Tastings School - Japan - Land of the rising sun

Tastings School

From basics to more advanced topics, the Beer School has all the info to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of your beers, ales and lagers.


Japan - Land of the rising sun

Although the big brewers still dominate, new regional brewers are springing up all the time, reports Andrew Burnyeat

The growing popularity of beer and football is spreading peace and harmony across the world.

Not since fish and chips have two cultural pillars so perfectly complemented one another.

At the recent World Cup in Germany, Japan supporters could be seen in the streets of Munich highfiving with Ivory Coast, Brazil and Australia fans.

In the bars, there were at least two subjects for peoples of nations divided by many thousands of miles to communicate about, without necessarily knowing a word of each other’s language.

“Asahi is like German beer. We feel at home here,” was the inference drawn from the communicative efforts of one group of Japan supporters in Munich’s famous Hofbrauhaus.

Another was: “Next time we must wait later in the game before scoring against Brazil,” but that’s another issue entirely.

The fact is that a lot of Japanese beer does resemble German beer, and particularly the beers of Bavaria. Many are brewed using German hops and to the specifications of German brewing, which rule out additives, fruit and pretty much anything except that without which beer cannot be beer: hops, malt and water.

Beer has existed in Japan for less than 150 years. If your staple food is rice rather than wheat, beer just isn’t going to happen until it’s brought to you by the wheatgrowing nations of the world.

Which is what happened – in around 1870, American William Copeland founded Japan’s first brewery to supply Westerners. His brews caught on locally and it wasn’t long before the Japanese began to brew beer for themselves.

Someone, somewhere must have had a crystal ball, because Japan not only started brewing beer, but planned and constructed an entire beer industry from scratch.

It was decided at a very early stage that there should only be a small number of very large breweries in Japan, and no small ones. A law to this end was passed forbidding breweries to make less than a certain amount of beer.

It took just 10 years for Japanese beer production to exceed imports.

The law forbidding small brewers was only relaxed in 1994, since when micro and regional brews have popped up everywhere, along with brew pubs. Their beer is of varying quality, ranging from the worst excesses of dodgy home brew to some true wonders.

It seems the big brewers played a big part in the emergence of their new regional rivals. The emergence of Asahi Super Dry in 1987 changed The craft brewers hold regular festivals, which have been known to attract small groups of assiduous note-takers, often carrying clipboards.

These are said to be representatives of the larger breweries, keeping an eye on the competition!

We live in times of great change and upheaval. Today, beer accounts for 61.9 per cent of all alcohol consumed in Japan. In just 100 years, the drinking habits of the Japanese have become almost completely unrecognisable from the way they had been for millennia.

Let’s take a look at the leading players:

The legendary Kirin was the half-man, halfdragon whose brief union with a beautiful young woman produced none other than Confucius.

The poor woman was dumped as soon as the deed had been done.

“Drink Kirin, and you’ll have no commitment issues,” went one strapline used to sell Kirin beer.

Kirin (the beer) is tied to the rise of Japanese cuisine around the world. The beer, Japan’s favourite, often accompanies sushi.

Kirin has even produced some tips on ‘sushi etiquette’ – no chopsticks, just clean fingers, please!

In 1975, the brewer changed its production methods to give Kirin a cleaner aftertaste and it’s this which has helped its entry into the major world markets.

The brewer makes two main products – Kirin Lager Beer and the more premium Kirin Ichiban Shibori, as well as a happoshu called Kirin Tanrei (see box over page for definition of happoshu).

The forerunner of Kirin Brewery was the Japan Brewery Company, established in 1885 by Thomas B Glover. Kirin Lager Beer was launched three years later and by 1907 the brewery changed its name to suit its main product.

As we’ve seen, it was something of an advantage to get on the Japanese brewing scene quickly, as later, the government effectively bolted the doors.

By the mid-1950s, Kirin was Japan’s number one beer. Ichiban was launched in 1990.

Ichiban Shibori translates as ‘first press’, the lager being the product of the first wort, which is less bitter as it contains fewer tannins.

This smooth new beer immediately took number three spot across Japan and within three years had developed strong export sales, thanks to brewing agreements such as that with the United Kingdom’s Charles Wells. The brand was followed up with the European launch of Kirin Draught in 1998.

Along with Kirin, Asahi is possibly the best known Japanese brewer outside Japan.

Again, the angle here is food.

Asahi Super Dry is designed to refresh the palate. Domestically it’s huge, and is also exported to 50 countries. It’s the top-selling Japanese lager in the UK, which is the only country to sell Asahi Black Label.

Asahi Super Dry is typical Japanese beer.

Good quality, premium tasting, 5% ABV, clean, dry and refreshing.

It’s brewed in various places around the world, but Asahi must be proud of the fact that Super Dry is made under licence by Staropramen in the Czech Republic. In the UK, it’s brewed under licence by ale brewer Shepherd Neame, based in Kent.

And yet it’s atypical, as it was only launched in 1987. It became an instant hit because it fulfilled that Japanese desire for palate-cleansing beer better than almost any of its predecessors had done. Sales were so strong initially that Asahi felt it had to print an apology for failing to keep pace with demand.

Rival breweries began producing ‘dry beer’ in an attempt to catch up with the changing face of beer culture. The so-called Dry Beer Wars broke out about this time. Two billion cases of Asahi Super Dry were sold in 1990.

Asahi beer was around for almost 100 years before Super Dry was a glint in anyone’s eye.

Asahi beer can claim to span three centuries, as it was launched in 1891. The first Asahi Beer Hall opened in 1897.

Japan’s associations with German beer – and particularly the brews of Bavaria – grew stronger in 1983, when Asahi began brewing Lowenbrau under licence.

After the wave of regional brewers sprang up in the mid-1990s, Asahi reacted with the opening of Tokyo’s first microbrewery, Brewery Pub Sumidagawa.

Sapporo traces its roots to the time when Japan’s brewing industry was being meticulously planned in the late 19th century.

It was the result of a regional development project in Hokkaido. One of the industries it was decided to create here, from scratch, was brewing. In 1876, one man, Seibei Nakagawa, was chosen to spearhead this industry because he had studied brewing in Germany.

Sapporo’s other beer, Yebisu, is brewed with Bavarian hops aged for longer to enhance the taste. Aromatic hops add a bitterness which disappears in the aftertaste.

Sapporo Breweries launched Black Label in 1977, as a quality beer that people could enjoy at home. In 2003, along came Yebisu Black Beer, with a roasted malt flavour.

The Black Label beers were the big brewers’ early response to the emergence of regional and microbreweries.

The Sapporo Beer Museum opened in 1987 in the former headquarters of the Sapporo Sugar Company. It is one of only a handful of establishments in the whole country to feature the history of brewing.

A free, guided tour ends in a paid, optional tasting. There is also the Sapporo Biergarten, a culinary experience involving beer and barbecued lamb.

Sapporo Tour Contacts Museum Tel: +81-11-731-4368 E-mail: museum@sapporobeer.jp Biergarten: Tel: +81-11-742-1531

Suntory is mainly known in some parts of the world for its associations with golf and whisky.

Founded in 1963, the company quickly gained ground through a series of sponsorships, commercial associations and restaurant ventures.

The first Restaurant Suntory opened in 1970 in Mexico City. Only three years later, the first Suntory Open Golf tournament was held. By this time, there was already a Suntory Music Foundation and a Suntory Research Centre.

Suntory struck a lucrative deal with Carlsberg to brew the beer under licence in Japan.

So from the outset, Suntory was a business with a global vision.

But what about the beer? Suntory makes great play of the care it takes over the water content of the beer. Even its breweries, we are told, were located where they are because of the purity of the water they can draw on.

The flagship Malt’s [sic] brand of beer and happoshu carries no additives. Products such as The Premium Malt’s are unpasteurised.

Malt and hops are also subject to the tightest quality control. Research work into a new, better tasting malt is currently under way.

The Japanese traditionally appreciate the palate-cleansing properties of beer and many brews are made to give a clean aftertaste. None more so than Orion Draft Beer, brewed with Hallertau hops to a strength of 5% ABV. Malt is imported from Europe and Australia.

Orion also makes a Pils using Saaz hops with rice to add that smooth feel which helps beers cleanse the palate between mouthfuls of spicy food. Aroma Tone is Orion’s happoshu.

Orion’s celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2007. Early sales were made to the domestic market as well as to US military bases. Back in 1957, America still occupied and ruled Okinawa, which was only returned to Japan in 1972.

Perhaps because it is smaller, Orion appears to be less corporate than its big four brethren.

Its website contains handy tips about what to eat before a session, how to deal with hangovers and why some people go red in the face quicker than others when drinking.

Did you know? If you are drinking bottled beer in Japan, it is polite to pour some for your friends first.

Did you know? The legal drinking age is 20 in Japan.

Did you know? The first Japanese ever to have tasted beer is said to have been Tamamushi Sadao, a member of the mission from the Edo shogunate to the US. Unless of course you know different!

Did you know? Japanese vending machines are prohibited by law from selling alcoholic beverages and cigarettes after 11pm. To prove your ID, a valid driving licence must be inserted into the machine and you then have to pose for a camera sited within the machine.

Did you know? Seasonal beers are brewed in Japan. Autumn beers are stronger than the typical 5% ABV of Japanese beers. For example, Kirin’s Akiaji beer is 6% ABV.

As well as malt, hops and water, Japan’s brewers may add rice, corn, kaoling, potato, starch and sugars, so long as such additions do not exceed 50 per cent of the malt by weight. We can forget about kaoling and potatoes because in practice, no-one uses them in beer production anyway.

‘Beers’ using ingredients other than those specified, or those exceeding the allowed amounts of the specified ingredients are known as Happoshu and are taxed at a lower rate.

Because of this law, there are several such ‘low malt beers’ Japanese brewing. Demand for it exploded. Other breweries launched ‘super dry’ products. People realised that beer didn’t have to be as it had always been. After only a few years, the oligarchic laws were scrapped.

But for a century or more, Japanese beer was all of a similar style – crisp, well-made, refreshing of the palate and with a clean aftertaste. Good beer, but not much variety outside the mainstream.

And despite the recent emergence of the regional breweries, the Japanese beer market is still dominated by the big five. Though it may be more accurate to speak of the big four – Asahi, Sapporo, Suntory and Kirin – plus Orion, based on Okinawa, which is much smaller.

The five between them account for all 31 of Japan’s major brewing sites.