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Beer Reviews

We Taste & Rank The 5 Biggest Japanese Beers – Asahi vs Sapporo vs Kirin vs Suntory vs Yebisu

 

The Quick and Dirty:

Japan's commercial beers are impressive. Almost every brand genuinely stands out in its niche. So it depends on whether you're looking for something with karakuchi (dry and zesty), balanced flavoured, or rich and full of depth.


Putting aside craft beers for a second, Japan’s large commercial brewers produce some of the best quality commercial beers in Asia. The domestic market is dominated by the Big Four – Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo, with a rough market share of 37%, 34%, 16% and 11% respectively.

All these companies have been in business for over a century, and are very familiar with traditional European brewing methods. But given the mainstream Japanese drinkers’ taste preferences, they tend to accommodate them by producing rice lager beers that have a light sweetness and very restrained hoppiness. There’s also a concept of a dry, zinginess known as ‘karakuchi’. More on that later.

For this review, I’ll be comparing the flagship brews from the top 5 beer brands from Japan in a side-by-side tasting. I’ll be starting with the iconic Asahi Super Dry, since this is the lightest beer of this lineup. Then I’ll progress through more balanced brews before ending with Kirin and Yebisu – I can’t remember which is the heavier brew.

Let’s begin.

Asahi Super Dry (pre-2023), 5% ABV – Review

 

The Super Dry is Asahi’s proudest product, and for good reason. When it came to market in 1987, it represented a break from brewing tradition, and a new genre of beer that would resonate with the younger post-war generation (this was back when people born in the 1950s were considered young).

After extensive market research and false leads, Asahi discovered that consumers had a craving for a high-alcohol, dry-finishing beer, in the same way that dry sake that often played a harmonious duet with sushi and sashimi. They created a new beer that combined flavour concepts of "kire" (crisp, briskness) and "koku" (body, richness), and created a distinctive beer that the Japanese market went ape over.

This was the Asahi Super Dry, a bet that literally saved the company from looming bankruptcy. Let’s give it a try.

Tasting notes

Colour: Yellow gold, light, fluffy layer of foam

Nose: Bright and noticeably dry. There's a clear presence of citrus paired with a honeyed sweetness. Behind that, an aroma of barley tea, a hint of malt, a touch of hops, and a gentle whiff of crisp yeasty sakes.

Palate: It starts with a mildly creamy texture, and you immediately get that hit of bright corn sweetness combined with a dash of honey and the subtle sweetness of pomelo. Throughout, there's this persistent zingy undertone of citrus peels and lemon juice. Not to forget, that distinct yeastiness that reminds me of dry sake.

Finish: Clean, medium length pretty straightforward. All you're left with is that simple barley note accompanied by a touch of dryness.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Honestly, this beer is really easy to go down and there's a very satisfying refreshment to it. I get what they mean when they mention "Karakuchi" or that lightly prickly sensation that plays with your tongue. And just Asahi’s new tagline suggests, it does give you that "Quick peak and clean finish." If you're digging into some light Asian dishes like Japanese sashimi or even Vietnamese pho, this would be a spot-on companion.

It's easy to see why this is Japan’s number 1 beer. It has a lightness of being that is unmatched, which allows you to drink it at a cooler temperature and still taste the full range of what it offers (because it’s not complex to begin with) I should also mention that its distinctive kick of karakuchi almost becomes a friendly greeting each time you drink it, as if to remind your palate “Hey, don’t forget you’re drinking Asahi Super Dry!”

I personally prefer something a little more thicc, but so let’s see what else Japan has to offer.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sapporo Black Label (黒ラベル), 5% ABV – Review

 

Now we have the Sapporo Black Label or in Japanese, the Kuro Label (黒ラベル), which comes in a cream white packaging, with a black circle and the iconic star logo. This is sometimes referred to as the Sapporo Draft Beer.

This is Sapporo’s core flagship product in Japan. But if you’re based outside Japan (which I assume you are, since this is an English review), you’d also come across the Sapporo Premium Beer which comes in a silver packaging. While both are rice lagers with similar recipes, the Black Label is primarily brewed in Japan and targeted at the domestic Japanese audience. It’s supposed to be a balanced beer with a slightly lighter body than the Premium.

On the other hand, the silver packaging Sapporo Premium Beer is geared towards export markets, and is likely to be brewed outside Japan, in locations like North America to meet local demand.

Let’s give this a taste.

Tasting notes

Colour: Yellow gold.

Nose: Quite subdued, with just a hint of sweetness and hoppiness. It's pretty straightforward.

Palate: There's a creaminess in its texture. I get faint barley tones, accompanied by that clear, crisp freshness of sparkling spring water. It's medium-bodied, but honestly, doesn't pack a lot in terms of complexity.

Finish: It’s clean and slightly longer. I really enjoy the barley tea notes that stand out and hang around for a little while. It's similar to a malt beer, complemented by a subtle fizz. As it dissipates, what remains is a gentle grassy hoppiness.

 

  

My Thoughts:

It's enjoyable, yes, but it isn’t one to steal the spotlight. Despite being closer to medium-bodied, it’s quite straightforward in its flavours. This is the kind of beer you'd sip on a chill movie night. It's not the showstopper of the evening, nor does it try to be. It's laid-back, chill, like Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused.

Rating: 6.5/10

Suntory Premium Malts, Premium Pilsner (Gold Label), 5.5% ABV – Review

 

Moving on to the more traditional European-style categories of Japanese beers, we have the gold label of Suntory’s Premium Malts. First officially launched in 2003, this brand became one of Japan’s best-selling premium category beer. And with “premium” on the label, this is of course brewed with 100% malt, of a variety known as “Diamond malt” which is sourced from the Czech Republic. This is said to impart a richer “umami” taste to the brew. The hops used are also sourced from Europe, while the water used is sourced from natural spring waters in Japan.

Let’s give this a taste.

Tasting notes

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Subtle floral sweetness wafts up, bringing to mind faint lavender and honeysuckles.

Palate: There's an immediate zesty kick along with lots of foam greeting the tongue – quite a sharp carbonation that could be a bit more subdued. The dominant flavour is citrus zest, paired with honey undertones and a touch of grapefruit sweetness. It feels medium-bodied.

Finish: Clean and rather quick. There are whispers of barley as it settles, coupled with a hint of bitter pomelo rind. There's also a tiny earthy, almost mushroom-like quality, which might be that “umami” they mentioned from the Diamond malt.

 

  

My Thoughts:

Honestly, it’s a bit of a letdown for me. The beer’s character feels muted. The fizziness verges on being annoying, and I feel it kind of overshadows the other flavours I was hoping to delve into. Sure, it has some classic pilsner qualities like its floral scent and the bitter hop notes, but given the whole "premium" vibe, I was anticipating a much richer malt experience.

All in all, it doesn’t have that hearty malt depth I enjoy, nor does it really hit the mark as a light and refreshing brew. It's in this middle ground that doesn't quite do it for me. It’s like background noise; it's there, but it doesn’t speak for itself.

Rating: 5.5/10

Kirin Ichiban Shibori, First Press, 100% Malt, 5% ABV – Review

 

Kirin is kinda like a heritage brand, and the Chinese mythical creature in its brand logo alludes to its identity as a more traditional company. Its Yokohama brewery is the oldest operational brewery in Japan and it focuses on rich, 100% malt traditional brews made in the European tradition.

Throughout the 60s and up till the mid-80s, Kirin Lager really dominated the beer scene, having over 60% of the Japanese beer market share –this was several times larger than its competitors that languished in the 10% to 20% range. It was later dethroned when the Asahi Super Dry came along in 1987 and swept up the mainstream beer drinkers in Japan, many of whom preferred a dyer, more refreshing beer.

 

 

In response, Kirin began marketing itself more earnestly in the 1990s, spending money to make Harrison Ford appear in a series of whacky ads where he is found repeating “Kirin Lager kudasai” (please give me Kirin Lager) in different contexts. More importantly, Kirin also stepped into premiumisation, developing a new 100% malt beer called the Kirin Ichiban Shibori, which means “First Press”.

“First Press” refers to Kirin’s brewing process which only uses the very first batch of wort (the sweet syrupy malt extract made during the brewing of beer, prior to alcohol fermentation). This process is said to remove the bitter-tasting tannins from beers, and help create a purer taste.

Let’s give this a go.

Tasting notes

Colour: Gold with dense foam on top.

Nose: Very mellow and gently sweet. The aroma carries mild hints of honey with a soft touch of lemon rind, followed by a background of subtle hoppiness.

Palate: I immediately noticed its remarkably creamy and velvety texture, standing out distinctly from Kirin's standard brews. It brings forward a rich, pronounced profile of toasted granola and barley, which feels quite hearty. Complementing these are sweet notes of honey, which then transitions into a sharp brightness of grapefruit. It's a heavier palate, but it manages to maintain good balance.

Finish: Long and lingering, characterized by a drawn-out hoppiness that doesn't rush to leave the palate. As this hop note starts to mellow, there's a residual sweetness from the honey and the malt that gently trails off.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Out of all the beers I've so far, this one feels like it strikes the right chord in terms of balance. It's rich without being overpowering and brings a consistency in its flavour profile from the start to its prolonged finish. This is like an upgraded, richer take on the classic Kirin Lager. This is also the beer that I would happily introduce to a long-time beer-drinker who has had their fair share of commercial brews and is seeking something a bit more satisfying.

Rating: 8/10

Premium Yebisu, Sapporo (Gold Label), 100% Malt, 5% ABV – Review

 

Like Kirin, Yebisu Beer got its name from mythology, specifically Ebisu, the god of good luck, fishermen and working men. Ebisu is often depicted to be carrying a fishing rod and a large red sea bream, a fish that is considered a symbol of good fortune.

 

 

Built in 1889, in Tokyo, Yebisu Brewery that once existed is said to be a very successful brewery. The Yebisu Beer that it produced was praised for its high quality. The brand was so popular that counterfeit Yebisu Beers even appeared on the market. In 1899, the company opened the Yebisu Beer Hall in Ginza district of Tokyo, and this became Japan’s first beer hall.

 

 

How did Sapporo Brewery come to own Yebisu? We’d have to look back in 1906, when Yebisu, Sapporo and Asahi decided to band together to form Dai-Nippon Beer Company, which held a near-total monopoly on Japan’s beer market. Eventually, Dai-Nippon was split into two entities by the government due to anti-competition concerns. One of them was Asahi, while the other company (later renamed Sapporo) inherited both the Sapporo and Yebisu brands.

Yebisu Beer was re-launched by Sapporo in 1971 as a premium beer, and bearing a similar logo it once had, which featured Ebisu, the fishermen’s god. This beer is brewed with ingredients from Japanese farms that collaborate with Sapporo, and uses 100% malt. The beer is also made to have less effervescence, a rich maltiness and an even-handed use of hops for balance.

Apart from this gold label Yebisu Premium, there is also the Yebisu Premium White, a limited edition beer in a white can launched in 2019 to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Yebisu brand. But this would be the subject of another review.

Tasting notes

Colour: Slightly reddish gold.

Nose: A fresh, straightforward scent of hops meets the nose, it’s a lager-like bitterness that reminds me of Tiger beer. The maltiness weighs in heavier than expected, along with notes of honey. Unlike the white label, there's an absence of the typical citrus tang.

Palate: The texture is smooth, almost velvety and thick. Opens with mainly cereal and malt-forward notes at first, before transitioning into a balanced play between a light hoppiness (akin to the bitter segment of a citrus rind) and the sweetness of honey. As it sits, a more defined hoppy bitterness emerges, with barely any fruity undertones.

Finish: This beer leaves a prolonged, crisp sensation along with a clean barley maltiness. There is also a slowly growing gentle hoppiness.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Yebisu impresses with its richness, yet maintains a commendable balance. It does not have any sharp acidity either. This is the kind of drink I'd reach for on a chilly evening, given its dominant malt profile. It’s a full-bodied brew that would make a very satisfying drink on its own. Though I would say that this has a higher level of bitterness, which might put off some folks. 

Rating: 7/10

Overall thoughts

In wrapping up this beer-tasting journey, it's clear that Japan's beer scene isn't a one-size-fits-all. Every brand stands out in its niche, catering to a specific preference. Asahi Super Dry takes the cake when you’re looking for something zestily refreshing. On the other hand, Sapporo's strength lies in its harmonious balance, striking the right chord between its ingredients.

For those who have a soft spot for a beer with depth and substantial flavour, both Kirin Ichiban Shibori and Yebisu won't disappoint. Between the two, my heart leans more towards Kirin Ichiban Shibori. There's just something about its rich taste profile coupled with a slightly citric dryness that hits the mark for me.

To each their own, right? But it's safe to say, no matter your preference, Japan's beer game is strong and offers a brew for every mood. Cheers to that!

@CharsiuCharlie