Japan’s bottomless thirst for beer is intimately ingrained in the nation’s social culture.
Light, Pilsner-style beers have ruled Japanese taps for years, but now craft brews are breaking into the market.
Japan’s strong beer-drinking culture always seems to come as a surprise to Canadians. I blame the common stereotype of Japan as a single-mindedly productive society—one so hyper-organized that you could set your watch by the reliable arrival and departure times of the bullet trains. However, it takes a lot of effort to be that diligent, and everyone needs an outlet to recover from always being so fastidious.
Enter Japanese beer culture. You could call it “Japanese drinking culture,” but the reality is that, aside from the occasional chu hai cocktail or bottle of shochu jet fuel, the vast majority of Japanese drinkers—men and women alike— turn to beer when it’s time to unwind.
Pouring beer in Japan? Leave at least an inch of head on the glass as it’s said to preserve flavour.
One interesting aspect of Japanese beer-drinking culture is its link with professional relationships. Japanese offices will plan periodic dinner and drinking parties (called nomikai) throughout the year, often bringing their staff together to celebrate things like the year-end. These nomikai events are more formal than the Canadian equivalent of a group of co-workers getting together for somedrinks. All staff are expected to attend at least part of the festivities, and these events give colleagues the chance to connect socially in a less formal setting.
And these connections are often facilitated by ample amounts of beer thanks to the practice of nomi houdai—likely the most legendary part of Japanese beer-drinking culture to the uninitiated. “Nomi houdai” means “all you can drink,” and it is common for nomikai parties to be hosted at venues that offer patrons as much beer (or other alcohol) as they can drink at a flat rate for 1-2 hours. This is a very common offering in Japanand can be found at a number of izakayas and bars.
Yes, the fantastic myths are true! Beer vending machines do exist in Japan—found everywhere from hotels to hot springs.
With such a robust audience of beer-lovers and such a deeply ingrained drinking culture, you might expect the Japanese market to be flooded with choice when it comes to types of beer. However, you’d be mistaken. Beer drinkers in Japan have, for years, sustained themselves on a rather diminutive selection of brews. When thinking of Japanese beers, big names like Sapporo and Asahi stand out as market leaders, and they are followed by other huge brands like Kirin and Suntory. However, barring sub-brands introduced by Sapporo or Kirin, and cheaper variations like happoshu low-malt beer, for years Japanese drinkers had only these leading brands to choose from.
Not so anymore, though, as—gradually—craft beer bars popularized in major urban centres like Tokyo have begun to spread a taste for difference. Though the craft beer wave started with the importing of foreign brews, it has hit the major brewers with players like Kirin and Sapporo recently having branched off into craft beer offerings. Over the coming pages, we’ll touch on some of those new offerings,as well as recommend a local Toronto brewery that takes a refreshingly Japanese approach to beer. However, we’ll start by taking a deep dive into the most iconic of Japanese beers.
Follow the North Star
Sapporo is an iconic and delicious Japanese beer that is also thick with history.
The copper kettles on display at the Sapporo Beer Museum are hallmarks of the German brewing process brought over by the brewery’s first brewmaster, Mr. Seibei Nakagawa.
Sapporo Premium Beer
This distinctive silver can used in overseas markets has been a striking ambassador for the Sapporo brand, and for Japanese beer in general, all over the world.
If you take a close look at one of Sapporo’s distinctive silver cans, you’ll realize the brew has a Canadian link.In 2006 Sapporo purchasedthe Guelph, Ontario-based Sleeman Breweries (Canada’s third-largest brewer). So these days most of the Sapporo sold in North America is actually brewed right here in Canada, just down the road from Toronto. As such you can easily find Sapporo in The Beer Store and LCBO, and it’s commonly on tap in Toronto restaurants and bars.
Despite this fairly recent Canadian link, Sapporo has a very long history in Japan. It is the oldest of all Japanese beer brands, having been introduced in 1876 by German-trained brewer Seibei Nakagawa, and it has weathered competition from brands like Asahi and Kirin for years. It has stood out thanks to its strong,full-bodied flavour that is a blend of a malt base with notes of hops and a sweet, dry, slightly bitter finish.
Sapporo is the perfect poster child for the style of beer most common in Japan: all four of the leading beer brands (Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo) fall under the umbrella of Pilsner-style, pale lagers with an ABV of around 5.0%. This similarity might feel unfortunate to us Torontonians as we’ve been utterly spoiled by all the microbreweries opening up in our city. However, this style has really defined beer for Japanese drinkers, and it plays to the mantra of doing one thing, but doing it exceptionally well.
If you do make it to the city of Sapporo, or to the prefecture of Hokkaido in general, be sure to sample Sapporo Classic, which is a sub-brand that can be boughtonly in Hokkaido. This 100% malt beer has the full-bodied flavour you’d expect of Sapporo, except with more sweetness toit. However, most of its value is in bragging rights for being able to say you’ve sampled the most authentic of Sapporo brews!
Sapporo Beer Museum / Sapporo Biergarten
If you make it to Sapporo,definitely hit up the Sapporo Beer Museum. It does anexcellent job of documenting the long history of this iconic brew, while also featuring a raucous beer hall where you can hone your nomi houdai skills while chowing down on the Hokkaido grilled lamb staple known as jingisukan.
A Thirst for Variety
Driven by the popularity of imports, craft beer has made inroads on the Japanese market.
Asashi Super Dry
The second-most-famous Japanese beer has to be Asahi. It lives up to its name with a clean, crisp, dry flavour that’s extremely refreshing on a hot summer day.
Asahi Super Dry Black
A less-common black lager variety with flavours of burnt malt and chocolate. However, its flavour is not as strong and deep as your average dark beer.
Kagua Beer Blanc (left)
I’m a sucker for white ales, particularly in the summer, so this Belgian-style was right up my alley-particularly with the notes of yuzu. It’s perfect for patio weather and showcases the dialed-back, lower-level carbonation of Kagua’s beers.
Kagua Beer Rouge (right)
This is Kagua’s more full-bodied offering: it packs a punch with flavours of roasted malt, hops and spicy Japanese sansho peppers backed up by a higher ABV. Taste it and you’ll immediately see why it’s been a multiple winner of the Hong Kong International Beer Award.
Hitachino Nest Saison du Japon
This saison adds Japanese flair by incorporating both local wheat andkoji—malted rice more commonly used to make sake— imparting sweetness and a natural acidity.
Hitachino Nest Pale Ale
If you’re a sucker for the classics, this bottle puts a slight Japanese spin on the old blighty standard: using plenty of malt and hops. Jolly good.
Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout
Coffee? Beer? Why choose when you can have both! This dark beer uses well-roasted espresso beans to impart an imperial-style stout with a rich coffee flavour.
This Belgian ale has a lighter ABV of 4.5% and a refreshing, light and fruity flavour. The textureis on the watery side, which is actually often the preference in Japan.
A German-style Schwarzbier, this bottle boasts the rich flavour you’d expect, reminiscent of caramel or toasted brown sugar, with notes of coffee and even soy sauce.
T.O.’s Japanese brewery
Blending Japanese Culture and Interesting Beer
Brewmaster Luc Lafontaine blends French-Canadian brewing sensibility with cultural influences drawn from living (and brewing!) in Japan for years.
I often tell friends that we’re extremely lucky in Toronto to have such a robust Japanese community on our doorstep. From authentic izakayas like Don Don, tokonbini like Japantry, we’ve pretty much got it all. However, even with that understanding of our phenomenal luck, I had trouble believing that we could be so spoiled as to host our own Japanese microbrewery!
In case you missed my review of this magical oasis a few months back, Godspeed Brewery is what happens when you combine gourmet-style traditional Japanese fare with an experimental approach to beer. Godspeed is the brainchild of owner and brewmaster Luc Lafontaine, who brewed with Montreal-based Dieu Du Ciel for a decade before taking a fateful trip to Japan. He returned with a mission: to blend the French-Canadian style of brewing with Japanese flavours like yuzu and green tea.
When it comes to beer, I’m always looking for something new and different, and Godspeed definitely delivers in this respect. If you’re stopping by for a drink, its draft beer selection is always being updated with Luc’s newest flavour experiments. And if you’re looking to pick something up for a backyard BBQ, most of the brewery’s offerings can be purchased in can form in the onsite store.
I’d recommend the former option, though, as stopping in for a drink means you can also sample head chef Ryusuke Yamanaka’s menu. Though Godspeed may be chiefly a brewery, the food holds up as well as you’d expect from the better Japanese restaurants in town.
242 Coxwell Ave., Toronto • 416-551-2282 • godspeedbrewery.com
Brewmaster Lafontaine’s experimental streak means that Godspeed always has a good selection of beers on tap for tasting.Though many experiment with Japanese flavours like yuzu, you will also find more traditional options, like the malty Dort munder. If you make friends with the brewmaster, he might even give you a sneak peek of what he’s currently working on.
From left to right:
Amber Kellerbier Momiji
A medium-bodied beer, with toasty malt notes and hints of bitter hops. It is definitely an easy-drinking brew, and probably one of my favourite go-tos at Godspeed.
Saison with Japanese Bitter Orange Daidai
Here’s the beer for the hop-heads out there. The Japanese bitter orange gives it that familiar hoppy edge that has become all the rage in craft beer circles, but with strong citrus notes.
Summer Ale Natsu
Just as refreshing, clear, smooth and easy-drinkingas you’d expect from abeer named after summer. A light body with floral notes, which fit right in with its theme of warm, sunny days.