For a long time, Japanese beer was synonymous with rice beer. When you sit down to take down a bowl of ramen, it’s often accompanied by Asahi Super Dry, a rice lager. The beer scene in Japan is anything but a one-trick pony. “There has been a big growth in diversity,” says Rob Bright, co-founder of the Japanese beer website BeerTengoku. “While IPAs are still seen as the king of beers, there has been an explosion in other styles, and it's possible to find domestic Belgian-style beers, and more niche beers than before.”
While the beer scene in Japan may have seen an explosion of beer styles similar to that of the United States, few of these beers ever make it Stateside, thanks to limited distribution—made even more limited by last year’s closure of importer Shelton Brothers, one of the largest importers of international and specialty beers to the U.S. However, if you know where to look, you can find both a wide variety of Japanese-made beers as well as brewers in the U.S. taking inspiration from the Japanese beer scene.
“We like to drink a lot of Japanese lagers. Asahi and Orion are probably the two I drink the most. We use those beers as an inspiration point,” says Nick Marrón, director of brewery operations at Harland Brewing in San Diego, one of the few breweries in the U.S. with a flagship Japanese lager. “We didn’t intend for it to be one of our core beers until after we did it. At the time we were making a Mexican lager as our core light beer offering, and the Japanese lager started far outselling the Mexican lager. We realized not only did we like the beer better but all of our fans did as well.”
According to Marrón, when it comes to Japanese rice lager, the flavor profile leans more to the dry side, giving it its food-friendly quality. “Usually that comes from the use of rice,” he says. “What that does is it gives you a lighter body, crisper finish, and it’s dry and easy to drink. We also brew it with a low bitterness; Rather than a German or Chez lager that has a firm upfront bitterness, we try to make the beer as low bitterness as possible with a clean, crisp, dry finish with a light body.” In terms of other beer styles, such as IPAs and wheat beers, look for high-quality ingredients and precise craftsmanship to set Japanese beers apart from the pack.
If you’re on the hunt for Japanese beers in the U.S., these top picks are a solid place to start.
Best Overall: Sapporo Premium
Region: Japan | ABV: 4.9% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Sweet, Bitter hops
Saporro not only holds the title as the oldest brewery in Japan, but it is also the most popular. Its flagship Premium Beer, an American-style lager, is also the top-selling Asian beer brand in the U.S., according to the brewery. If you’ve ever had a Japanese beer, it was probably this one, with its slightly sweet start and super clean finish.
Best Craft: Yoho Brewing Tokyo Black
Region: Japan | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Smoke, Bitter hops
Yoho brewing is one of the oldest and most popular craft brewers distributing beers out of Japan, founded in 1996 in Nagano. Tokyo Black is a robust porter that shows off the depth of this brewery’s offerings.
“I really like this beer. It tastes exactly what a porter should taste like for me: dry, slight chocolate notes, velvety texture, just so easy to drink.” — Alex Nichol, lead bartender at Momotaro in Chicago
Best with Food: Asahi Super Dry
Region: Japan | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Grains, Bitter hops, Clean
“It claims to be super dry and it really is,” Marrón says. “It's one of the best beers for food in the sense that it's complimentary, like a topping on food, like a garnish. It's such a light, delicate flavor it's not competing with anything you're eating or having any flavors you don’t want with your meal. It's one of the most perfect beers for pairing. It can go with any different flavor you can put it with. You can put it with a bunch of spicy food, you can put it with a bunch of pickled vegetables, you can put it with red meat.”
Best Light: Kirin Light
Region: Japan | ABV: 3.2% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Sweet, Bitter hops
While Kirin prides itself on being one of the oldest Japanese breweries, it has faced some backlash in the past few years. In 2015 the brewery was a target of a lawsuit, since it was marketed as a Japanese import while it was brewed in the United States by Anheuser-Busch. Despite the controversy, Kirin remains a staple of the Japanese beer cannon, with Kirin Light one of the few widely available “light beer” offerings.
Best Dry: Echigo Koshihikari
Region: Japan | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Floral hops, Lemon
With its label depicting flooded rice paddies, Echigo Koshihikari is a beer that puts rice in the forefront. Brewed with a rice variety called Koshihikari, this short-grain rice is grown in a region known for producing some of the highest quality rice in Japan. The resulting beer is a pale rice lager with an especially crisp and clean finish.
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Best Lager: Orion Premium Draft Beer
Region: Japan | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Bread, Herbal hops
As the fifth-largest brewery in Japan, Orion sets itself apart from other Japanese lager producers by offering a beer with a bit more punch. According to Marrón, “Orion is the standalone beer. It just has so much depth of flavor. They carbonate it naturally so it has this really nice, slight carbonic acid character and complex malt profile. It's such a light beer, but a palatable beer.”
Best Rice Ale: Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale
Region: Japan | ABV: 7% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Bread, Berries
“Hitachino Red Rice Ale is light and refreshing with very subtle fruity undertones,” Nichol says. “I like it because it is an ale and a bit of an adventurous one using red rice. Most people know Japanese beer for rice lagers, so it's almost like they stuck with the formula but changed things to make it fun.” That red rice not only gives this beer its rosé-like color, but also a slight fruit flavor.
Best IPA: Ise Kadoya IPA
Region: Japan | ABV: 7% | Tasting Notes: Malt, Citrus, Bitter hops
While IPAs saw a heyday in Japan not long after the IPA boom took over the U.S., few of them make it across the ocean. Ise Kadoya IPA is not only available Stateside but is made with the style’s heritage in mind, a beer designed to withstand long journeys. Loaded with three different hop varieties, it delivers a well-rounded bitter kick balanced with some fruity sweetness.
Best Wheat: Kawaba Snow Weizen
Region: Japan | ABV: 5% | Tasting Notes: Wheat, Lemon, Banana
Kawaba Snow Weizen is an unfiltered wheat beer brewed in the traditional weizen. It starts with a bit of sweetness and rounds out with the banana and citrus notes akin to the style. As the name suggests, this is a softer, more subtle beer than what one might be used to in the wheat beer category.
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Best Stout: Baird Dark Sky
Region: Japan | ABV: 10% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Coffee, Bitter hops
Not only is Numazu, Japan’s Baird’s wide selection of craft beers available throughout the country, it is one of the few Japanese breweries that boasts a taproom. Located in Culver City, Harajuku Taproom is one of the best places to taste the brewery’s bold offerings, including its Dark Sky stout. According to Bright, “It’s a delicious mix of coffee, chocolate, and warming booziness.”
Asahi Super Dry (view at Drizly) remains the reigning king of Japanese beer for a reason, it’s unrivaled crispness and refreshing quality that pair perfectly with food or a hot day.
For its ready availability as well as adherence to traditional Japanese brewing values, Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale (view at Drizly) is a craft option worth seeking out.
What is Japanese beer made from?
Aside from the Japanese lagers, which are brewed with an emphasis on rice, Japanese beers are made with a blend of malt, hops, yeast, and water, often sourced locally.
Is it made differently?
Japanese brewing techniques vary from American or European brewing in that more emphasis is put on the process and craftsmanship, sometimes resulting in a higher quality final product.
What are the different styles?
Aside from the rice lager, Japanese brewing has adopted and, in many cases, mastered, the same beer styles one would find across the U.S. and Europe.
Is it more expensive in general?
With the recent difficulties in shipping and distribution, a Japanese import might cost a dollar or two more than a domestic beer.
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.
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