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Goin’ Japanesque!

The Golden Nectar of Modernity: Tales of Japanese Beer

In a world that’s rich with variety in every domain of human existence, from food and dress to music and religion, there is one man-made beverage that borders on the universal: beer. From ice-cold pilsners to richly nutty ales, it’s no shock that beer ranks third for most-consumed drink in the world, following water and tea. Why, even the American iconoclast musician Frank Zappa once quipped, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”

If so, then Japan more than qualifies. Though sake is a type of beer by the broadest definition of the term, “beer” is most commonly understood to refer to a beverage brewed from malted grains, and this beer too is wildly popular in Japan. Called “biiru”, the word is a cousin-once-removed to the English one, as both have their most distant roots in either the Latin “bibere” (meaning to drink; think “imbibe”) or an ancient Germanic word meaning “barley.” The Japanese version actually comes out of the Dutch “bier”, but English has its foot in as well, and when a beer-related phrase is founded in English, the word is “bia” (or rarely, “biya”) as seen in “bia gaaden (beer garden)”, “bia hooru (beer hall)”, and “bia baa (beer bar)”.


The Initial Pour

The history of beer in Japan in many ways follows the history of modernization. Prior to the opening of the country at the beginning of the Meiji era, the only beer that was really drunk in Japan was quaffed back by Dutch stationed on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki. However, there is one incident of note that unfolded in the capital in 1853, the same year that Perry’s ships sailed into Tokyo Bay. A scholar of Dutch writings named Komin Sawamoto read about the brewing of beer in a book from overseas and decided to give it a try himself. Sawamoto’s brewing became the first truly Japanese beer-making in history. On a note, the fruits of this effort were tested at a tasting in Asakusa at a temple called Kappo-ji.

Then came the Meiji Restoration, and together with the changes sweeping through the country at all levels, there were also changes in how the Japanese wet their whistles. Putting aside any particular fondness the Japanese of the time had for novelty, beer would have been attractive in and of itself simply for its price, as it was yet untaxed, unlike sake. In 1883, there was about 200,000 liters of the foamy stuff brewed in Japan (along with 450,000 imported). Come 1887, production was 15 times what it was just four years ago and imports more than tripled. Another decade passed to see a leap to 11 million liters of beer, fifty times that of not fifteen years before.

Yet, the history of beer in Japan is more than anything else the history of its major breweries who all, save one, got their start before in the 19th century. These giants of brewing are (alphabetically as well as in current commercial clout) Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Of the four, surprisingly enough only Kirin hails originally from Tokyo, with Sapporo’s roots in its namesake city and both Suntory and Asahi hailing from Osaka. Actually, from the turn of the 20th century until after the Second World War, Asahi and Sapporo were merged into one massive brewing company called Dainippon, though 1949 antitrust laws broke them apart.


The Big Boys

Nowadays, these four giants cast a long shadow on the sudsy brews of Japan, commanding over 99% of the sales of all beer and beer-like beverages. These monsters of brewing are each part of a titanic economic partnership called a “keiretsu,” a massive interlocking group of companies that provide mutual support and financing to one another. In the beer and beer-like beverage market, Asahi and Kirin take up somewhat over and a little under a third respectively while Sapporo and Suntory split what remains, the former with a slightly larger slice of the pie.

Looking at their products, the dominant regular beers are arguably Asahi Super Dry and Kirin Ichiban Shibori together with their Kirin Lager, even as Sapporo’s sales (especially overseas) are nothing to be sneezed at and Suntory’s The Malts a regional favorite. In addition to these more standard offerings, they produce premium beers, too—in fact, Suntory (maker of The Premium Malts) and Sapporo are most well-known for their premium beers. In contrast, Asahi’s Jukusen is a fairly rare sight and Kirin’s Heartland is most often seen in bars, not in stores.

For the linguistically-inclined reader, there’s an interesting piece of trivia about Sapporo’s premium beer, Yebisu. The “ye” is a holdover from the old way of writing Japanese phonetically, as modern Japanese no longer uses either the kana or the sound. This would make a beer can one of the few times Japanese would ever see this archaic character.


The Local Custom

It may be a unifying beverage globally, but how it is enjoyed changes from place to place. After all, asking for “a pint” in an English pub will get you a lot more beer (and often warmer beer, at that) than what you’ll have handed to you in North America, and asking for one in Japan might not get you any beer at all! Despite having a younger beer culture than other countries, the Japanese have the full panoply of manners in which to enjoy it. In fact, beer is such a popular beverage to toast with when dining as a group there’s even a phrase for it: “toriaezu biiru,” or “For now, beer.”

With pitchers being a bit of a novelty, the usual way to have beer when dining or drinking in Japan is as draft (“nama biiru”) out of a glass called a jokki. Simply say “nama o hitotsu” (“a draft beer”) without specifying your size and you’ll find a glass of pale, frothy pilsner anywhere between 350 to 500 ml (12 to 16 oz.) before you, though a smaller beer (“namashou”) might be as miniscule as 250 ml and a larger one (“namadai”) can dwarf a British pint at 800 ml. This type of beer features heavily at summer beer gardens in Japan, a surprisingly popular hot-weather event often hosted on a department store roof. These events are frequently both all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink, with truly quality food to be found at a few.

In both classier and more classic settings, bottled beer (“bin-biiru”) shines. These aren’t usually the 12 oz. (355 ml) bottles seen in North America: the usual one is a half-liter and the larger one rounds off at the peculiar number of 663 ml. These are bottles meant for sharing and will invariably come with one wee little glass per drinker, evoking the image of drinking from shot glass-tiny o-choko while sharing a tokkuri of hot sake. But drink under the falling cherry petals at a local park, in the comfort of your home, or wandering the stalls at a festival, and what you’ll probably drink is canned beer. Bought as singles or in packs of 6, 12, and 24, they come in a familiar 355 ml can as well as “tall cans” of precisely half a liter.

Drinking on an empty stomach is a fools’ game, and the experienced beer-tippers of the nation are careful to secure a stash of o-tsumami (sides to drink) before they “kampai!” Popular as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants of every nation, edamame are the classic otsumami, ideal in their balance of salt and filling-but-not-too-filling texture. Another star item perfect in its portability is kaki-pea, which is a snack made from a mixture of kaki no tane (lit. “persimmon seeds”), thin crescent moon rice crackers and regular old peanuts. For the otsumami veteran, though, there might be nothing to beat ika-kun (a shortening of ika-kunsei, “dried squid”). Chewy, salty, and packed with protein, this desiccated delight is almost made-to-order for the crispy lightness of a typical Japanese beer.


The landscape of brewing in Japan is as unstable as the tectonic plates on which the country rides, a flux primarily fueled by byzantine tax laws which, for example, have spurred the creation of tax-evading beer derivatives and also kept smaller brewers locked out until the mid-90s. However, craft brewing (called ji-biiru in Japan) has picked up a head of steam in recent years, with over 200 currently operating in Japan and some even gracing the shelves of major convenience stores and the draft lineup of popular bars. There is a darker note to all this: beer sales are supported more than anything else by the older males of Japan, and both brewers and beer lovers fret over the future of beer, and drinking in general, in a country where younger people drink less beer, and in fact less overall. Yet, even if the industry may fade a bit, for the average drinker there’ll still be no better way to quench a dry thirst on a hot summer’s day.

Related: 4 Japanese Craft Beers You Should Try When You are in Japan

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About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry