Japanese Beer 101

In honor of this month’s Beer Drop, we’re doing a deep dive into the rich history and traditions of Japanese beer brewing. Allow us to be your teacher as you learn about these sensei-tional beers. (Sorry not sorry.)

History of Japanese Beer

While beer in Japan is a fairly recent phenomenon, the country has been brewing alcohol for centuries. The Japanese are famous, of course, for their saké, a wine-like beverage made with fermented rice. Interestingly, the word “sake” translates generally to “liquor,” and there are references to it that predate Biblical times. However, the first recipes for the rice wine saké recipe we are familiar with probably date to around the 8th century. 

Beer, on the other hand, was not introduced to Japan until the 17th century, when brewing techniques were brought to the country by Dutch traders. Even then, beer consumption remained fairly minimal. Trade at the time was severely restricted under sakoku, the isolationist foreign policy of the Shogunate in power at the time.

Japanese beer really took off during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when Japan reopened its doors to foreign influence. This pivotal moment heralded the beginning of Japan’s beer industry, with the establishment of the first brewery, the Spring Valley Brewery, in Yokohama in 1869. This would later become the famous Kirin Brewery (see below).

Is Japanese Beer More Popular Than Sake?

Restrictions on rice during WWII meant sake production was limited. This led to an increase in beer consumption and, by the mid-20th century, beer was the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country. It remains so today, along with happōshu (see below). Together, they account for more than 60 percent of all alcohol consumed in the country. 

Who Makes Beer in Japan?

The most prominent Japanese beer companies are Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory, all established within the first 25 years of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 (albeit under different names).  

Strict regulations and heavy taxes have limited its production to the four giants, for the most part. Craft brewing has been gaining ground since the 1990s, however, when the country relaxed quantity minimums for license qualification. Up to that point, a brewer needed to produce at least 2 million liters of beer per year in order to be eligible. Now, smaller breweries can attain a license at 60,000 liters per year. There are now around 200 microbreweries in Japan.   

What Style is Japanese Beer?

Pilsner-style lagers remain the most widely consumed style of beer in Japan. Again, however, there has been a notable rise in craft beer appreciation in recent years. Pale ales, sours, stouts, and seasonal beers have gained traction among discerning drinkers, reflecting a growing demand for diverse flavor profiles and brewing styles. 

What Does Japanese Beer Taste Like?

Again, the majority of Japanese beers are in the pilsner style. In general,this means they are light, effervescent, and slightly bitter with a malty sweetness. That being said, many beers in Japan are often made with less malt in favor of rice. This gives them an even lighter flavor than traditional pale lagers.

The Japanese have also cultivated unique species of hops, lending various flavors and aromas to their beer. In the 1980s, for example, Sapporo developed the Sorachi Ace variety. Beers made with these hops have a distinct citrus and dill-like aroma. 

What About Happoshu? 

In addition to traditional beer, Japan is also home to a unique beverage known as happōshu. Literally translating to “sparkling spirits,” happōshu is a low-malt beer alternative that gained popularity partially due to its lower tax rates. 

In order to be classified as “beer” in Japan and, therefore, subjected to beer tax rates, a beverage must be made with 50-67 percent malt. Happoshu are generally made with around 25 percent malt. They still contain between 4-6 percent alcohol, but they are cheaper and typically boast fewer calories than the average beer. The taste is similar to a pilsner, so you might think of them as low-malt pale lagers. 

Now…The Point Emerges

We hinted at our beer drop in the opening paragraph, but now we are going to describe it in what is probably unnecessary detail. We present to you, Made There: Sorachi Ace. In keeping with the series’ tradition, we used hops and techniques local to the region we are honoring. In this case, we used the same herby, citrusy hops developed by Sipporo and switched out some of the malt for rice. We’ve boosted the natural flavor of the hops with notes of cooked lemon and lemon meringue. Underlying hints of mint and dill make this an uber-refreshing brew. 

Can of craft Japanese beer with Godzilla image on the label

(To clarify, that is not fire coming from Godzilla’s mouth on the label. Literally everyone knows he doesn’t breathe fire; that would be ridiculous. He uses electromagnetic radiation to propel a beam of nuclear energy that those with a respectful fear of the beast call “Atomic Breath.” )

gif of Liz character by Nick Kroll

We cannot promise that this delicious and refreshing beer will be around for long, so please do stop by our brewery on Mariposa street to get yours before we run out. Or, if you missed last month’s drop, stay awhile and enjoy a glass of Party on Darth from the tap. 

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