Japanese Beer on the American Market – 2022
By John Fortunato
The forerunner of the East Asian craft beer movement, Japan produces the seventh largest amount of beer countrywide on a yearly basis. In fact, beer leads all Japanese alcohol consumption with 40% of the market, just ahead of sake (rice wine).
Dutch traders introduced Japan to beer in the 17th century. The first commercially available beer was made at Sapporo Brewery in 1876. As of 2022, the biggest Japanese producers include Asahi (approximately 38% of nationwide beer sales), Kirin (25%), Suntory (15%), Sapporo and Orion. Leading the current craft beer scene are microbreweries such as Kiuchi Brewery and Yo-Ho.
Known first and foremost for their simple rice grain bill and mild hop bittering, Japan’s dry draught lagers dominate the island nation. Conservative light-bodied thirsts may still represent the majority of beer drinkers, choosing inoffensively tranquil pleasantries over more full flavored delights, but the ‘underground’ craft industry keeps getting better.
Perhaps the most recognizable craft beer institution has become Kiuchi Brewery, makers of the most exquisite and sophisticated Japanese beers under the banner of Hitachino Nest. Producing sake since 1823, Kiuchi began crafting Hitachino Nest’s lineup during 1996. Helped by continual U.S. distribution, the Naka-based company takes pride in expanding Japan’s desire to experiment beyond typical rice-wheat-barley-based pilsners and lagers thru ‘refined synergy.’
Their most popular elixir, Hitachino Nest White Ale, a Belgian witbier, regales herbal-spiced mandarin orange splendor and lemony banana tartness plus floral dandelion, daisy, lavender and rosebud flutters.
Another Belgian knockoff, Red Rice Ale lets ample rice milking and soy-like sake umami tailgate honeyed orange tartness.
Dry green grape-wined orange rind bittering gently contrasts candy-spiced dried fruiting for elegant Weizen.
Dry citrus restraint and peppery floral spicing guides soft-toned IPA, Dai Dai. Meanwhile, eccentric cedar cask-derived Japanese Classic Ale (loosely based on an English IPA) placed coriander-spiced mandarin orange subtleties next to floral-perfumed sweetness contrasting white-peppered mustard seeding.
Decisive espresso milking emboldens cedar-smoked jalapeno and chipotle peppering over molasses-draped black chocolate malting for stylish diversion, Espresso Stout.
Fusel alcohol-burned spitfire, Commemorative Bourbon-aged Eisbock, brought spiced tea, tannic vanilla and oaken cherry to the dry bourbon finish.
Unlike other Japanese imports to U.S., Kiuchi’s Hitachino Nest brand - while expensive as hell – are not hard to find on occasion.
But it’s the ordinary barley-malted rice beers that saturate the international market. Influenced by German brewers utilizing only four main ingredients (water, barley, hops and yeast), Dortmunder-styled Yebisu Premium Pale Ale may best represent the Bavarian influence while starchy barley-corned Asahi Super Dry Draught Pilsner and pasty Scotch-licked Sapporo Premium Light Lager will suffice for lighter, less discriminating thirsts.
Glutinous all-malt competitors Kirin Ichiban and Sapporo Reserve get mucky, cloy and ethanol. Better to stick with clean, gold-cleared rice lager, Echigo Koshihikari, a pilsner-malted moderation with zesty lemon spritzing and toasted French breading.
A richer rice-grained thrust firms up off-dry Orion The Draft, a blissfully simple lager with muted lemon-spiced hop fizz.
There are few Japanese dark ales in U.S. presently, but there is one choice offering readily obtainable. Sapporo’s Yebisu Stout Draught retains milky black chocolate residue and soft nuttiness as well as dark roast hop sear.
Not as worthy and murkily peculiar, Baird Kurofune Baltic Porter let oily hop-charred walnut and sour dried fruiting overrun its chocolate-kissed coffee roast.
Luckily, Baird’s stylishly offbeat amber ale, Red Rose, proves to be one of Japan’s most intriguing and delicious brews. Its zestful citrus-spiced entry picks up a dark floral bouquet, sweet apricot-peach conflux and understated almond-praline nuttiness above creamy Graham Cracker honeying.
Way off the beaten path, matcha green tea mintiness consumed heavily herbed emerald green-hued Kizakura Kyoto Matcha India Pale Ale, a tea-infused Citra hop changeup.
As more local brewpubs pop up, Japan will continually gain a foothold as one of the leading new wave beer crusaders stretching across the world. Since 1997, fine micros such as Swan Lake, Okhotsk Beer Factory and Abashiri have popped up and many lesser known ones have begun to flourish into 2022.
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