12 March 2024

Eating Japanese Food? Pair It with Japanese Beer

When enjoying Japanese cuisine, what kind of alcoholic beverages do you prefer to drink?

A recent survey found that foreign visitors to Japan prefer Japanese draft beer over sake in restaurants, highlighting its growing popularity. This preference is shared by foreign staff at MUSUBI KILN, who appreciate Japanese beer for its refreshing, light, slightly acidic taste with a mild bitterness and grainy aroma. They particularly enjoy its role in social settings, with one noting the refreshing quality of a first sip after a long day.

Japanese beer, initially popular in cafes and restaurants before World War II, became widely favored during the post-war economic boom, aided by the prevalence of electric refrigerators in homes. Today, it remains a staple beverage at Japanese dining tables.

In this article, we will explore the reasons why Japanese beer and Japanese cuisine pair so well together, introduce some of the most recommended brands for pairing, and share tips for enjoying them to the fullest.


  • Japanese Beer's Brewing Process
  • Why Japanese Beer is Primarily Pilsner
  • The Role of Raw Japanese Ingredients
  • Beauty of Chinese-Style Paintings
  • Three Japanese Brands for Beer Pairings
  • Tips to Fully Enjoy Japanese Beer
  • Japanese Beer is Perfect with Japanese Food

Japanese Beer's Brewing Process

The greatest reason for the excellent compatibility between Japanese beer and Japanese cuisine lies in its distinctive taste. Several factors determine the taste of beer, but one of the most influential is the fermentation process during production. Brewing beer generally involves four steps: mashing, fermentation, storage (maturation), and filtration.

The initial mashing process involves crushing ingredients like barley malt, rice, or corn into powder, soaking them in hot water to convert the starch into sugar through enzymatic action, and then filtering to produce "wort." This wort is then boiled, hops are added for a unique bitterness and refreshing aroma, and finally, yeast is added for fermentation.

There are two main types of fermentation: top fermentation and bottom fermentation. The majority of Japanese beers are made using bottom fermentation.

Bottom fermentation is named because the yeast settles at the bottom of the tank after fermentation. Compared to top fermentation, it occurs at a lower temperature of 5-10°C (41-50°F) and over a longer period of 7-10 days. This process produces beer with a clean taste, higher alcohol content, and stronger carbonation, resulting in a refreshing taste.

The type of beer made through bottom fermentation is called "lager," while the type made through top fermentation is called "ale."

Currently, in Japan, the "lager" type, particularly the "pilsner" style, accounts for 90% of the beer market. This "pilsner" style of beer is characterized by its versatility with various dishes, making it an ideal beer to accompany meals, especially enhancing the delicate flavors of Japanese cuisine.

Why Japanese Beer is Primarily Pilsner

The first "pilsner" was born in 1842 in Pilsen, a city in the Bohemia region of what is now the Czech Republic. The "lager" type of beer, which includes "pilsner," is resistant to contamination and less likely to spoil, making it suitable for mass production in factories. Consequently, this brewing method spread rapidly worldwide and arrived in Japan with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, becoming a forerunner of domestic beer production.

By the early 20th century, two major companies dominated the Japanese beer market. Because these companies adopted the "pilsner" style, it became synonymous with beer in Japan and remains the mainstream to this day.

In contrast, in countries outside Japan, particularly in Europe, "lagers" and "ales" have historically coexisted for a long time. However, it is said that currently, "pilsner" style "lagers" account for 70% of the beer consumed worldwide.

Lagers, known for their refreshing and smooth taste, contrast with ales, which are characterized by their fruity aroma, rich taste, and distinctive flavors.

Well-known examples of the "lager" type include Budweiser, Miller, Corona, Carlsberg, and Heineken, while examples of the "ale" type include Hoegaarden White, Chimay Blue, Draft Guinness, and Bass Pale Ale.

The Role of Raw Japanese Ingredients

The unique flavor of Japanese beer is not solely the result of fermentation.

In addition to the main ingredients of malt, hops, water, and yeast, Japanese beer often utilizes secondary ingredients, commonly referred to as adjuncts. By incorporating rice, a staple food in Japan, as a well-balanced adjunct, the beer acquires a clear and light flavor, making it an ideal companion for meals.

In contrast, beers like those from Germany, brewed with 100% malt and no adjuncts, result in a beer with a rich malt flavor, more suited to be enjoyed on its own rather than with a meal.

Furthermore, water is an essential component in brewing beer, and Japan has an abundance of "soft water," which is low in calcium and magnesium. This soft water is particularly well-suited for brewing the "pilsner" type of beer.

Additionally, in the Japanese beer market, major manufacturers have been fiercely competing for market share for many years, tirelessly seeking products that complement Japanese cuisine. This pursuit has contributed to the current situation in Japan, where there is an abundance of domestic beers that pair exceptionally well with Japanese food.

Three Japanese Brands for Beer Pairings

From here, let's introduce three beer brands, specifically "pilsner" style products from major Japanese brewers, which are relatively easy to obtain and use rice as an adjunct ingredient. These beers have a crisp and clean taste, making them perfect for pairing with Japanese cuisine.

The first one is Kirin's lager, a product from a long-established brewery born in the Meiji era ( 1868 CE - 1912 CE ). Characterized by a distinctive hop bitterness and a well-balanced harmony of sweetness and acidity, Kirin is also known for its Ichiban Shibori, a pilsner beer made with 100% malt without using rice, offering a clean taste by using the first-pressed wort with less impurity, balancing richness and crispness.

The second is Asahi's "Super Dry," introduced in 1987 as Japan's first dry beer. It is a beer thoroughly pursued for its clear taste and refreshing finish, with a balance of acidity and bitterness, offering an easy-to-drink aroma without becoming tiresome. It's especially perfect for the humid Japanese summers.

The third is Sapporo's "Black Label," which started brewing in Hokkaido's Sapporo in 1876. With the pursuit of the quality of raw materials, working jointly with farmers to cultivate barley and hops, it offers a refreshing, satisfying drink with a well-balanced bitterness, crispness, and richness.

In addition to these major brands, Japan has seen the rise of unique craft beers by small-scale brewers, known as "craft beer," attracting attention nationwide. Among these craft beers, some use rice, a major ingredient alongside malt, also referred to as "rice beer." Using a larger amount of rice results in a soft, rich sweetness and a fruity flavor, especially complementing subtle Japanese dishes like sushi and white-fleshed fish.

Like the concept of pairing wine with local cuisine from the same region as its grape origin, it might be interesting to try beers made with rice and water from a specific area of Japan alongside traditional Japanese dishes from the same region.

Tips to Fully Enjoy Japanese Beer

Finally, let's introduce some tips to enjoy Japanese beer more deliciously.

One of Japan's renowned beer craftsmen, Yamada Kazumi, states in his book (Yamada, Kazumi. Biiru Shokunin, Oishii Biiru wo Kataru, Kobunsha-shinsho, 2001.) that "the taste of beer can vary depending on how it is poured." According to Yamada, pouring the beer in several stages, allowing the foam to form properly, makes it exceptionally delicious. He outlines the procedure as follows:

①Choose a clean glass that isn't too wide at the mouth.
②Chill both the glass and the beer to about 8°C.
③Pour gently into a vertically held glass at first, then more vigorously to create foam.
④Stop pouring when the foam nearly overflows, wait for it to settle and recede slightly.
⑤Gently top up the beer, lifting the existing foam so that it rises about 1 cm (0.4 in) above the glass.
⑥Touch the bottle to the foam and gently pour more, raising the foam to about 1.5 cm (0.6 in) from the rim of the glass.

Yamada also emphasizes the importance of beer foam, stating, "The foam is crucial for beer. A properly formed, creamy head softens the initial taste and improves the drinking sensation. It also acts as a lid, preventing the carbon dioxide from escaping too quickly, thus prolonging the beer's deliciousness."

Given the ease of pouring a delicious beer, MUSUBI KILN recommends a beer glass made from Bizen ware, produced in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. The fine irregularities on the surface of Bizen ware produce a smooth, delicate foam for beer, and its dense structure keeps the drink cold for longer, enhancing the beer-drinking experience.

Japanese Beer is Perfect with Japanese Food

The clear, golden hue of Japanese beer is a treat for both the taste buds and the eyes. Its subtle flavor pairs well with the delicate tastes of Japanese cuisine, as well as the richer flavors of fatty meats, fish, and fried dishes, offering a refreshing balance. Additionally, being one of the more affordable alcoholic options in restaurants, beer can be enjoyed casually at any time.

Whether dining out during a trip to Japan or enjoying Japanese cuisine in your own country, don't forget to kanpai! "cheers!" with Japanese beer.