asahi Super Dry, Sapporo, Suntory, and Yebiso are all popular beers from Japan’s biggest breweries. International beers, particularly from Belgium are also very popular in big cities such as Tokyo. Finally, Japan’s craft beer scene is continuing to grow. Microbreweries such as Hitachino have become popular both in and outside of Japan.
In this article, I will take a look at what beers are popular with the Japanese. A list of the best beers in Japan. A look back at the history of beer in Japan, and I will also look at the craft beer scene.
Asahi Super Dry is the most popular beer in Japan, and the Asahi brewery is the most successful with a 37% market share. Kirin breweries are in second place, followed by Suntory, and Sapporo. While craft beer takes up a very small percentage of market share, it is steadily growing. Internationally, several Japanese craft beers are building a reputation for excellent quality.
Beer in Japan is not as straightforward as you’d think though. A large percentage of “beer” that is consumed is actually a product called Happoshu. This is a beer with low amounts of malt (less than 67%). Technically, Happoshu is classed as a beer-like substance. But there is a lot of politics and bureaucracy behind it.
I’m not going to lie, there is a lot of brewing science here that has quite frankly gone over my head! Beer is usually made from four ingredients: water, hops (though not always), yeast, and grains. To turn grains into alcohol they need to be malted.
The Japanese government wanted to increase the taxation of beer, leading to Japan having some of the highest-priced beer in the world. This put a lot of strain on brewers. The government defined beer as being 67% malted. Japanese brewery Suntory found a way to get around this, they brewed a beer that was just 65% malt. They named it Happo-shu and thanks to the tax laws this beer-like substance was much cheaper. Other breweries followed, and soon Happoshu was thriving in Japan.
You might think that the Japanese government would be annoyed by this, but the idea was almost certainly theirs. See, foreign imports of beer were becoming very popular and were much cheaper than Japanese beers for a variety of reasons. The government was happy for Happoshu beer (which already existed to some extent) to compete with foreign beers. However, soon Happoshu was causing the tax income from beer to drop massively. In 2003, the government brought in a tax for Happoshu beer to claw back some income.
This led to the creation of an even lower-malt beer which is called “The Third Beer” which uses alternatives to malt. Some brewers even add spirits to it. This is about as far from beer as it is possible to get!
Interestingly, the term Happoshu was given to beers that used ingredients other than the ones that Japanese brewers used. Ingredients such as coriander, citrus, etc. This led to foreign beers such as Hoegaarden being defined as Happoshu rather than beer.
As you can imagine, with so many beers looking to pay lower taxes by avoiding malts entirely there are a lot of beers (or beer-like beverages) that are low in gluten. Some may even be entirely gluten-free. There is some confusion among the gluten-free community about whether Japanese beer contains gluten because the brewers use rice instead of grains.
This is a misconception. While Japanese brewers do use rice, they use it alongside barley rather than instead of it. If a brewer used only rice, it would technically not be beer, but a beer-like beverage. There are very few true gluten-free beers globally, and the only ones that qualify in Japan appear to be Happoshu.
Before we talk about the history of beer in Japan, it is a good idea to give you a very brief history of the country itself. As usual, I will be letting YouTube provide the bulk of this history!
While Japan has been occupied with people for thousands of years, it was not until 250a.d. that it became (mostly) united as one country. The years 250-538 are known as the Kofun Period and it was during this time that the Yamato family became the first Emperors. The line of Emporers is still alive, making the Yamato family the longest royal line in the world.
Eventually, infighting led to Minamoto no Yorimoto taking power. Becoming the first Shogun of Japan and consigning the Emporer to a ceremonial role. For the most part, this has stayed the same throughout history.
The Shogun had absolute power, ruling from Kyoto. While the Emporer lived in luxurious exile. The Shogun was top, then there were several Daimyos who were lords in control of fiefdoms. Then there were samurai who were seen as enforcers. Any Japanese historians who are reading this have probably already turned away in disgust!
Japan was held together by this system for a couple hundred years, before more infighting between Daimyos and families led to the Age of Warring States (1467-1568). Japan became many small states that were constantly at war with each other. Eventually, in 1568 Toyotomi Hideyoshi united Japan into one country again.
Thus began the Edo period, 268 years of peace and prosperity. During this period, Japan followed an isolation period. Meaning that it avoided contact with the outside world. This had upsides and downsides. The Japanese people thrived, with high literacy rates and a doubling in the population. However, it also left them far behind other nations in terms of military.
Eventually, the isolation policy was smashed to pieces by the United States. Who forced Japan to open up to international trade. Were they screaming freedom as bald eagles flew above them? Probably.
Once Japan became involved in international trade, it soon turned its attention to building up a proper military. This culminated in the Ruso-Japanese war, where Russia was eventually defeated. Then the West learned a valuable lesson about not underestimating Asian countries militarily and the mistake was never repeated again. Until Pearl Harbour. Oh, and Korea, and Vietnam.
Japan began to expand militarily after 1922 and took over much of China. During WW2 it was successful for much of the war, until it was eventually defeated by the Allies. After WW2 Japan turned its attention to improving its economy. Becoming the fastest growing economy on earth, soon it was second only to the US economy. Japan’s economy became a bubble in the 1980s, with overconfidence being a big contributor.
As we know bubbles do only one thing. They burst, which is exactly what happened in 1989. Say what you like about Japan, but the country is resilient. It survived the financial crash in 1989, and has since thrived. Though not to the same level as it was between 1950 and 1989.
As with any country, you can learn a lot about the history of a country by looking at its relationship with beer, and vice versa. Beer was first introduced to Japan by Dutch sailors and merchants, who built a beer hall in Nagasaki. However, the Dutch were expelled from Japan shortly after, and beer vanished from Japan for the rest of the Edo period. It was not until foreigners were allowed to enter Japan again (Meiji Period) that breweries were eventually set up.
The first brewery in Japan was built in 1869. It was called the Spring Valley Brewery, and eventually, it would become the Kirin Brewery Company. Shortly after, in 1876 the Kaitakushi Brewery was founded in Sapporo. This was then privatised in 1886 and became the Sapporo beer company. Asahi was founded in Osaka in 1889, while Suntory was also founded in Osaka ten years later.
As you can see, four of the biggest breweries in Japan were all formed within 30 years. During the Meiji period, while Japan was becoming an economic and military powerhouse. All of the breweries relied on German brewing expertise as well as German ingredients such as hops and malted grains. I’m not saying that beer was responsible for the military alliance of WW2 but I’m not not saying it (kidding).
In 1906, several of the largest breweries in Japan merged together to create Dai-Nippon Beer Company, which monopolized the beer industry in Japan until after WW2. It was then broken up and Asahi and Sapporo became separate companies.
For many years, Kirin beer company was the most popular brewery in Japan. Until 1987 it held 50% of the domestic market. Then Asahi created Asahi Super Dry, and the Japanese beer world was turned upside down!
If you have read the history section of Japan, then you will know that 1989 was not a great year for Japan. Black Monday had hit international stock markets in 1987, but the Japanese stock market had been largely unaffected. 1989 saw the bubble burst, and led to what is known as the “lost decade”. A period of economic stagnation as the Nikkei dropped massively. I’m no expert on the subject, but it may not be coincidence that Japanese economic collapse and massive changes to Japanese brewing occurred around the same time.
In 1989, Asahi brought out their Super Dry beer. This became instantly popular and transferred the balance of power from Kirin Brewery to Asahi. That power shift has remained the same ever since. Super dry beer is basically just a dry German-style lager. I’m not sure why it took off in Japan, but it did. Kirin tried to respond in 1990 with Ichiban Shibori, their own dry beer. But instead of competing with Asahi, it actually was just taking customers from Kirin lager.
Sapporo breweries tried to bring out their own super dry beer, which failed spectacularly. Then Suntory brought out a dry beer (which also failed). Within the space of a couple of years, a whole new style of lager had completely transformed the Japanese brewing industry. Raising Asahi up to the top, bringing Kirin down to second, and causing financial losses for everyone other than Asahi.
Amidst the economic collapse, Japan’s strict tax laws on beer were relaxed. This led to the creation of Happoshu beverages (discussed above). It also allowed microbreweries to exist. Before 1994 it would have been basically impossible for them to do so. Since 1994 many microbreweries have opened up in Japan, and the craft beer industry has benefitted from this.
As you can see, the history of Japan and the history of beer in Japan are inextricably linked. It’s funny how a stock market crash could lead to low-malt beer-like beverages becoming popular 20 years later. Or Japanese craft beers being sold in Tesco. I guess it’s a silver lining of sorts.
In my previous articles on Turkey, Cyprus, and Portugal this section has been a bit of a struggle. This is because those countries only have one or two breweries. Luckily for me (and you), Japan has several large breweries, that brew a variety of different beers.
This beer is an English-style stout, using top fermenting yeast, it also uses wild yeast which is supposed to impart a more earthy flavour. At 8% this is a surprisingly strong stout, but very highly rated. The beer has been brewed since the 1930s, with a brief hiatus during world war two.
According to Kirin, their Ichiban Shibori lager is the most expensively brewed lager in the world. The reasons behind this are too boring and technical for me to share, but the idea is that the beer benefits from this brewing process by tasting milder and smoother. Personally, this is my favourite Japanese beer. I remember going to a sushi restaurant with my dad and ordering this beer for the first time and absolutely loving it. There are probably better Japanese beers out there, but for me Kirin Ichiban stands out as the best.
This beer was previously brewed by a Tokyo-based brewery (in Yebisu, hence the name) but the brewery was taken over by Sapporo. Luckily, the beer was unaffected. This is a Dortmunder style lager that has the distinct honour of making it into the Great Beer Guide by beer expert Michael Jackson. The beer is sold in a distinctive gold can, which you’ll recognise immediately if you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant (or better yet, Japan).
The beer has a malty aroma and palate; a firm, oily palate; and a very good late balance of hop. It is broadly in the Dortumunder Export style.
Michael Jackson Great Beer Guide 1998
I know what you’re thinking, “isn’t this just Asahi stout?”. Actually, Asahi black is a dunkel style dark lager. It’s something a little different from the usual Japanese lagers, and is genuinely impressive. Worth trying in my opinion.
Craft beer came to Japan in two waves, the first wave was in 1995 after the Japanese government changed tax law and loosened restrictions on small breweries. Some of the microbreweries that came in that first wave are still around today such as Echigo and Mino. But there were quite a lot of microbreweries that were low on quality. This led to a perception in Japan that craft beer was amateur. The second wave of craft beer came quite recently. At the same time, that craft beer was kicking off worldwide.
In this section I have compiled a small sample of craft breweries in Japan. This list does not cover even a tenth of the craft breweries in Japan, nor does it mean that breweries not on the list are inferior. It’s just a list of some well-known breweries.
According to the Japan Beer Times website (which is absolutely fantastic by the way), Echigo was the first craft brewery in Japan. Opening its doors on February 16th 1995, Echigo was one of the best craft breweries in Japan (if not the best). They won the first international medal by a Japanese brewery when they won bronze at the World Beer Cup in 1995. Their beer is still good today, with a wide range of styles. They have the usual stout (which won their medal), red ale, pilsner, blonde. They also do a rice lager, an IPA, and a wheat beer with the most adorable can design I’ve ever seen (it’s a polar bear relaxing on a hammock while another polar bear dressed as a butler brings him a drink).
Another veteran brewery, Atsugi beer has been around since 1997. It has a broad range of beers and the most outdated website I’ve ever seen! They do a quality honey ale, a really good white beer, and they do a spiced/herb beer that is very popular.
The Yokohama Brewery was one of the first craft beer breweries in Japan. Yokohama is a city synonymous with beer, the first brewery in Japan was opened here. The beer selection is superb, with a lot of interesting styles brewed. You’ve got a Dusseldorf alt-bier, a white beer, a pale ale, and a wheat beer. Yokohama also does seasonal beers, such as a strawberry wheat beer, a dragon fruit ale, and a chocolate ale. The seasonal beers are by far the most interesting, and really show what an innovative brewery this is.
Porter is a traditional English beer, but this Japanese craft beer brewery is winning award after award for their Porter beers. The Swan Lake Beer Company is based in Niigata and has been around since 1997. It has a decent range of beers, including its world-famous porter. They have two IPAs, one of which is 7%! A saison, a strawberry dark saison, and even a barley wine! While many Japanese craft breweries have either Belgian, German, or American influences. There is clearly a British influence here.
Three of the best craft beers I’ve ever had were from Kiuchi Brewery, the red ale, the wheat beer, and the sweet stout are all stunning beers. Kiuchi brewery has been producing saki for 197 years (founded 1823), and recently expanded into the craft beer market with its Hitachino Nest range of beers. What’s great is that the Hitachino Nest beer range is very easy to find in the UK.
Minoh beer has been producing craft beer since 1997 and is a father-daughter business. The beer range for Minoh beer is fairly normal, you’ve got the typical pilsner, stout, IPA, pale ale, and weizen. All beautifully brewed, of course. But then you’ve got seasonal beers such as the coffee IPA, the “Curious” IPA, and their dark lager (Dunkel style) beer. There is also a nice article on the history of the brewery by the Japan Times, that you can read here.
The final craft brewery that I’ll mention is Baird beer. Baird brewing company became the smallest licenced brewery in Japan when it opened its brewpub in 2001. They expanded 2-years later and started to produce bottle-fermented beers soon after. They continued to expand over the years, and soon their beer was being exported to the US. As of 2014 they have a massive new brewery that has turned them from a microbrewery to a regular-sized brewery.
They have a huge range of beers, including Angry Boy Brown Ale that managed to make the list of “1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die” by Adrien Tierney-Jones. The number of beer styles they do is insane, and they also offer seasonal beers. There are 40 beers on their website, with more seasonal beers being released in the future!
There are absolutely hundreds of beer festivals in Japan, which makes it difficult to cover them all in such a small section of an article. They have Belgian beer festivals, craft beer festivals, the Great Japan Beer Festival that has been running each year in Tokyo since 1998. You also have lots of smaller beer festivals, the sort that you get in English village pubs, where a bar or taproom will invite several small “guest” breweries for a weekend.
Obviously, 2020 is not going to be a particularly good year for beer festivals (cheers Corona). But 2021 should hopefully see a return to normality!
I do not speak Japanese, nor do I have any particular knowledge about Japanese customs. So check out this article which goes into a level of detail that I could never manage. It’s definitely worth a look. But here is how to order one beer in Japan.
Hope that answers your question.
What do you mean that doesn’t help?
To say the sentence “One beer please” you should say “Bīru ippai kudasai” Bīru means beer, ippai means one, and kudasai means, please.