Witbier, dopplebock, red ale – sounds like a biergarten menu, right? It might, but here it describes a few of the most popular beer styles made by Japanese brewers. Beer is huge in Japan, almost on par with baseball, and the Japanese consume 43½ liters of it annually per capita; for perspective, the U.S. consumes 74.1 liters annually per capita.
The big four of Japanese alcohol, Sapporo, Asahi, Kirin and Suntory, dominate the taps and beer aisles, kind of like Bud, Miller and Coors in the U.S. However, it’s the crafts and microbrews, such as Minoh Brewery and Echigo Brew Pub, that best reflect the taste of the connoisseur. Build your Japanese beer know-how and host a tasting party tonight!
5. Red Rose Amber Ale
Style: Red ale
Pair with: seafood, Port-Salut cheese, cheesecake, fried chicken, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet)
Buy: Umami Mart
Red Rose Amber’s medium body and substantial mouthfeel imparts hints of sticky date pudding, piney hoppiness, tropical fruit and light molasses over a caramel base. Any bitterness Red Rose has is countered by the sweet impression of its flavor profile.
Not surprisingly due to its sweetness, Red Rose pairs well with sour and sweet dishes; the former counters the sweetness while the latter complements it. Fatty foods, such as fried pork and fried chicken, also make for masterful pairings.
4. Sapporo Yebisu
Pair with: burgers, pizza, roasted chicken, sashimi, grilled foods
The big four brewers dominate the domestic beer market in Japan, so you normally wouldn’t find any of their offerings on this list. However, Sapporo crafts Yebisu, an all-malt premium pale lager made according to the Reinheitsgebot standard, so well, it deserves a ranking.
Yebisu teems with kokumi, a rich, satiating taste sensation in the vein of umami but with yeast instead of glutamate. Yebisu pours a tight one-and-a-half-finger head that sits on a clear, golden body with no particulates. It tastes like the archetypical lager — dry, clean but not watery with minimal bitterness — with unctuousness.
3. Yona Yona Ale
Style: American pale ale
Pair with: tonkotsu (pork) ramen, dashi curry, caramel apple tart, Chinese red cooking
Buy: Umami Mart
Don’t think canned beer has less quality that bottled. With eight consecutive gold medals at the annual International Beer Competition, it’s evident not only craft enthusiasts yen for Yona Yona. Yona was one of the first breweries (1996) to produce craft beer after laws restricting small-scale production were relaxed.
Upon pouring, you’re greeted with an aroma of buttery toffee, coconut, white grapes and grapefruit, a creamy, blushed, one-finger head and an opaque peach body that turns to amber as the carbonation rises. Flavor profile includes notes of sultanas and demerara sugar with echoes of pineapple.
2. Echigo Koshihikari
Style: Japanese rice lager
Pair with: steak, sushi, rice dishes, curry and other spicy foods
Buy: Umami Mart, BevMo
Echigo Koshihikari, the first Japanese craft beer (1995), uses rice as its grain, making for a crisp, light lager that practically screams ‘refreshing.’ Echigo’s brewmaster, Seiichiro Uehara of Uehara Shuzō sake fame, locally sources rice from the Niigata Prefecture for his beer, but not sake rice. Instead, he uses Koshihikari, a table variety that imbues the brew with its light, versatile character.
Echigo Koshihikari has a clean mouthfeel, modest body and perky effervescence that pours a healthy one-finger-thick head. Aromas of wild yeast, green apples and pale malt engage palate and a tight flavor profile of cooked rye, malt and earthen hops. Overall an easygoing lager that goes down just as easily in winter and fall as it does spring and summer.
1. Hitachino Nest White Ale
Pair with: soft-shell crab, hummus, salty and cured foods
Buy: Craft Shack, Umami Mart
Taste, ABV and low bitterness make Hitachino Nest Ale a “daily drinker.” Hitachino White, a made in the Belgian style by Kiuchi Brewery, has just enough alcohol to improve your mood but not enough to hinder drinkability — same with bitterness.
The brewmasters at Kiuchi brew Hitachino White with orange zest, coriander and nutmeg, which, when combined with the pleasant bitterness courtesy of Perle and Styrian Golding hops, creates a flavor profile redolent of baked apples, citrus and toasted wheat. Do yourself a favor and order more than one or two bottles of this ale; its floral, spicy-sweet character will likely have you wishing you did.