Kanpai: The 10 Best Japanese Craft Beers

Feb 19, 2019

Category: Vices

As far as the ’90s are concerned, 1994 wasn’t one of the best for us here stateside. We lost Kurt Cobain, OJ Simpson ran amuck in Los Angeles just months after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake jolted the city, and the Buffalo Bills faced their fourth consecutive Super Bowl loss. Not the lineup of sluglines that makes for a banner year. Across the Pacific, however, something much more fruitful was taking place.

Japan’s craft beer scene up until this time was always a bit of a struggle. Mainly because of the tight regulations their government placed on acquiring a brewing license. That all changed in 1994, however, when the country opted to deregulate the required output for brewers from over 17,000 barrels to just over 511 — a huge win for small mom-and-pop operations hoping to break into the emerging scene. Now, not only are Japanese brewers utilizing traditional ingredients and methods in their unique releases, but they’re increasingly looking toward the United States for inspiration. Meaning, Japanese IPAs, stouts, and brown ales (yeah, we know some are inherently European) are produced in sizable quantities at microbreweries across the island nation. Here are some of our favorite brews we recommend getting your hands on if possible.

Baird Brewing Angry Boy Brown Ale

Baird Brewing has worked to make a formidable name for themselves over the years. And while we won’t say it’s solely due to their Angry Boy Brown Ale, the well-respected craft ale certainly didn’t hurt their cause. Each beer pours a clear brown hue with a smooth head — working to offer up a nose rich with caramel, wheat, and chocolate while a palate fueled by dark cane sugar, roasted wheat, and more caramel lead to a finish that’s both smooth and unique complements of Baird’s house Scottish Ale yeast.

Need To Know

Style: Brown Ale
ABV: 7%
Location: Numazu, Japan

Learn More: Baird Brewing

Ginga Kogen Wheat Beer

Keeping in line with the traditional German style, Ginga Kogen is one wheat beer that presents well and drinks like a charm. Out of the unique blue bottle pours a perfectly opaque staw-colored hefeweizen that pleases the senses with aromas of banana, lemon, and clove. These benchmark flavors also play into the flavor profile complemented by a notable finish alluding to banana bread and lemon. A must have brew, that’s for sure.

Need To Know

Style: German Hefeweizen
ABV: 5%
Location: Iwate Sawauchi, Japan

Learn More: Ginga Kogen

Hitachino Nest Lager

Easy drinking, lagers are one of the finest no-frill pleasures one can enjoy after a long day. The Hitachino Nest Lager is one of those fine options that if you find it stateside, you best enjoy it. Each lager pours a gentle golden yellow hue and works to immediately impart notes of grainy and bready malt along with a slight hint of apple and pear. From here, that first sip alludes to more citrus fruit that’s paired with pale malt and grassy hop undertones. Unique and quite enjoyable in its own right.

Need To Know

Style: Lager
ABV: 5.5%
Location: Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan

Learn More: Hitachino

Hitachino Nest White Ale

Despite what the naysayers may proclaim, there’s little out there that’s more pleasant and refreshing — beer-wise at least — than a well-crafted white ale. Hailing from Belgium, this style is smooth yet hosts just the right amount of citrus and spice to keep things interesting — a tough style to perfect. However, the fine folk over at Kiuchi Brewery nail the style with their Hitachino Nest White Ale. The beer pours a nice hazy hue with notes of festive spices, orange, and Belgium yeast on the nose, more orange and spice on the palate, and a smooth slightly carbonated finish.

Need To Know

Style: Belgian Witbier
ABV: 5.5%
Location: Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan

Learn More: Hitachino

Koshihikari Echigo Beer

Here’s a craft beer that’s uniquely Japanese in every sense of the word. Styled as a rice lager, this delicious brew uses Koshikikari — a premium short grain rice — in the brewing process. It pours with a light white head and yellow body, hosts aromas full of mild noble hops and grains — a bouquet that transfers into to flavor profile quite well — and an overall feel of medium carbonation and a light body for an enjoyably dry finish.

Need To Know

Style: Japanese Rice Lager
ABV: 5%
Location: Niigata-ken Nishikanbara-gun, Japan

Learn More: Echigo

Minoh Beer Stout

Straight to the point without all the cryptic branded nomenclature, the Beer Stout is both true to the traditional style and offers an enjoyable Japanese twist for good measure. It pours opaque with a creamy mocha head — as it should — while working to dish out notable earthy aromas complete with notes of coffee, soft sake, and roasted barley. On the palate, more earthy and roasted barley notes reign supreme along with subtle coffee and herbal tobacco notes to round out the finish.

Need To Know

Style: English Stout
ABV: 5.5%
Location: Osaka-fu Minoh-shi, Japan

Learn More: Minoh Beer

Sankt Gallen Golden Ale

Lighter than your average pale, the golden ale serves as a more sessionable style than most — at least for us average beer drinkers. Here, this variant boasts a hop profile that’s strictly American (Cascade and Chinook) which work in harmony to impart light notes of fresh pine while a crystal malt grain bill offers a palate fused with moderate bitterness and subtle bread sweetness. Without a doubt, this is a highly enjoyable American style pale ale by the Atsugi-based brewery.

Need To Know

Style: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5%
Location: Atsugi, West Kanagawa, Japan

Learn More: Sankt Gallen

Swan Lake Beer Amber Swan Ale

As with any consumer product, there’s a fair share of great and not-so-great reviews out there. Amber Swan Ale, however, begs to differ. In this instance, not a single negative review was found on the product. Leading us to believe that this variant is truly crafted to perfection. Each amber pours out a hue true to style and imparts a nose full of sweet caramel, herbal hops, and a hint of nuttiness prior to transitioning to a more nutty, caramel, and malt-driven palate.

Need To Know

Style: Amber Ale
ABV: 5%
Location: Niigata-ken Akano-shi, Japan

Learn More: Swan Lake

Voyager Brewing Copper

A fine amber ale indeed, Voyager’s Copper ale is one beer that simply doesn’t discriminate. It’s here where no matter the occasion, this amber ale will assimilate into the moment with ease. It’s all thanks to their traditional styling that includes a clear amber hue, sweet caramel and toffee notes on the nose, more toffee, caramel and roasted malt on the palate, and a dry and fruity finish.

Need To Know

Style: India Pale Ale
ABV: 6.5%
Location: Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan

Learn More: Voyager Brewing

Yo-Ho Yona Yona Ale

Pale ales are the omnipresent friends of craft beer drinkers. They’re also, for better or worse, benchmarks for the quality of the brand as a whole. That’s because, if something as ubiquitous as a pale ale is off, something is systemically awry. Fortunately, we have faith in Japan’s Gora-based Yo-Ho Brewing Company thanks to their Yona Yona Ale. This respectable pale pours with a clear amber body, hosts a nose full of fruity, floral and spice notes, a palate fused together by ripe fruit, citrus and spicy hops, and a finish that’s both flavorful yet deliciously unusual.

Need To Know

Style: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5.5%
Location: Nagano, Japan

Learn More: Yoho Brewing

5 Best Beers According to Brewers

Great beer is great beer. No doubt about that. But don’t take our word for it. Have a look these 5 premier brewers and their favorite beers to enjoy both on and off the job. Because nothing can top expert advice.

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