Imagine that you are in Tokyo, Japan. It is you and your friends out on a Friday night and decided to get drinks. You all went to the convenient store, let's say FamilyMart or Lawsons, and head straight to the alcohol section. Then, you notice there is a wide variety of beer. So colorful and different brands that you had never heard before. All of your friends had already picked their beer, but you still haven't decided yet. You're in luck because I was able to compare most of Japan's best beer and figure out where to buy it.
What Makes Japanese Beer Special?
So why do I think Japanese beer is exclusive? Well, Japan has one of the most significant drinking cultures in the world. Every Japanese craft beers, unlike regular beers, are usually manufactured independently. Drinking beer and socializing after a long day of work with your fellow "salarymen" is part of Japan's culture. Another interesting fact, Japan has a custom tradition where you and everyone's first order will be the same drinks when toasting together. The best part is that you can find an enormous quantity of high-quality beers, such as supermarkets, convenience stores, izakayas, and even vending machines!
Different Types of Japanese Beer
There are three categories in Japanese beer:
- Malted Beer
- Third Beer aka Shin Janru
In Japan, beer is categorized based on taxation and malt concentration. For example, any beer with a malt concentration of 66.7% taxed higher, whereas beer with a lower level of malt will be taxed lower. The low density of malted beer is called "happoshu."
Happoshu, meaning "sparkling liquor," became much more accessible for breweries and bars due to the fall of taxation. Later, the Japanese government changed the malt level to 50% to produce more income on beer sales. Nowadays, beer companies had taken these opportunities to create a beer under 25% to 50% malt content.
Recently, Japan made a new category called "third beer," which also called Shin Janru. Third beer is the cheapest in the market due to less or no malt whatsoever. Some people say if third beer is even a beer at all. Some alternatives to replace malt is soy-protein or pea-protein. These drinks are more n the "healthier" side of beer.
To sum it up, if you want real beer and don't mind the price, go for the malted beer. If you don't care about the malt level, then go for the happoshu or shin janru. It on your call!
Japanese Beer Buying Guide
Here is a quick run-down of what to look for in a beer.
Types of fermentation
Fermentation is how beer is processed by having yeast converting the glucose, hence giving the beer both its alcohol content and carbonation—affecting the beer's smell and taste based on how it is fermented. There are two types of fermentation: bottom-fermentation (lager) and top-fermentation (ale).
Most common in the Japanese brewing process. Bottom-fermentation usually uses lager yeast, which simply helps beer taste more refreshing but with a bit of bitterness from the hop. Plus, when pouring the beer, it will have a more creamy textures white foam. If this is what you are leaning towards, then I recommend giving it a shot!
Ale produced esters due to being processed in warmer temperatures. Esters makes the beer taste sweeter and fruitier than lager drinks. If you are not a regular beer consumer and want to avoid most of the bitter taste, I recommend heading towards the ale route.
Considering what kind of beer person you are
If you are starting to drink beer but cannot handle the IPAs and darker drinks, then the best brews to try would be Yona Yona Ale or Hitachino Nest. These are the "go-to" craft beers for beginners since they are both more comfortable to handle. The flavors have a touch of sweetness with a bit of bitterness from the hop. "Yona Yona" is on the fruity side, whereas Hitachino Nest tastes more like caramel-chocolate. You can find these drinks at convenient Japanese stores or Drizly (online).
For the casual-social drinkers
If you had been drinking with friends for quite a while, but want to try something new with more malt content. Go ahead and try famous Japanese brands like Asahi Super Dry or Sapporo's Black Label.
All of these Japanese drinks are label as pilsers, which have that golden-yellow coloration with more bitterness from the hops. It is what you would see in a typical Japanese drink. Asahi, Sapporo, Yebisu, and Kirin, are famous in Japan all over the world.
Another type of Japanese beers to look for are Pale Ale, which has more of a sweeter taste due to ester. However, they still have that crisp bitterness as well. These drinks are a good alternative if you want to find different options besides lager.
For the die hard beer drinkers:
Finally, people who drink pretty much any beer that's on the table but are looking more into IPAs. Here are a couple of my favorable mentions.
Personally, my favorite IPA Japanese drink would be Yo-Ho Aooni. It has excellent flavor with that hoppy and smooth taste. Very simple, but effective. Another alternative beer would be Grand Kirin Galaxy Hop Session IPA. A little less bitter but has more flavor than most beers in the market.
The Best Japanese Beer
Asahi is the most popular beer currently in Japan. The brand itself, Asahi Super Dry, speaks its simplicity. A beer with a pure light flavor with a sharp aftertaste in the end. Asahi has a strong taste that can be accompanied by a lovely Japanese dinner with family, or you can get drunk at an izakaya with friends after a long day of work. Personally, not the best nor the worst beer, but for a decent quality at a low price, it is still considered to be the most popular beer brand in Japan.
Long maturation period.
- Sharp, bitter aftertaste.
Sapporo Nama beer black label initially made in Hokkaido, Japan. Today, many people always compare Sapporo beer vs. Asahi beer since they are both quite competitive in the market. People ask me, "which Japanese beer is the best?" I usually say, "Well, it all depends on your taste, of course," because everyone is different. However, to compare both beer, Sapporo beer is slightly lighter, and can you feel the hoppiness. The coloration is bright as well, whereas Asahi beer is darker, which will be more bitter. Overall, this beer is an excellent choice if you want to open a cold one with the boys (or girls).
4.9% ABV, light alcohol content.
Perfect beer for any meal.
- Bitter aftertaste
Kirin Ichiban Shibori is one of Japan best-selling beers in the market. The name "Kirin Ichiban" means "first pressed." Kirin beer is brewed only once, unlike any other crafted beer, where they usually brewed twice. Its appearance comes with a golden-yellow with a slight creamy white head. The aroma is quite malty with a pinch of lemon flavor—a well-balanced taste with a bit of sourness. The alcohol content is a bit low with an ABV 3.2%, which in this case would not make you go crazy in the bars; it's a drink you can sip all day long with friends.
- Imported, so it will cost a little more when ordered online.
Sapporo Yebisu beer is more on the expensive side of the beer market. However, with its premium product, comes with a higher-quality pack—this beer generally produced in a traditional style process. The brand includes its barley farm only exclusive for the Yebisu labels. Yebisu beer's appearance comes with a thick white-head with a bubbly golden look. The taste hits smoother than most beers with a bit of bitter finish. Overall, I would only recommend this drink if you are not a broke college student unless you want to feel "boujee" for one night, then regret it later once you look at your wallet.
Best drink to consume on a particular day
- Higher price
Suntory The Premium Malt's had recently become more popular than most beer brands. Standard looking pour with a subtle precise golden coloration. The flavor and smell are similar, with a sweet malt mixed with a bit of bitterness. The texture of the beer is quite creamy with a refreshing finish. This premium beer offers a smooth, enjoyable feel with a pleasant aroma. I would drink this beer during a night warm summer night.
Easy to drink on any occasion.
- Imported, so may cost a slight more.