After a long day on the slopes, there’s nothing better than a cold, refreshing beer or two. Japanese breweries have perfected the art of creating lager. In my honest opinion, they’re way ahead of Europe. Of course, most Japanese beers are based on European recipes, but they’ve taken them and refined them to a point. The result: some of the best beer on the planet. Most of the good stuff never makes it out of the country, so if this is your first time in Japan, you’re in luck.
The Japanese beer you’ve most likely already encountered is Asahi. While it’s drinkable it’s also overrated. Asahi is to Japan what Fosters is to Australia…
The first time you walk into a Japanese convenience store (“konbini”) you might be a little overwhelmed by the choice of different beers. You may also wonder why there are so many types of beer despite there only being four big Japanese breweries: Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo. The reason comes down to tax. In fact, more than half of what you’ll see in the shop isn’t technically beer…
Japanese laws dictate that beer should be taxed according to its malt content. The breweries found a way to create cheaper beers by using less malt. There are currently three different beer ranks: regular beer, happoshu and shin janru.
Regular beer has standard malt content and is accordingly taxed more which is why it costs more and tastes better. Happoshu, which translates as sparkling alcohol, is a low malt beer which tastes fairly similar to regular beer. Quite often you’ll find it has a thinner body though (for obvious reasons). The final rank and cheapest contains no malt whatsoever, instead, it’s been replaced soy, pea or wheat spirits. It can only be described as a beer-like beverage.
If you’re feeling rich then you could try Japanese craft beers. This article will not cover them in depth. It’s a growing industry but they have a long way to go to catch up with Europe and America. You should expect to pay between ¥1000-1500 for a pint in most bars and around ¥600 for a bottle in a konbini. Instead, we’ll focus on the best of the regular beers you can buy in-store.
So without further ado here’s our list of the top 5 Japanese beers:
5. Suntory Rich Malt
Average price ¥180
Technically this isn’t a real beer, it’s actually one of 2nd rank Happoshu beers. However, if you’re looking for a good, cheap beer Rich Malt can’t be beaten. Unlike all other 2nd rank beers, Rich Malt has a full-bodied taste which belies the fact it only has 70% of the malt content of a regular beer.
4. Suntory Premium Malts
Average price ¥300
Premium Malts is one of the most expensive beers available but justifiably so. It’s a traditional pilsner with a deep, rich aroma and crispy aftertaste. This is Suntory’s flagship brew and honestly, I’m questioning why it isn’t higher on this list. The only drawback is the cost.
3. Sapporo Classic
Average price ¥265
The standard Sapporo beer available nationwide in Japan is a decent brew but would usually place 5th on this list. Sapporo Classic, on the other hand, is available exclusively in Hokkaido. It’s so good they don’t export it to the rest of the country. Make sure you enjoy this delicious pilsner while you’re in Niseko.
2. Kirin Ichiban
Average price ¥270
An absolutely delicious American-style pale lager. It’s sweet, crispy and refreshing. A light body and dry finish make Kirin very quaffable. Due to its reasonable price and sessionable taste it’s arguable that this should share the top spot on this list.
Average price ¥300
Yebisu is a flavourful Dortmunder-style beer with a nice hoppy profile and strong malty sweetness. With a thick-bodied flavour comparable to Premium Malts it’s understandable why Yebisu costs more than the majority of Japanese beers. This really is the “crème de la crème” of beers.