Japanese Beers, Compared

It’s been pretty quiet here at PCT lately. As we wrote in our Year-End Stats Review, spontaneous disc herniations sometimes rain on the parade. It’s tough to try new places, or even stand at the stove for a recipe post, when they strike. But we’re back with a small project we’ve had in mind for some time: A comparison of the various well-known, and a couple lesser-known, Japanese beers.

The impetus to finally do the cross-comparison taste-test was a conversation about which Japanese beer is our favorite. I’ve always been partial to Sapporo, but why? Is it because it’s a little darker than, say, Asahi? Or because it seems more full-bodied than Kirin? I lived and worked in Japan in the ’90s and, in time, just found myself preferring Sapporo. All these years later, I still can’t quantify the reason for that preference. So why not a simple taste-test then, documenting as we go?

One commonly encounters at most five brands (and specific styles) of Japanese beer in the U.S. There are countless more commonly available in Japan, of course, including winners like
Fuyumonogatari, “The Winter’s Tale” (literally, “winter story”), inspired by the eponymous Shakespeare rom-com; the beer used to be seasonal but we understand it’s available year-round now. We see specialty Japanese beers like this on occasion in the U.S., but not with any frequency. Of the common five, the “big three” are as mentioned above: Asahi (“morning sun”), Kirin (a cross between a fantastical dragon and a giraffe), and Sapporo (the capitol of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island). We actually visited the Sapporo Beer Garden in 1993, and weren’t too surprised to find that the serving grounds at the headquarters of our favorite Japanese brewery was styled like a German Bierhalle. Because nothing says “proud tradition of Japanese brewing” like waitresses in Lederhosen. At least they served shabu-shabu.

Of course, each brewery offers multiple styles — there’s Sapporo Premium, Nama Black, Reserve, Light, Yebisu; Kirin Ichiban Shibori and Lager; Asahi Kuronama (black draught); etc. We choose to compare among the most common labels available in the U.S. today.

In addition to the big three, we sometimes see a couple other Japanese beers around town. We’ll call them the “minor two”: Hitachino Nest White Ale and Orion. What does “hitachino” mean? The owl on the label, the words “white” before it, then “nest,” suggest white owl, but the Japanese word for owl is ふくろう (fukuroō) and “white” refers to white ale. “Hitachino” is an antiquated word meaning “plains of Ibaraki,” referring to the Prefecture in which the Kiuchi Brewery is based. That said, “White Plains of Ibaraki Nest” doesn’t really scan, so maybe there’s some wordplay going on of which we’re unaware. (Kiuchi is a surname, by the way.) Orion isn’t a Japanese word at all and takes its name from the king of Okinawan brewing companies. I don’t recall encountering either of those brands in Japan, but it was a long time ago. In any case, it’s safe to say they seemed at least as rare in their home country as they do here. And we don’t know why Suntory hasn’t been able to break into the U.S. beer-distribution market yet — though apparently it’s trying to — when the smaller Orion and much smaller Kiuchi Brewery have. Strange.

One comparison we want to make is appearance — color, head, lacing — so we’ll need to line up the pours side-by-side. Glassware matters. Rest assured we’ve sampled each beer out of the same glass — the one on the far right in the photo above.

But enough with complexities of language, business and glassware. What’s a Japanese beer-tasting without arare? Or senbei, at least. It requires a separate trip to Super H-Mart, no less, but we’d lucked out with the beer run to Norm’s Beer & Wine: All five Japanese brews were in stock, and they even let me divide up six packs of the big three so that I could bring home five bottles instead of 20 (the minor two were available as singles). After a few hours in the fridge (the beers, not us), it was time for the taste-test that would answer the age-old question: Which Japanese beer do we like best?

So, five beers, chilled; otsumami at hand; clean glasses; and the wherewithal to record tasting notes. Alphabetical order by brand name conveniently lets us save our presumed favorite for last. Let’s get to it, stream-of-consciousness style:

Asahi: Weak — light — in appearance; blonde. The mouthfeel and taste are thin, watery. The finish is short but clean. They market this beer as “dry” but that isn’t our impression at all. 5.0 percent ABV.

Hitachino: As the only white ale, this beer is easily the lightest in appearance. The nose is lemony and citrusy. The initial palate is crisp, clean, with more citrus flavor. The mouthfeel is full and still more citrus in the taste, which we score 10 our of 12, before the long, clean finish that fades to slightly metallic. 5.5 percent ABV makes this the strongest of these beers.

Kirin: Light, blonde notes on the nose. The initial palate is crisper than the Asahi, and on mouthfeel and taste, the Kirin is like an improved Asahi across the board. The finish is mild but lingers longer than the Asahi. 5.0 percent ABV.

Orion: This is the only beer we haven’t seen available in bottles, only cans. Each of the big three is available either bottled or canned, and we opted for a bottle in every case. Glass is better than aluminum for storing beer (and wine, and whisky, and water…). The nose is slightly citrusy, which we weren’t expecting, but the mouthfeel is thin and metallic. There’s a blondeness to the taste and the finish is long and, again, metallic, like the can it comes in. 5.0 percent ABV.

Sapporo: It all comes down to this next sip, really, since we’re here to challenge a long-held assumption. This is the darkest beer in the lineup and also the most highly carbonated, with the greatest head and lacing. That darkness comes through on the initial palate; there’s a fullness to it that the other beers, especially Asahi, lack. The mouthfeel is likewise full and the taste is straight and clean with a clean finish. 4.9 percent ABV.

Our drinking companion notes that Sapporo is his beer of choice with ramen, reminding us of something we had seen at the Super H-Mart during our arare run: Sapporo Ichiban Ramen. Who knew (see photo at bottom of post).

Listing out the ABVs of each beer like this, it’s odd to recall we were once under the impression that mass-market Japanese beers were so much stronger than American. Yes, they are stronger on average and consistently so, but the difference is fractional rather than significant. The primary difference is taste, the Japanese beers being fuller, crisper, more interesting. We couldn’t help but make analogies to American brews. Asahi is like Bud Light; Kirin : Miller Light; Orion : Milwaukee’s Best. To their credit, Hitachino and Sapporo don’t fit into mass-market U.S.-beer categories very closely.

The final scorecard shook out like this:

Our scores on a 100-point scale, weighting Taste most heavily

So we can finally answer the question; among the big three, we like Sapporo because it’s slightly heavier and fuller on the palette (and eye). Also because we hadn’t tried Hitachino. The Sapporo is followed by Kirin, then Asahi — just the order we were expecting, based on experience, before our pseudoscientific comparison. And despite its low score, we might still recommend Asahi with heavy and savory dishes like Japanese curry. The Orion is a metallic curiosity but we won’t seek it out.

♦ Beer Advocate rankings of Japanese beers
♦ 52 Brews on glassware


4 Replies to “Japanese Beers, Compared”

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