With Japan hosting the Summer Olympic Games, which start this week, the country and its culture are getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, a recent spike in COVID-19 cases has banned spectators from attending the games. So, while we can only watch the competition on television, we can enjoy the culture through imports. One of those imports is beer. Interestingly, although Japan is known for sake, its citizens consume more beer than sake. Sure, you could show your American allegiance by sticking to American-made beers, or you could embrace the spirit of the event, and its host country, by sipping a tasty Japanese brew.
Most of the well-known Japanese beers available in the United States come from three of the country’s top four major producers: Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo. Generally, the beers are pale-colored, light rice lagers with about 5% ABV. Those are the Japanese brands most often sold in American supermarkets as well as small to medium-sized beer, wine, and liquor stores.
Asahi Super Dry fulfills the requirements of a “dry” beer because it lacks sweetness. It’s carbonated and finishes clean and crisp, kind of like gymnast superstar Simone Biles nailing a floor routine. It’s also won gold, at the 2014 World Beer Cup.
Like Asahi Super Dry, Sapporo Premium is brewed with rice in addition to barley as part of the grain mix. The rice provides sugars for the yeasts, so alcohol is produced, but the overall flavor profile remains light. Hop bitterness is there, but it is in perfect balance with the grain sweetness. And it obviously works well for the American palate: Sapporo is the No. 1 selling Asian beer in America.
Meanwhile, Kirin Ichiban, which has its roots in Japan but is now brewed by Anheuser-Busch, is made more like a traditional American-style lager, featuring only malt, hops and water—no rice. But unlike other lagers, Kirin Ichiban uses only the first press of the wort, known as the Ichiban Shibori method in Japanese. In fact, ichiban means “first” and “best” in Japanese. The first press appears darker in color but also lends itself to a beer with a rich body that is still crisp and clear. As a result, many Japanese and other beer drinkers report that Kirin Ichiban, which is definitely malt forward, pairs particularly well with lighter Japanese fare, such as sushi and sashimi.
Now, if you’re a die-hard craft beer fan and you’re rolling your eyes at these three mass-produced, corporation-backed beers, beers from at least one Japanese craft brewery are widely distributed stateside. Look for the Hitachino Nest line-up, crafted by Kiuchi Brewery, at larger liquor stores and specialty beer stores. You’ll know the brand when you see the red owl on the label. Try the White Ale, which has won more than 25 awards since its first gold in 1998. It’s a Belgian, often placed in the spice and herb categories due to its coriander, orange peel, and nutmeg flavors.
Other styles feature ingredients found in Japan, such as fukuremikan orange (Dai Dai IPA); yuzu juice and koji rice (Saison du Japon); and Kaneko Golden, an ancient Japanese barley, and Sorachi Ace, a Japanese hop (Nipponia Belgian-style golden ale). Choose any one of them to enjoy a sample of Japan’s microbrewery perfection and to do your part for international relations during this year’s Olympics.