Beer Me! A Guide to Japan’s Autumn Beers
With summer now a fading memory, many of us are now easing slowly back into the daily grind of work, study or whatever else it is that you do with your time. Of course, as the workload increases, the importance of unwinding at the end of a hard day’s work becomes all the more important. So, as one would expect Japan’s various convenience stores using see a spike in their beer sales around this time of year.
However, as I walked into my local 7-11 (other moderately priced convenience stores are also available) the other day, I was a little perturbed.
“Where did all these red, brown and auburn cans of beer come from?” I found myself pondering.
The answer was relatively simple. In Japan, we’ve always had seasonal festivals, whether it’s the summer fireworks, the winter snow festival, or the autumnal equinox. Not wanting to be left out, Japan’s various breweries have in recent years sought to make the most of the changing weather. Yes, my friends, beer in Japan is now seasonal!
So, what’s the difference between these “seasonal brews” and a regular can of Asahi Super Dry or Kirin Ichiban?
Though the differences are subtle, there are a few.
Firstly, autumn beers tend to have a darker complexion, which, as you would expect, lends them a deeper, heavier flavour. They aren’t quite on the same level as the likes of Asahi Black Beer or Guinness, but they are definitely noticeably darker and fuller-flavoured than your everyday, run of the mill golden lager.
With this darker and deeper flavour also comes a higher alcohol content. Depending on your tipple of choice, conventional Japanese lagers usually have between three and a half and four and a half percent alcohol content. However in the case of the autumn brews it can go as high as six percent.
Thankfully, there’s no discernable difference in price and despite their added alcohol and richer flavour, these beers will only cost the same as a regular beer.
So, with that in mind let’s look at some options and see which the best autumn beer is for you.
1) Amber Yebisu
It could be said that Yebisu is the “Stella Artois” of Japan: A pretty run of the mill beer with a fancy name that gives it delusions of grandeur. Not a bad pint by any means, but hardly worthy of the twenty to thirty percent higher cost than the likes of Asahi and Kirin. However, their autumn season offering Amber Yebisu is one of the few occasions when Yebisu is able to move beyond its pretentions and actually produce a genuine “premium quality beer”.
A rich flavour, nice amber hue and very smoothly drinkable, Yebisu Amber is a perhaps a good jumping off point for those lager drinkers looking to expand their palate and move into something a bit darker and more flavourful. It has a slightly more bitter taste than that of an ordinary lager, but not so much so that you feel uncomfortable drinking it. In this rare instance, that extra 60 or 70 yen is definitely worth it. Also, at only 5.5 percent alcohol, it’s a bit lighter on your head than some of its competitors too. A good first choice.
2) Kirin Aki Aji
Literally translating as Kirin’s Taste of Autumn, this is a beer that builds expectations from the moment you pick up the can. And as for that can itself, well it has to be said the can is a thing of beauty. Adorned with red, yellow, brown and golden falling leaves, reminiscent of my first autumn in Japan when I visited Kyoto, this can will certainly put you in the mood for a seasonal beer. As for the beer itself, well as you would expect, as cheaper beers go, Kirin gets the job done once again.
Smooth, cool and easy to drink, this beer doesn’t quite have the full-bodied autumn flavour of Amber Yebisu but as a quick kombini beer for after work or the train journey home, it’s pretty good. I could however do without the six percent alcohol content. In all honesty the extra alcohol adds almost nothing to the flavour and seems somewhat gratuitous and unnecessary. It’s a little bit maltier than a regular Kirin, which I personally think is a good thing, but besides that there’s nothing too unusual or remarkable here. A decent beer nonetheless.
3) Suntory Aki no Zeitaku
Ok I’ll be honest, this one isn’t the best. First of all, strictly speaking, this is not actually a beer. In Japan it is classed as a “Happoshu” which loosely translates as “beer based alcoholic drink”.
Being classed as a liquor rather than a beer under Japanese law allows the company to exploit a tax loophole meaning that we the consumer get a drink that, although slightly lower grade in quality, is about 30 to 40 percent cheaper than its competitors. Again, the six percent alcohol doesn’t really add much to the flavour, though the amber-coloured can is a nice touch. Just be careful you don’t mistake it for the superior Amber Yebisu when you stagger into the convenience store to refill after having had a few too many!
4) Orion Beer
Ok, I admit it, this is cheating. Orion Beer is neither a seasonal beer, nor is it especially popular at this time of year. However, as anyone who has ever tasted it will tell you, it’s the best beer of its kind in Japan by quite some distance.
Brewed on the sunny shores of Okinawa, this light, crisp lager is the perfect tonic to the excesses of a hard day’s work in Japan, or indeed wherever you may be.
Orion was something of a niche beer until a few years ago, however its burgeoning popularity on the islands has led to an increasing demand on mainland Japan. Today it is readily available in most convenience stores.
In closing, there’s a lot more to Japan’s autumn beer selection than just fancy artwork and different Kanji on the cans. Some of them are actually really good additions to your fridge. Anyway, enough talk, time for a beer!