I decided it was time to write up my official guide to beer in Japan as best as I know it. I’m still exploring the beer of Japan and craft beers are becoming more and more popular, so be on the lookout here for more information in the future.
Most Japanese mass-market beers are lagers, many in the vein of the pilsner. The four big companies that vie for the lead in beer sales are Sapporo, Kirin, Suntory, and Asahi. Sapporo makes two of the big sellers, Yebisu (pronounced Ebisu) and Sapporo. There are some other smaller contenders as well like Okinawa’s Orion. Most Japanese folks I know tend to prefer either Yebisu or Kirin’s Ichiban shibori, though the opinions are of course across the board.
The big caution when buying beer in Japan is to avoid Happoshu, which is a different beverage brewed according to different standards which allow it to sell for much lower prices. I personally detest Happoshu’s. If you want to make sure the beer you’re buying is a real beer and not Happoshu look for 生ビール on the can or bottle. Alternatively, it might say something like ペールエール if it’s a pale ale, ポーター if its a porter, and so on. Being able to read katakana will assist you. If it’s Happoshu it will instead usually say 発泡酒. These kanji are typically though not always located at the bottom center of the front.
The craft beers that can be hard to find but are worth your time:
- Yona-yona Ale: Has actually grown so popular it’s started showing up in conbini’s here and there.
- Minoh‘s W-IPA, Pale Ale, Hefweizen, and just about anything else
- Karuizawa Kougen Beer: Anything is good, but especially lookout for National Trust, a Japanese Porter! (The first I’ve ever found)
- Kamakura’s Local Beer, I only had a sip, but it was a really enjoyable sip, my Norwegian friend that bought it agreed. See if you can find this when you go to Kamakura to see the massive Buddha statue.
- Miyajima Beer A new (as of 2010) pale-ale from Miyajima (The island with the big shrine that looks like its floating in the water)
- Hokkaido Brewing Company’s Otaru Bakusyu Pilsner. Nice, light, fruity pilsner. Very unoffensive and easy to drink.
- Yokohama Lager: Don’t really know how to describe it, unique, not sweet, not terribly bitter, kind of a funky taste. I liked it alright.
Where to find these?
Availability is sketchy. The internet is always a good place to check, I’ve provided the best links I know of, if you have a good source please let me know and I’ll amend the guide. For local beers, your best bet is probably the omiyage stores that sell pre-packaged snacks and local specialties. Even if they don’t sell them, they’re at least somewhat likely to have heard of them, meaning a decent chance they can direct you to a place that does sell them.
“Where can I buy _____” In Japanese is roughly estimated as, “_____ wa doko de kaemasuka?”
Please draw a map (likely needed if you don’t speak Japanese) is, “Chizu wo kaite itadakemasenka?”
If they just shake their head at you, they probably don’t know. Best to move on.