Beer culture in Japan is relatively young, only dating back to the late 19th century, but is firmly entrenched with the Japanese being comfortably the biggest per-capita drinkers in Asia. The fact that it can be purchased and drunk virtually anywhere, including from vending machines, while most bars open until 5am testifies to that. Nonetheless, it is a remarkably fluid scene dominated by four fiercely-competitive major breweries with developing craft brewers adding to the depth and diversity.
The Dutch first introduced beer through the port of Yokohama, where an American William Copeland established a brewery in 1870. As Japan modernised several young scholars were sent to universities in Europe and being students returned to their homeland with compromised grades but a contagious enthusiasm for beer. Domestic output was soon soaring, slanted towards a German lager style.
In the post-war era breweries were divided to avoid monopolisation creating today’s big players; Kirin, Asahi, Suntory and Sapporo. After years of producing sweet lagers the 1987 release of Asahi Super Dry, an altogether lighter, crisp drink made with highly-attenuated yeast was a revolution. Rival breweries followed suit and a distinctive Japanese style was developed, although such standardisation fragmented from the mid-90s onwards.
JAPANESE BEER CATEGORIES
Before discussing trends it is worth outlining the three convoluted tax categories, determined by the level of malt content: BEER – Only when the weight of malt extract exceeds 67 per cent of fermentable ingredients can drinks be classified as beer. Super Dry remains Japan’s best-seller, while Kirin’s Ichiban Shibori is another dry giant, relaunched with 100 per cent malt this year. Beers utilise European or Australianimported ingredients, particularly Czech or German hops, along with rice or soybeans. Other common brands include Suntory Malts and Sapporo Black Label.
HAPPOSHU – Sapporo’s 1994 Hops Draft was the groundbreaker with only 65 per cent malt, although between 25 and 50 per cent is now standard. The most common adjuncts are soybeans, along with rice, corn and starch. Purists horrified by this classification, should note that some imports, including Hoegaarden, fall into this technical category. Kirin’s Tanrei and Asahi’s Honnama are representative and roughly half the price of beer.
THIRD GENERATION – Also called Happosei/new genre. With even lower malt contents (and prices) these beverages are the burgeoning sector. Topselling Kirin Nodogoshi is made from soybeans simmered to thicken taste and resemble malt-flavour, while others use unmalted barley or wheat.
With multiple releases and fads the Japanese beer industry can seem bordering on schizophrenic, but celebrated craft brewer Bryan Baird sees diversity as an opportunity. “Japan doesn’t have an indigenous beer culture like Germany or England.
Therefore, the Japanese are not socially or historically constricted by the straitjacket of a deeply established culture and this renders them very interested in a broad array of styles and approaches to beer.” PREMIUM – The good news is that the premium market stands oblivious to precipitous sales affecting beer, proving that a welcome proportion of consumers are unwilling to compromise and that the majors can up their game. With higher concentrations of malt and aroma hops than standard beers and extended aging periods, the trend is towards German pilsners and the long-time champion has been Sapporo’s Yebisu Premium (see tasting notes). Suntory’s Premium Malts – complex with a smooth, malty taste – collected gold-medals at the Monde Selection competition and Aoi Kojima believes: “There is a need for higher-value, premium beers which has dramatically grown recently. Our brewer’s dedication and soul for making the best beers is now being widely approved.” Interesting recent launches have been Kirin’s Meiji Lager and Taisho Pilsner, 120-year anniversary products based on original recipes, with fruitier aromas and longer-lasting bitter edges than usual.
Another welcome development has been the quantity and quality of craft beers. Deregulation in 1994 reduced the minimum requirement for a brewing license to just 60,000 litres (from two million!). Ryouji Oda, chairman of the Japan Craft Brewers Association points to a steadily increasing output and the continuing success of the tri-annual Great Japan Beer Festivals, while increased internet trade has helped to level the playing field.
Bryan Baird believes after an inauspicious start with varying levels of commitment the quality is now shining through. “Currently a small minority of craft breweries are committed to brewing beers of character and distinction. These beers are satisfying the curiosity and demand for diversity that the major breweries cannot provide.” Nestled in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Baird Beer is producing top-drawer English and American style ales and stouts, striving for an “interplay between balance and complexity” using minimal processing style and double-fermentation. Indeed the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles of balance, harmony and subtlety are expressed through much of the best craft on offer.
Naturally the microbreweries operate principally in their regional bases; Hakusekikan Beer in Gifu prefecture is an excellent example, offering silky, caramel-tinged Belgian Dark Ales produced lambicstyle with airborne yeast and head-spinning barley wines; Minoh Beer, run by two sisters in Osaka, has developed a healthy following for its Double IPA, strong, thick-bodied with herbal notes. Luckily The Popeye Beer Club in Tokyo does an excellent job of showcasing Japan’s finest craft beers.
The gout-suffering beer-lover’s search for a suitable beverage is over with Kirin’s dedicated Tanrei W, which has a 99 per cent reduction in purines! Although visitors would be hard-pressed to find flab outside the sumo ring, the majors are rushing to service a health-boom with numerous brands claiming Zero, Diet or Slims in the Happoshu/third generation categories. Asahi’s Style Free (a zero-sugar product) features a name unfortunately descriptive of the health drinks, generally over-carbonated and thin, with minimal bitterness or finish.
LIGHT & CLEAR
According to Kirin’s Toshihiro Tanaka: “The mainstream tendency is towards lighter, softer products. Beer has a distinct outdoor image in Japan, particularly in spring and summer.” Increasingly hot and h u m i d conditions demand lighter, refreshing tastes, something that is attracting traditional nonbeer drinkers. The trend is mostly reflected in third generation beers, but some plusses have emerged, not least Kirin’s Sparkling Hop (see tasting notes in panel).
However, although sales have declined Asahi’s Masao Fujimori highlights the importance of beer in Japan’s food culture. “The arrival of Super Dry coincided with a diversification of eating habits among the post-war generation, offering a suitably versatile taste.” Dining out is a way of life in Japan and beer is considered the standard accompaniment. He therefore believes “dry,” “sharp” and “fresh” are still very much popular and durable requirements.
Short-lived seasonal products are a quirky fact of life in Japan. Despite gimmicky cherryblossom pink-packaged brews with no discernable taste differences, the majority of seasonals appear in autumn/winter and are pretty worthwhile.
Autumn heralds beers thicker in taste and alcohol content in symbolic dark red packaging, Yebisu Premium Red being an excellent example. Also of interest is Kirin’s Toretate Hop, an autumnal brew unusually made entirely from Japanese hops.
It’s a palatable, mildly bitter, crisp effort, less dry than usual.
The seasonals are usually beers, although Shirokirin is a thicker, more complex winter Happoshu.
Guide to buying Cans constitute 70 per cent of beer/beerlike total sales. While company and brand names are written in English, beware the descriptions. For example: “Dynamic has a dynamic taste that’s particularly brewed.” They sound delightful, but describe little!
As a rule, the more expensive choices are beers, while the cheaper options are Happoshu/new genre. Convenience stores and supermarkets generally focus on the majors, while independent stores stock more local brews, but are harder to locate.
Draughts are always beer or premium, but bars tend to be table-service, thus undermining the point-at-the-taps option.
“Nama biru kudasai” (draught beer please) and “Donna biru ga arimasu ka?” (What beers do you have?) are useful phrases. A Daijokki is a super-size jug.
Tasting notes YEBISU PREMIUM (Sapporo) – Widely regarded as the cream of the macro beers in Japan. A clear, golden-coloured lager with a grainy nose and a dash of floral hops, the initial taste follows the smell, before a delicate sweet malty tinglyness gives way to a bitter finish and slightly spicy aftertaste.
SPARKLING HOP (Kirin) – Third generation drink made with New Zealand hops and barley. A golden, fizzy brew with hints of grape and apple. The hops linger in the background. Spritzy and dry overall, but comfortably the best non-beer category effort to emerge thus far.
RISING SUN PALE ALE (Baird Beer) – An American-style pale ale with a slightly cloudy appearance and delightful floral and orange peel aroma. The initial battle between citrus, sweet fruit and hops finally settles on a refreshing, mild bitterness. One of Japan’s finest.
WEBSITES www.kirinholdings.co.jp/english www.asahibeer.co.jp/english www.suntory.com www.sapporobeer.jp/english www.beertaster.org (Japan Craft Beer Association) www.bairdbeer.com www.hakusekikan-beer.jp (Japanese only) www.minoh-beer.jp/ (Japanese only) www.40beersontap.com (Popeye Beer Club)