While the land of the Rising Sun may not be high on the list of Beer Cultures, they certainly have made they’re mark. Between beer vending machines and the birth of rice lagers, Japan certainly has some unique contributions to the world of beer. While I was there I sampled a variety of brews, everything from regional specialialities to global megabrands, and can now give you the 411.
Big 4 – Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi, Suntory
These four brands command an overwhelming majority of the beer market in Japan, as well as the entire bottled beverage market. Imagine that Coors and Pepsi joined forces and then Bud and Coke did the same…twice over! As a result these brands are found everywhere; in major supermarkets, liqour stores, corner grocers, vending machines, and everywhere in between. For the most part they all have very similar tastes, springing from the fact that all four are “Rice Lagers”. Asahi is known as the “driest” alluding to its crisp taste and the quick departure of its sharp aftertaste. Suntory is the least well known in the beer market, but well makes up for it by offering some of the best “chu-hais” or carbonated mixed drinks, typically sold by street vendors or in cans at any local market. Sapporo and Kirin are easily the two biggest players, and to an extent divide the country geographically. Sapporo, based out of the city of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido is considered the “King of Beers” in the north. Conversely, Kirin is well regarded in and around Tokyo with their headquarters and main brewery in Yokohama. Personally, I prefered Sapporo over Kirin as it has a more robust flavor and is closer to an American Lager style than any of the others. That being said, Kirin was widely available in the Kanagawa presinct and was easily the “go-to” beverage in the region.
Shiga-Kogen Brand Beer
Hailing from the snowy town of Yudanaka in the Nagano prefecture, Tamamura Honten Brewing has been established in the region for more than eight generations. The brewery is also well known for making their “Snow Monkey” saki, named after the world famous Snow Monkey Park just up the road. Named “Japan’s Best Brewery 2010”, this meca of craft beer was one of my favorite stops on the trip. I was lucky enough to walk away with four of their tasty brews before heading back into Yokosuka; a blonde, pale ale, siason, and what I think is an IPA, were all in the mix. By far the best was the Indian Summer Saison, with a great balance of fall flavors and a nice, smooth finish. Up next was the Miyama Blonde, which was good but a little hoppy that brings with it a slight bitter aftertaste that tends to linger. Moving down the scale is the Shiga-Kogen Pale Ale that is also hoppy, but well balanced and a lighter hue than the Not So Mild Ale. Unfortunately, I’m saving the worst for last as that Not So Mild Ale certainly wasn’t mild at all with an awkward mix of flavors that left much to be desired.
After spending some time traveling, it was good to settle back into the rythmn of things outside Yokuska, and certainly finding some brews a little closer to home. Well I was in luck as almost every town in the Kanagawa region produces their own unique brews. While there were many to choose from, I ended up sticking with beers from the Kumazawa Brewing Company for most of the stay, including a lager, porter, and light ale. Like the main Japanese breweries, it is also a rice lager, bu has a more robust flavor and deeper amber, more typical of an American or European lager. Still, it did lack some staying power and could use a dash more of that hops zing. Moving along I got to try to extremes, both in color/content and in seasonality. The first is the Merry Xmas Ale, a delicious dark beer without the heavy weight that most porters and stouts have. It was real easy to drink, and still had a malty flavor unique to dark brews, certainly one of my favorites this trip. Finally, the last brew on my list is the Enoshima Summer Beer. The beer is named after the quintessential summer hangout in the Kanagawa Prefecture: Enoshima Island. This brew is light and summery, similar to the composition of most American wheat beers. It goes down easy and is perfect for a summer BBQ or to pair with a delicious fried rice dish.
So there you have it, a first hand account of some beer you may come across if you find yourself across the Pacific. Granted there are a few that didn’t make this list, but that is for another day. For now go out and taste for yourself, while some of the more regional beers may be harder to find in the states, any of the Big 4 should be available globally. Cheers!