Are you wondering what the best Japanese beer tastes like, and if the craft beer culture from Japan is worth sampling?
For starters, Sake Rice Wine is the national drink of Japan, but it is not the most consumed alcoholic beverage. The Japanese name for is “Biru” (or as it’s pronounced, “beer-ru”) is actually more popular than traditional sake that Japan is known for.
The History Of Japanese Beer
Beer first arrived in Japan in the 17th Century when Dutch traders opened a beer hall for visiting sailors in a trading post in Nagasaki. In the 18th and early 19th Century Japan severely restricted trade with other nations and beer dropped off in popularity, but with the return of the Europeans came the return of beer.
In 1869 Japanese beer emerged when the Spring Valley Brewery was created by a Dutch-American brewer. That company would later become The Japan Brewing Company and soon thereafter, Kirin Brewery Company.
In 1876 the Sapporo Brewing Company was formed. Both Kirin and Sapporo and their various offshoots are popular today. In addition to those two, the other major Japanese breweries operating are Asahi, Suntory, and Orion.
Beer was primarily a big brewing activity because the laws were only granting licenses to large-scale brewers. This changed in 1994 when the laws were relaxed, and then craft beer (or ji-biru, which means “local beer”) emerged. In the 25 years following that law change there are now hundreds of microbreweries selling domestically and around the world.
The Japanese craft beer scene is big in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where some bars focus solely on a selection of microbreweries or even have a relationship with only one particular brewery. There has also been an increase in brewpubs that sell beer they brew on premises. While Japanese craft beer is relatively new, it is making a splash all around the world. (Spoiler: craft beer features heavily in the Best Japanese Beer rankings.)
Categorizing Japanese Beer
In Japan, alcohol is taxed according to the malt content. Because of that, there are three different categories of beer:
- Happoshu (a.k.a. Sparkling Alcohol)
- New Genre (Shin Janru)
This is beer as you know it, with regular malt content. This type of beverage is taxed higher than the other two, and costs more.
Happoshu (a.k.a. Sparkling Alcohol)
This relatively recent product has a similar flavor and similar alcohol content as beer. However, it has a lighter taste due to less malt in the brewing process and costs less than regular beer.
New Genre (Shin Janru)
This is also known as paisan no biru (or “third beer”) and contains no malt. Instead, it is brewed with soy, pea or wheat spirits.
Cultural Drinking In Japan
The Japanese drink a little differently than in other parts of the world. First, it is customary to take care of your guest first and make sure everyone has a glass poured before you pour for yourself. Similarly, if you are a guest you should never pour for yourself; your host will take care of that for you.
Also, the Japanese rarely go out for a drink just to drink. Most often beer accompanies a meal, a snack, or to keep the pipes loose while singing karaoke.
The drinking age in Japan is 20.
Top 10 Japanese Beers
A lot of beers were sampled to come up with a list of favorites, some well known outside of Japan and some mostly enjoyed by locals. This list contains a wide variety of Japanese beer branda, from large breweries to the smaller microbrews.
We have listed our top 10 favorite Japanese beers below.
Orion Premium Draft Japanese Beer
Japanese Rice Lager – 4.7 ABV
Orion is one of the five big breweries in Japan, and extremely popular in its home region of Okinawa, controlling over half the beer drinking market in that prefecture.
Created in 2015, this is one of the newer Japanese craft ceer options. The aroma and flavor are nutty, buttery, and crackers or biscuits, yet remains delicate and subtle.
Suntory The Premium Malt's Kaoru Ale
American Blonde Ale – 6% ABV
This is an award winning ale from Suntory, one of the oldest brewers in Japan. This may not taste like a traditional American Blonde, but it’s pretty close.
Easy to drink, pleasant, and has enough malt bite to keep it interesting while remaining smooth.
Yo-Ho Yona Yona Ale
American Pale Ale – 5.5% ABV
Yo-Ho is a craft brewery founded in 1996 in Nagano, and “Yona Yona” means “every night” which is ambitious but not inaccurate. If I had to drink the same beer every night and it had to be a pale ale, this one would be under consideration.
This Yona Yona ale is a golden amber color with a pleasant citrus taste. This ale is a flavorful crisp drink that has won multiple gold medals in beer tasting competitions.
Asahi Super Dry
Japanese Rice Lager – 4.9% to 5.2% ABV (depending on where it is purchased)
One advantage of a large-scale brewer like Asahi is they can do market testing, and their research led to this higher alcohol content Japanese beer with less malty taste or aftertaste.
Created in 1987, Asahi Super Dry beer quickly became a popular choice in Japan. Asahi describes the taste as “Karakuchi” which doesn’t have a direct translation, but I’m guessing it means something like “crisp and dry” without any bad after taste.
Japanese Rice Lager – 5.0% ABV
This Koshihikari Echigo lager is made with a combination of German malt and hops, along with what many consider to be the best rice in Japan, which is grown in the ideal rice growing region known as Niigata Prefecture.
It is bright and refreshing, and has a nice depth of flavor, tasting of rice malt with a hint of citrus.
American Lager – 5.0% ABV
One of the big original breweries made a splash when Kirin Ichiban debuted in 1990, quickly becoming one of the nation’s most popular beers, domestically and abroad.
It has a light flavor that still has a hint of malt to it, without being overwhelming. Ichiban means “first” and “best” in Japanese; while Kirin Ichiban might not be the best, it is definitely worth a seat on your table.
Sapporo Premium Lager
American Lager – 4.9 ABV
Sapporo Premium Lager is a classic beer from an established Japanese beer brand. A golden color and a traditional lager flavor, but an unexpectedly intense, almost minty hop flavor. This balances nicely with the citrus.
Sapporo Premium Lager is light, dry, and compliments many Japanese meals.
Kuri Kuro Dark Chestnut
American Imperial Stout – 9% ABV
Brewed in Miyazaki and featuring local chestnuts, which is the secret behind the punch of taste in this beer. In addition to the chestnuts the taste of coffee and a hint of chocolate.
This Kuri Kuri Dark Cheestnut delight placed in the “Stout and Porter” category at the World Beer Awards.
Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout
American Imperial Stout – 7% ABV
This Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout delight is brewed by Kiuchi Brewery, which has been around since 1823, although primarily making Sake Rice Wine. Naturally, espresso beans are what makes the distinct flavor in this beer.
Many espresso or stout fans might even say it ranks at the top of all beers from Japan.
Hitachino Nest White Ale
Belgian Witbier – 5.5% ABV
Hitachino Nest White Ale in my opinion, is the best beer in Japan. It pours cloudy with a nice yellow color, and instantly the aroma of pepper and orange announce themselves. Fruity and respectful take on a Belgian classic, with hints of orange, nutmeg and coriander.
Available in the U.S. since 2000, there’s a reason this beer has developed a cult following among American beer aficionados. Definitely similar to a Belgian witbier, but has its own distinct taste.
Where To Find These Japanese Beer Brands Without Actually Going To Japan
Would like to try one or more of these beers from Japan but don’t plan on going to Japan? When you can’t find these beers in your local liquor store or pub, you can find some of these Japanese beer selections from Drizly.com, which is a beer delivery company that will bring your beer order directly to your house, or have them shipped to you if they are not available where you live.
For craft beer fans who likes to try new styles of beer, especially craft beers from international breweries, take a look at the International Beer Club from MonthlyBeerClub, or any of their 5 beer club subscriptions.
Final Say On Japanese Beer
While Japanese Craft Beer is relatively new in the worldwide beer scene, there is no doubt to whether beer brewed in Japan is good or not.
It is, but you have to try it for yourself.
Besides these 10 Japanese beers listed above, there are plenty of good Japanese beers that are available in just about every Japanese restaurant in America, and most supermarkets and liquor stores.