Eating & Drinking
Beer, nectar of the gods

Beer, nectar of the gods

Added In: Eating & Drinking › Drinking › Other

By Larry Pudwell

Many times my Japanese drinking companions have boastfully asked me, “Nihon no biiru oishii?” (“Isn’t Japanese beer delicious?”), expecting me to praise the lager style beer of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. I readily agree Japanese mass-produced beer is flavorful, but beer is easy to stereotype. Most find it surprising that some of the freshest, most delicious beer in the world is made at smaller craft and microbreweries, both here in Japan and overseas.

Interestingly, an American, William Copeland, established Japan’s first brewery in 1870 in Yokohama; it later became Kirin Breweries. Sapporo Brewery started in 1876 and produced Bavarian-style lager beer thanks to German supervision. Nowadays, however, all four of the major Japanese brewers produce beer, happoshu, and so-called third-category beers that are different in name only. These three beer and beer-like drinks account for two-thirds of the 9 billion liters of alcohol drunk in Japan annually. That works out to more than 50 liters for every adult and ranks Japan as the 31st largest beer consumer per capita in the world.

What is beer?

No other alcoholic beverage is as misunderstood as beer.

Historically the word beer has been used to define any fermented, non-distilled drink made of starchy grain. This leaves the definition of beer wide open to interpretation; Japanese sake is commonly called rice wine, but it is in fact a beer because it’s made of a starchy grain (rice). Generally speaking, though, beer is a bitter/sweet drink divided into lager or ale depending primarily on the fermentation yeast used.

Lager is generally a light bodied, light flavored beer and was first brewed in Germany in the 16th century. German brewers have proudly shared their knowledge of brewing around the world, including Japan, so their lager style beer is the most widely emulated style.

I find it very difficult to taste the slight differences between lagers made by the major brewers. I’m convinced that beer drinkers’ often fanatical devotion to their preferred lager beer is dependent more on advertising or image than by taste. I doubt that most could pick their favorites in a blind taste-test. I find comparing brands of lager to be similar to comparing brands of white bread. Give me a hoppy, full-bodied ale any day!

Ale is fuller bodied, fuller flavored, and more aromatic than lager. There is a greater variety of ales; pale ale, bitter, stout, porter, wheat, and Lambic to name just a very few. Ales are made with locally grown ingredients so they are more regionalized than lagers.

More than anything else, the tax law in Japan defines what is beer. The tax, and therefore final price, increases as the malt content increases. Beer is defined in Japan as having at least 67% malt. Happoshu (発泡酒) is a beverage that contains less than 67% malted barley content, and so-called third category beer has no malted barley. These two beer-like drinks cannot legally be called beer, but they often have confusing beer-like names.

What’s in beer?

Beer is closely related to bread because of its ingredients and has historically been called ‘liquid bread’. The tiny air pockets in bread are due to carbon dioxide released by yeast acting on the grain starch in the dough. In bread making this is called letting the dough rise, and in brewing it’s called fermentation.

Brewing is a balancing act of sweetness, flavor, bitterness, aroma, color, body, alcohol, and cost. In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria established the Reinheitsgebot, (German beer purity law), stipulating that only four basic ingredients can be used in brewing; malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. However, other ingredients are often added, including everything imaginable, from honey to corn to maize to chili peppers.

A 350 ml can of beer has about 150 calories, 2/3rd of which are from the alcohol. It has NO fat or cholesterol, but it does have trace amounts of vitamin B complex, protein, and minerals. So how can we explain “beer belly”? Pizza! Potato chips! Tebasaki! Junk food! The spare tire that comes with middle age!

Barley is the sweet, starchy ingredient of beer. Malting involves germinating the barley to change its starches into sugars, roasting the germinated barley, and finally rinsing off the crystallized barley sugars with water: this water is called the malt and is the base for beer. Duration and temperature of roasting determines most of beer’s color and flavor. A higher temperature and longer roasting time will give beer a more ‘burnt’ flavor and darker color. The spent barley is sold as livestock feed. Malting is a very controlled and complex process so most small brewers buy their malt from malting companies.

Other grains are often used in addition to barley, some for flavor and some for cheap fermentable sugars. Wheat is often used for weizen beer to give a fruitier taste. Large commercial brewers often add rice and cornstarch because it is much cheaper. Beer made completely of malted barley has more flavor and body than beer made with rice and cornstarch added. Non-malted barley, rice, corn, soy peptides, pea protein, and a breadbasket of other things are used by the four major Japanese brewers to make happoshu and third category.

There are more than 60 varieties of hops, and only female hop cones are used. It is very common for brewers to use two or three different varieties to achieve the bitterness, flavor, and aroma they want, though major brewers will use only one or two varieties and in much lower quantities to keep costs down.

Known to have been added to beer since the 11th century, beer will go bad (skunky in brew-speak) rather quickly if the alpha acids in hops are exposed to blue or green light, so dark brown bottles are used to prevent exposure to these kinds of light.

Much is made in advertising about water in beer, but water that tastes good enough to drink is almost certainly good enough for brewing. Water Ph level (water hardness) is important for certain kinds of beer, but the quality, quantity, and combination of the malt, hops, and additives are more important for beer flavor than water.

Yeast creates a biological culture that ferments some of the malt sugars and added starches to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The non-fermented malt sugars give beer its body and flavor. Bread yeast ferments, oops, I mean raises the starches in the dough at higher temperatures than ale yeast. Ales ferment faster and leave a fuller-bodied, fruity flavored beer. Lager yeast ferments slower to leave a crisper, cleaner taste. “Dry” beer is fermented using specially developed lager yeast to leave the beer especially clean but lacking in body.

Heat that exceeds the limit of the yeast kills the yeast culture and stops fermentation. Mass-producers pasteurize their beer at high temperatures to stop fermentation. Non-pasteurized beer, also known as draft or nama beer, either micro-filters the beer to remove the yeast or allows it to remain in the beer.

Where can I get real beer?

Do you want more variety than the white-bread lager mass-produced by the big four Japanese or other major breweries? Beer bars are increasing here, and delicious foreign beers are increasingly being sold in local alcohol shops and beer bars, but the time needed for shipping may cause them to become stale. Beer is unlike wine or distilled alcoholic drinks; it is a food product like bread, best when consumed fresh.

There are other alternatives. First, you can make your own beer. It’s about as difficult as making bread, and the varieties are endless. It is now legal in Japan, but it is still not nearly as common here as it is in other countries. Japanese laws stipulate that you can not sell your homebrew (it makes a unique gift, though), it must have less than 1% alcohol content (I won’t tell if you don’t), and you can only make a limited amount each year (Why are those police at my door?).

There are many books and websites on home brewing. Supplies are available from Tokyu Hands here in Nagoya, or you can find Japanese homebrew suppliers on the internet. Begin with a kit for about 10,000 yen, some bottles, and a large stainless steel boiling pot.

Homebrewing takes time, patience, and space. If you don’t have enough of these, why not go to a brewpub in the area or buy some on the net? The law for craft brewers and brew pubs changed in Japan in 1994, to allow smaller breweries that produce as little as 60,000 liters of beer. There are now over a hundred jibiiru (地ビール)  craft brewers operating throughout Japan, and they make ales and lagers on a par with any in the world. Check one out near you and taste the difference of good beer.

Advanced Brewing – a homebrew supply company (Japanese only) 

Wikipedia – very informative

Japan Craft Brewers Association – check out their tri-annual festivals (English)

Japan Brewers Association –for finding Japanese craft brewers – (Japanese)

The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing – classic book about home brewing