Japanese Beers

Japanese Beer - A History: From Japan's first beer to micro-breweries and craft beer ビール

By David White

Kirin Beer is a popular Japanese beer

Where on this earth does a man (or woman) begin when talking about (rather than drinking) beer? Beer is a paradoxical formula, bringing people together yet often spurring arguments, even fist fights; it can make some feel fantastic and others depressed; and it plays a large role in communities the world over, featuring particularly prominently in the lives of Japan's expatriates, let alone the equally beer-thirsty Japanese people themselves.

Japan is the land of etiquette - and according to the website beertutor.com, even beer drinking in Japan has its own strict etiquette, tersely summarized in the 'Cardinal Rules of Beer Drinking':

  • 1. Never mess with another's beer.
  • 2. Not finishing your beer is alcohol abuse - no excuses.
  • 3. Don't leave your beer unattended. Would you leave your kid alone in a shopping mall?
Vintage Sapporo Beer Bottles.
Vintage Sapporo Beer Bottles, Sapporo Beer Museum, Sapporo, Hokkaido
Sapporo Beer Ads.
Vintage Sapporo Beer Posters, Sapporo Beer Museum, Sapporo, Hokkaido

History of Beer

Beer has a long history, and although the origins of beer are unclear it is known that the Egyptians brewed beer 4000 years ago. Beer was sometimes placed in the tombs of the dead to assist in the afterlife.

Beer was also important in ancient Hebrew, Chinese and Babylonian cultures. Various grains were used depending on the region where the beer was brewed. It wasn't until the Romans invaded that beer was introduced into northern Europe. Amongst other things, it has been used in medicines, as a form of money to pay workers, for taxing and for trading.

Queen Elizabeth I drank strong beer for breakfast; George Washington had his own personal brewery; Munich's Oktoberfest was founded in 1810; the modern era of brewing began in the U.S.A. in the 1800s, with mainly German immigrants setting up breweries; in 1933 prohibition ended for beer; in 1966, Budweiser became the first company to sell 10 million barrels in a year; by 1992 five brewing companies in the USA controlled 90% of the domestic market.

A history could take a book, so for now suffice it to say that beer has been around for a very long time. The sheer variety of beers worldwide and the passion they evoke testify to the importance of beer in our lives. More and more people are looking to drink lesser-known beers and not just the common varieties cooked up by the major companies. Budweiser remains the world's best-selling beer (suggesting that many lessons have yet to be learned!)

History of Beer in Japan

Beer in Japan has been around since Dutch traders introduced it during the Edo period. A Norwegian-American businessman established the first brewery in Japan, in Yokohama, in the 1870s.

His brewery was eventually sold to a Japanese company that became the giant brewer Kirin.

Meanwhile, in Hokkaido in 1876, Nagakawa Seibei, who had returned from Germany after studying how to make beer, established Hokkaido's first brewery, which the following year gave birth to the first Sapporo Lager.

Japanese Beer Brands

In 1886 a group of entrepreneurs bought the company and turned it into the Sapporo Beer company. Beer gradually became more popular in Japan and around this time competition from other breweries increased, with fierce competition for market share occurring at the latter end of the nineteenth century. Three of the four major companies then merged to form 'Dai Nippon Beer Company' in 1897, controlling 70% of the domestic beer market.

Beer became a more popular drink during Japan's democratization period in the 1910s and 1920s, through the Taisho and into the Showa period, and beer halls began popping up in the major cities.

The Dai Nippon Company split in two after the war in 1949, and Asahi Breweries and Nippon Breweries were formed. Nippon Breweries eventually was absorbed into Sapporo Breweries in 1964 following increased demand for Sapporo Beer.


Sapporo is now known for its signature Sapporo Beer, as well as Yebisu and its Black Label range. Asahi Breweries has an equally long history, being born out of the Osaka Beer Brewing Company in 1889 and, as the name suggests, based in the western part of Japan.

Incidentally, Asahi Beer was awarded the Grand Prix at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 only four years after the company was established. Asahi has also launched several brands during its long history, including a stout in 1935, various carbonated drinks and a number of firsts: Japan's first canned beer, launched back in 1958; the world's first outdoor brewing tanks in 1965; the launch of Japan's first beer gift coupons in 1969; Japan's first beer in an aluminum keg in 1977; and Japan's first dry beer: the now ubiquitous Asahi Super Dry, launched in 1987. In the 1990s Asahi also moved into the Chinese market and began a collaboration with the American firm, the Miller Brewing Company.

Suntory was also established in the Kansai region, initially in Osaka, but then later moved to the outskirts of Kyoto.


Suntory concentrated on making sweet wines and whisky at first, with Japan's first whisky ('White label') introduced in 1929. Sales took off and then were postponed due to the war, not recovering again until around 1950. Suntory Whisky then became the first whisky to be registered in the USA, and following this milestone the company decided to open a brewery. The company continued to expand its range of wines and whiskies, and in 1967 it successfully introduced Suntory beer into the Japanese market, leading the company to open a second brewery a few years later.


Okinawa cannot be left out in this story. The less well known 'fifth beer' of Japan, the Orion brand, was established in Okinawa in 1957. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with the establishment of a heavy U.S. military presence on the islands, and as more and more drinks from the USA were imported, it was decided that a brewery should be built, leading to the establishment of Orion Breweries.

Seasonal beers

The major breweries have adopted a unique sales plan in keeping with the rhythm of the seasons in Japan. They all promote, to some degree or another, "seasonal" beers, with corresponding changes in the designs of the beer cans, and sometimes higher alcohol content. This isn't to say that the beer itself is necessarily better, but it does lead to higher sales for the major breweries.


Adding to this has been the introduction by all the major breweries of happoshu, literally "sparkling liquor", that bears a passing resemblance to beer and due to the tax laws retails for considerably less. For true beer aficionados, this stuff tastes like muck, but the average man and woman in the street obviously feels differently as sales increase year after year, so much so that the Japanese government is thinking of a tax hike on happoshu.

The Liquor Tax law defines beer as having 66.7% malt content, and as happoshu usually has less than 25%, tax is usually less than half that imposed on regular beer. Japanese law forbids the use of the word 'beer' (ビール - in katakana) when marketing happoshu. Many imported beers also bear this label when their malt content is deemed too low---the Belgian beer 'Adam & Eve' is a good example of this.

If Japan's economy continues to waver and people tighten the purse strings, the popularity of happoshu may continue to rise. There is even a Japanese website dedicated to it (www.happoshu.com) that also aims to fight against the gradual incremental increase in tax proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

What is beer?

Basically 'beer' refers to any type of fermented drink made from grain. Ales and lagers are the two families of beer.

Ales are made with top-fermenting strains of yeast, have a higher amount of malt and hops, and therefore typically have more bitterness in flavor. They are fermented at higher temperatures and are ready to drink sooner than lagers.

Lagers are made with bottom-fermenting strains of yeast which are sometimes reused; the yeast in lager typically does not add much flavor, they are fermented at cooler temperatures for a number of weeks before ready to drink.

Beer in Japan

Sake: Water From Heaven: buy this book from Amazon.

Japan has centuries-old regional sake brewers who produce excellent jizake (i.e. 'local sake') in infinite varieties. When it comes to beer though, things are a little different. Four companies - Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory dominate the Japanese beer market. They all produce fairly standard lager-style beers with fairly similar tastes, i.e. nothing really out of the ordinary, that are available everywhere: bars and restaurants, convenience stores and liquor shops.

However, help is at hand: Aichi and surrounding prefectures are home to a small but growing number of micro-breweries that produce an interesting array of beers, and within Nagoya City itself a number of places offer a good selection of Japanese micro-beers and a selection of world beers. The Japanese term for microbrew is ji-biru, meaning 'regional beer', a term probably coined from jizake ('regional sake') used to reflect a certain regional uniqueness of flavor.

Microbreweries & Craft beer in Japan

In Japan as a whole there are roughly 300 micro-breweries, and when initially starting out, many of them turned to German or American micro-brewers for brewing advice, meaning that a steady stream of decent micro-brews are now being produced. Beer sales now outnumber sake sales considerably, causing alarm amongst the sake brewers of Japan yet at the same time an increase in sake exports as sake becomes more widely known in Europe and the USA. 

The Japan Brewers Association was established a few years ago with the specific aim of pushing for further recognition of the microbrew industry in Japan, and the lowering of taxes for small brewers. However, it is still often difficult to locate good micro-brews in Japanese cities.

The good news is that these places are on the increase, and there appears to be a general trend toward stocking and selling not only the standard big company fare but also lesser known beers. Belgian beer in particular appears to be cropping up in many places, usually sold as an extra on a drinks menu. This is a good sign as more and more people sample different beers and adapt their taste buds to more 'exotic' brews.

Zero Alcohol Beer & Low Calorie Beer

A recent trend has seen the big four Japanese breweries all produce "zero" alcohol beers and a range of low calorie brews.

A version of this article first appeared in Avenues: Voices of Central Japan magazine

Sapporo Beer Garden.
Sapporo Beer Garden, Sapporo, Hokkaido
Sapporo Beer Museum.

Sapporo Beer Museum, Sapporo, Hokkaido

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