The Japanese have been brewing beer since the early Edo Period, during the 17th century, when Dutch sailors first introduced beer to the island. Although foreign trade was originally restricted, over time beer made its way into the Japanese culture and became accepted. In 1854, Japan signed the “Treaty of Kanagawa,” a trade agreement that reopened Japan to foreign traders and tourists and allowed beer to reenter Japanese society.
Although it had been around for several centuries, the beer industry didn’t really take off in Japan until the late 1800s, when German-trained brewmaster Seibei Nakagawa founded the Kaitakushi Brewery in Hokkaido. This is the same brewery that is now internationally renowned for producing Sapporo beer. At about the same time, another brewery was established in Japan by a Norwegian-American business man in Yokohama, and this brewery was later sold to the company that makes Kirin. Suffice it to say, the Japanese have been making beer since the 1870s and have been drinking beer for even longer.
Japanese Beer Brands
In the early 1900s, beer became more popular in Japan, and beer halls became more widespread in the larger metropolitan areas. This is when the four major Japanese breweries – Sapporo, Asahi, Suntory and Kirin – emerged. Here is a list of the most common brands of beer in Japan as well as some tips on pairing them with food:
In 1886, the Kaitakushi Brewery was sold and renamed the Sapporo Beer Company after the city of Sapporo. As beer became more and more popular in Japan, Sapporo emerged as a leading Japanese brewery, especially in the last quarter of the 20th century. Sapporo produces a wide variety of beers, the most popular being the original brew. Here is a list detailing the Sapporo brews:
- Sapporo Beer. Sapporo’s original beer, this is a light, crisp, German-style lager that pairs very well with most Japanese food, especially sushi and rice-based dishes.
- Yebisu. Yebisu was one of Japan’s oldest beer brands that was bought out by Sapporo Beer Company. Yebisu Premium is a darker beer that has strong flavors and is brewed from 100% malt. It pairs well with fatty Japanese foods like yakisoba and tonkatsu, or with spicy Chinese food.
- Yebisu Black. The Yebisu black label beer is a Euro dark lager. It is also a 100% malt beer, but is a bit darker and stronger than Yebisu Premium, with more pronounced hops.
The most popular Japanese beer brand in America, Kirin is one of the most widely available Asian beers in the US, partly because it is manufactured here by Anheuser-Busch. Kirin Brewery Company is named after a mythical Chinese beast, a hooved chimerical creature that is often visualized as if it were on fire. This beast, a symbol of prosperity, is a prominent part of the Kirin Brewery Company’s logo. The company is associated with the Mitsubishi conglomerate and since the summer of 2009 has been negotiating with Suntory on the possibility of a merger. Kirin’s most popular beers are the following:
- Kirin Lager Beer. This pale lager is a Germanic pilsner that pairs well with a wide variety of foods, both spicy and mild.
- Kirin Ichiban Shibori. Another popular beer in America, Kirin Ichiban is a rice lager that is effervescent and drinkable, making it suitable for pairing with especially spicy foods. In America it is also popularly used for sake bombs.
- Kirin Tanrei. Tanrei is Kirin’s number one selling happoshu, or low malt beer. While not as wide-spread as Kirin’s lager, it is much more popular in Japan than it is in the Western hemisphere.
Asahi Breweries emerged in 1889 and, as its name suggests (asahi means “rising sun” in Japanese), hails from the Eastern region of Japan near Tokyo. Much more popular in Asia than in America, Asahi beer owns about 40% of the Japanese beer market. The Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo is well known for its unique modern architecture, pictured on the right. Currently, Asahi has a partnership with MillerCoors and is currently being marketed in China. Asahi’s notable beers include:
- Asahi Super Dry. Considered Japan’s first dry beer, Asahi Super Dry was launched in 1987 and is one of the most popular beers in Japan. It is currently the mainstay of the Asahi Breweries. It goes well with sushi and spicy foods.
- Clear Asahi. This beer is a malt beer that is growing into popularity as the Japanese market begins to lean in preference toward malt-based beers. The malt helps cut spice levels.
- Orion Beer. Orion Breweries, Ltd. was founded in Okinawa in 1957, during American occupation. It is an American-style beer similar to popular American brews like Miller. While Orion Breweries maintains its independence in Okinawa, it is now distributed outside of Okinawa through the Asahi company.
Suntory is one of the oldest Japanese companies to distribute alcoholic beverages. Founded in Osaka in 1899, Suntory originally produced liquors and wines. After Suntory Whisky was registered for sales in the United States, the company formed a brewery, where the first Suntory beer was brewed in 1967. It has a malty flavor and a light golden color, making it ideal for pairing with hot wasabi or pepper dishes. Suntory Beer is a popular brew in Japan, and the Suntory company is the exclusive distributor of Pepsi products in Japan.
The four main breweries in Japan – Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo – own the large majority of the beer market in their native land. They are also becoming increasingly popular in the Western Hemisphere and in other parts of Asia, especially in China.
Beer Etiquette in Japan
Here are some rules to follow when drinking beer in Japan or at an authentic Japanese restaurant:
- Pour your drinking partner’s drink, and let them pour your drink. Never pour your own drink, as this is considered bad luck and bad manners.
- If you are drinking in a group, wait until others are ready to drink before taking the first sip.
- Say “kanpai” to toast someone, thank them or wish them good fortune.
- Do not drink out of someone else’s beer, or screw with it in any way.
- Never leave beer left in the glass. This is considered wasteful.
- For both safety reasons and politeness, never leave a Japanese beer at the table unattended.
Etiquette has always been an important value in Japanese culture. By following these customs when drinking with Japanese friends or at an authentic Japanese eatery, you will show that you are educated about Japanese culture and will avoid any embarrassment that might result from breaking the rules.
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