When you think of Japanese cuisine and drinks, most people would say ramen or sushi and sake or tea. What most people wouldn’t expect is an impressive beer and whiskey culture, but Japan aims to deliver.
Beer became widely available in Japan after the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, when Japan opened its borders to foreign trade, and then again during the start of the Meiji period in 1868, when it reopened its borders to foreign trade.
The first companies to bring trained brewers to Japan were European, like Bass Brewery, but soon Japanese people got a taste for the beverage and native breweries began popping up all over Japan, putting their own unique spin on the alcohol.
Now, Japan has a thriving beer culture, a healthy market to sell to, and established brands with their own take on the beverages that have appealed to not just the local market, but the global one as well.
Taking on the established beer brands of Europe and America is no mean feat, but the Japanese breweries have stood their ground well. With that said though, with all the selection offered by Japanese beers, what are the best ones?
We take a hard look at this question to determine the 10 best Japanese beers that you can buy.
OUR TOP PICK
Considering the company’s origins, it’s no wonder that Sapporo Premium made this list. Sapporo's breweries produce the oldest brand of beer in Japan today, with the company established in 1876.
The company came about as a project by the Hokkaido Development Commission to establish many businesses in the area, at the time, rural Hokkaido, the second-largest island in Japan.
Since that time, the company has gone from strength to strength, taking the Japanese and then world markets by storm.
At the forefront of the Sapporo brand is the Sapporo premium beer, and once you taste it you can see why. It has a universal appeal, with a light, bright taste that has a good aroma mostly of hops and is refreshing without being too heavy.
It is a great accompaniment to any meal and was deliberately made as such, given that most Japanese izakayas are more about eating heavily with a light beer, rather than drinking heavily with light food.
At 4.9% as well, it is amazing that Sapporo have created such a light beer with a moderately big alcohol content and the style design of the beers Sapporo produces have won them a Lausanne Index award in 2020 for packaging, a huge feat for a beer outside of Europe and America.
The only problem I can really say about Sapporo is that it needs to be cold to enjoy it, but even a lukewarm Sapporo isn’t that bad and can be enjoyed with most things.
- Wonderful light taste
- Good alcohol content
- Award-winning style and packaging
- Easy to buy and find
- Needs to be cold to be enjoyed to the fullest
If Sapporo is the oldest brewery in Japan, Asahi is a close third. These two companies vied for dominance, along with Kirin and Yebisu beer, in the late 1800s of the Japanese beer market.
However, of all the breweries, Asahi would come out on top, with their market share being 34% of the entire Japanese market.
It is not hard to see why Asahi is so successful when you try their most sought-after product, Asahi Super Dry.
Being first brewed in 1892, Super Dry has remained as unchanged as possible from that time, with its taste being crisp, incredibly fresh, with a sharp and dry taste that cracks on the senses and makes you feel alive, while living up to its name.
At 5.2%, it has a high alcohol content for a lager, and its iconic metallic silver packaging is recognized the world over.
While its flavor is wonderful and unique, it may not appeal to a huge audience thanks to its dry and sharp flavor. While I love it, I can recognize that not everyone will.
- Unique, sharp flavor
- High alcohol content
- Iconic packaging
- Very easy to get your hands on
- Doesn’t have a universal appeal
To round off our trio of the eldest beer breweries in Japan, we have the second oldest, Kirin Breweries, founded in 1888.
It is amazing that Kirin survived at all considering that the two others, Sapporo and Asahi, formed a near unstoppable merger in the early 20th century.
One of the reasons it did though was being the maker of two of Japan’s favorite beers, Kirin Lager – one of the oldest Japanese beers – and the one we are going to talk about, Kirin Ichiban.
This beer is distinct in flavor, being a first press brew, which only uses the first press of the wort – the most prominent press in flavor. It is malty, hoppy, and has a slight sweet aftertaste with a full-bodied feel.
The alcohol content is 5%, which is a nice, fairly high number and expected with this kind of beer. The packaging however is uniquely kirin.
It is stark white and yellow with the mythical kirin plastered on the covering, it tells you immediately what this beer is and who made it.
Again like before, the only problem with Kirin Ichiban is it might not have a broad appeal to the wider market, because its flavor is quite bold. However, this shouldn’t stop you trying some for yourself.
- Unique, bold flavor
- High alcohol content
- Very iconic packaging
- Big area of distribution
- May not have universal appeal
Their second entrant on this list, Kirin light, was Kirin’s answer to the idea of their beers being too bold.
With Kirin light, the flavor has been toned down along with many other things, it is crisp, but not as full-bodied or having less of a malt flavor, and more that it is very light and dry.
Similarly, the alcohol content has been dimmed slightly with only 3.2%, which while nice for some people might put off others, since it won’t have the standard buzz they have been looking for.
Another issue for me is the packaging, the iconic and striking packaging that normally accompanies Kirin’s products has been dimmed as well, with the while remaining and the yellow replaced with a dark blue.
The Kirin is still on the front but it doesn’t have the aesthetic of the traditional Japanese beer that Ichiban does and looks more like a standard American light beer than anything.
- Light crisp flavor
- Fairly universal
- Easy to get a hold of
- Low alcohol content
- Lack of style
Orion is among the newer beers that Japan has to offer and came about in 1957. The founder, Sosei Gushiken, sought to develop a manufacturing industry in Okinawa for economic and social reconstructive purposes.
This led to the development of the Orion breweries in southern Okinawa, named Orion because the constellation looks somewhat like the islands themselves.
Since then, Orion has exploded in popularity and is considered an important contributor to the Okinawan community.
The Orion draft lager is quintessentially Okinawan. It’s got a rich, clean, and fruity flavor that is light and perfect for cooling down in tropical climes.
The high carbonation combined with the flavor is something that you could imagine drinking on the beaches of Maui.
Being 5% in alcohol content, it gives you a nice buzz without being too heady and, while the packaging is not as iconic as others, it is indicative of the islands and its history – also, it might be as iconic because it is mostly available in Japan.
Orion has a bit of a problem with distribution, despite being the 5th largest brewery in Japan, to international markets, so it can be a bit difficult to source in the US.
- Nice, fruity flavor
- High alcohol content
- Cool backstory to design
- Procuring can be difficult
- Design is not as endearing as it could be
Suntory is yet another old Japanese alcoholic beverage company, established in 1899, but it didn’t start in beers. In Japan and, nowadays, around the world, Suntory is known for making whiskey.
Its whiskey is praised the world over, and it has risen as a company to be the third-largest spirit maker in the world. However, Suntory have also had a steady production of beers on the go, with their primary one being their Premium Malts.
Suntory Premium Malts is described as an ‘Ale’ type beer, and this comes across in the flavor with beer being fruity and deep. While the aftertaste is refreshing, the beer can lend itself to being somewhat heavy, sometimes leaning a bit too much of the ale side.
The alcohol content of this beer is a whopping 6%, which is high by most standards, but it doesn’t taste like it has too much alcohol in it, which is nice to see.
Personally, I have a little problem with the design. With most Suntory whiskey, they have an understated label with the name and a calligraphy piece on the side, it is incredibly stylish and somehow always draws my eye.
However, the Premium Malts beer takes its design from a more Germanic or American style beer, which is enjoyable in its own way, but it just feels very generic and doesn’t express anything about the beer.
- ‘Ale’ type beer with Asian influences gives an interesting flavor
- Huge alcohol content
- Big distribution rang
- Can feel heavy to drink
- Design is lackluster
Kiuchi Brewery are the brains behind this beer, and they have actually been making sake and shochu since 1823. However, they did not start brewing beer until 1996, after the laws on micro brewing changed in Japan.
They are a small operation, but have scored big success with their traditional Japanese brewing techniques, their knowledge of sake and shochu, and their willingness to experiment.
Being the first proper ale on the list, it might come as a bit of shock that Japanese breweries even brew ales. But don’t be so surprised, especially at the brewing of the wonderful flavor of this ale.
As a Belgian white ale, this beer is lighter than most other ales, and it has been enhanced with coriander, orange peel, and nutmeg, giving it a spicy, light flavor that tickles the taste buds.
At 5.5%, this ale is fairly alcoholic and the style of the labelling is lovely, with a little owl mascot against a wavy white and blue background that is very modern.
The one problem that this ale has is the same as Orion, limited distribution range. Being a small production, it is hard to get this ale outside of Japan, but if you come across it, you should definitely take a sip.
- Great flavor with added fruitiness
- High alcoholic content
- Cool label
- Limited distribution range
Moving on to our second Hitachino beer today, we have the Espresso Stout. As we said before, Hitachino likes to experiment, and in this ale, they have gone to the extreme of that.
This ale has a wonderful set of roasted chocolate and coffee flavors that combine with a hint of vanilla and the stout itself to give a wonderful, unique taste. Although the taste may not be to everyone’s liking, it is an interesting avenue to take for a stout.
7% alcohol content, that is huge, 7%. With the deep dark ale, coffee overtones, and alcoholic content, this ale will get you drunk quickly.
The style of the design is breathtaking as well, taking the owl logo and giving it a 70s vibe with distorted writing, vinyl spirals, and the huge pupils of the owl itself.
As before, distribution is a little tricky for Kiuchi, but it's worth the hassle to get hold of some of this beautiful beverage.
- Distinctive flavor
- Gigantic alcoholic content
- Amazing design and label
- Distinctive flavor might not be for everyone
- Limited distribution
Kawaba is the essence of old Japan. The beer is brewed in the village of Kawaba in Gunma prefecture, a prefecture just outside the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. This may make it sound metropolitan, but don’t be fooled.
Gunma only has 1 million people living there, and it is noted for its idyllic mountains, crystal clear rivers, and deep forests and Kawaba is right in the middle of this wilderness. This craft beer is made using these waters and captures the soul of this peaceful place.
None of Kawaba’s beverages capture this more than Kawaba Sunrise, a sweet red ale that has the same color as a red sun rising in the morning.
It has a malty, sweet flavor that is much more like dried fruits than caramel, giving it a more natural taste, however this might not be to everyone’s preference as it is noted to be quite sweet.
The alcohol content is a solid 5%, which is enough to be refreshing without being overt in headiness. Finally, the packaging is beautiful, a bright red background with a white sun and mountain tops, it really takes you to the village it’s made in.
- Interesting, natural flavor
- Good alcohol content
- Beautiful, delicate labelling
- The sweetness might not be to everyone’s taste
Echigo Beer Co., Ltd was Japan’s first microbrewery after the laws changed in 1993, they are located in the center of Niigata province, a place known primarily for rice agriculture.
Echigo used their local knowledge and the knowledge of expert rice growers to create a beer from Koshihikari, a premium kind of Japonica rice. Through trial and error, they eventually came up with Echigo Koshihikari, the ultimate rice beer.
Thanks to the combination of Koshihikari and German beer brewing methods, this lager is incredibly smooth with a soft, toasted flavor and hints of mild sweetness from the rice. This is in contrast to a lot on this list, with most being malty or light in flavor.
Being a 5% beer, it is quite high in alcoholic content, but due to the flavor you would never know until you begin to stumble around. Lastly, the packaging and I absolutely love the label of this beer.
It has a label with the name written in kanji against a backdrop of a beautiful artist rendition of rice growers at work in the fields. I think it really speaks from the heart of Niigata to its drinkers.
Again and again, distribution is a problem when ordering these beers from Japan, hopefully in the future that will change, but for now it is a bit difficult to get a hold of.
- Great, toasty flavor
- Good alcoholic content
- Fantastic label and style
- Distribution is limited
When buying beers, people tend to have a definite focus on what they want. This is especially so when you are older and done with trying beers, just wanting the one you know will wet your whistle.
Therefore, for this buyer’s guide, we looked at 4 different areas that most people look at when they buy beer.
A beer needs to not only taste good, but have a certain flavor that keeps you coming back for more. This is not so important when you are young and just looking for a booze cruise, but when you are older, your palette becomes more refined, and you are more picky in what you want.
Do you prefer sweet beers? Toasty? Malty? Light? Crisp? These are all things you begin to consider, when you are feeling a thirst coming on.
I know it seems weird to look for alcohol content, but it is significant. Most people drink beers to get a little buzz as well as having a nice drink.
Too little alcohol in your drink and you will feel cheated, too much, and you might not only feel a bit too drunk, but also it might affect the flavor of the drink. Depending on who you are, you might want less or more alcohol, but it is still important to know.
When you walk into the beer section of the store, and you find that you fancy a new beer today, how do you pick? Some people will give you a reasoned and logical answer, but most of us pick by what looks nice, and the thing that has to look nice is the packaging.
The labels, the designs, and the shape of the bottle are going to make you take a closer look, making them critical to your beer choice.
If you want to drink the beer, you need to buy it. If you want to buy it, it needs to be available in your area. The problem with Japanese beers is that they sometimes aren’t available at the shop, you can order them online, but it’s a pain and takes some time.
This makes distribution important, otherwise how else will you quench your thirst?
Despite what most people believe, Japan has an amazing and thriving beer culture, and it has managed to expand into the global market. The Japanese brewers have combined old European and American techniques, with their own distinctive styles, to make truly fantastic beverages.
If you ever get the chance to order one of these beers, you definitely should. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Frequently asked questions
What kind of beer do they drink in Japan?
They drink a lot of different beers, but the main brands are Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, Sapporo, and Orion, with Asahi Super Dry being the most popular amongst the Japanese public.
Often Japanese beers are lighter in taste and smoother in texture, as they are not always designed to be drunk on their own, but more with food.
How much is a can of beer in Japan?
A can of beer will regularly set you back about 200 to 300 yen, which is about $1.70 to $2.70. This may seem really cheap, but most beers are brewed in Japan and distribution is easier as it is a smaller country with a big population.
Where Does Japan Rank In Beer Consumption per capita?
Japan ranks at 54th place in world rankings, despite having the 11th largest population. This is because although there is a big drinking culture, the beer is mainly served as a side thing with food.
Izakayas will serve multiple snacks to Japanese customers, but only a few beers throughout the night.
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