When asked to think about alcohol in Japan, most people will instinctively picture sake, the iconic Japanese rice wine with a history dating back over 2,500 years. However, in the last century, its place upon the throne as the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the country has been usurped by its carbonated cousin from the west: beer.
Accounting for just over two-thirds of total alcohol consumption by Japanese bar-goers, it’s clear that beer has found a loving home here. Japan’s oldest brewery, Sapporo, has been producing its signature beer for the country (and more recently the world at large) since 1876. Let’s take a closer look at a few things you may not know about Japan’s undisputed king of beers.
1. The Origin of the First Japanese Beer Brand
Sapporo beer was the brainchild of Seibei Nakagawa. At just seventeen years old and, at a time when leaving Japan was strictly forbidden for its citizens, Nakagawa secretly snuck aboard a ship, bound for a new life in Europe. After spending some time in England, he eventually made his way to Germany, and into a job at the Berlin Beer Brewing Company where he studied for two years to become a certified brewmaster.
Around the time Nakagawa returned to Japan, plans were underway to build a brewery in the newly inaugurated capital city of Tokyo. Given his recently acquired expertise, Nakagawa was hired as the brewery’s chief engineer. Knowing that brewing beer requires a great deal of ice, he successfully convinced the manager of the brewery to relocate construction to the far northern city of Sapporo. Not long after its completion, the beer bearing its city’s namesake was born.
2. What Types of Japanese Beer do Sapporo Make?
Sapporo’s flagship product is their Premium Beer, a light, crisp lager that seems to pair well with anything you throw at it. Not to rest on their laurels however, Sapporo has created several other beers for their lineup including black lager, chocolate beer, and in one instance, an extremely limited run of a beer called Space Barley, brewed with the offspring of barley that spent five months in space aboard an orbiting craft! The brewery has also been known to create regional specific beers, such as their Sapporo Classic, which can only be found in Hokkaido. For the true beer enthusiast, it’s a great reason to get out and explore other parts of Japan. Don’t forget your passport while you’re out exploring, to take advantage of the tax-free shopping!
3. Where to Find Sapporo Beer?
Though they still bear the name of the city where it all began, Sapporo Brewery soon outgrew their original home and expanded their operation to five breweries across Japan. Wanting to appeal to an even larger audience, non-alcoholic products were eventually added to their lineup as well. Much like Nakagawa himself, Sapporo beer was not content to remain solely in Japan and eventually made its way to America in 1984. In just two years, it grew to become the biggest Asian beer brand in the United States; a title that it retains to this day. Today, Sapporo products can be found in over 60 countries worldwide. For an easy way to find your nearest outlet if you’re in North America, you can click here.
4. You Can Visit Sapporo Beer Museum
While the beer is no longer brewed in Sapporo city, the original brewery building still stands; a monument to its legendary roots. Today, this massive brick warehouse serves as Japan’s only beer museum. Here, visitors can take a free, self-guided tour to learn about the brewing process, Sapporo’s history, and its journey to becoming the beer behemoth it is now.
As you enter the museum, you are led down a winding walkway encircling a large, copper wort tank which was actively used in brewing Sapporo beer up until 2003. At the base of the tank, the space opens up into a large room, displaying informational stands with snippets about Nakagawa, construction of the brewery, advertisements through the years, and more. Non-Japanese speaking visitors need not worry, as the information is written in English and Chinese as well.
Those wishing for a more in-depth experience can opt for the premium tour; a roughly one hour experience led by a Sapporo Brand Communicator. The tours are led in Japanese, but do include a ten minute film with English subtitles, and best of all, a beer tasting at the end. In the museum’s Star Hall, visitors can taste a variety of Sapporo’ offerings, including Fukkoku Sapporo-Sei Beer, a special recreation beer made in the style of Sapporo’s original brew, available only to premium tour participants. Tickets for the premium tour can be purchased for ¥500 each (about USD 4.50).
For some more suggestions of unusual museums check out these 9 Weird and Wonderful Exhibitions!
Address: 9-1-1 Kita 7 Johigashi, Sapporo, Hokkaido (see map)
Hours: 11am to 8pm every day.
Transport: Take the Factory Line Shuttle Bus from the Sapporo Station south exit to the Sapporo Beer Garden. Alternatively, it is approximately 10 minutes from the station via taxi.
5. Beer is Best on a Full Stomach
Ok, you probably already knew this one, but much like wine, beer is often noted for how well it pairs with certain foods. In the case of Sapporo Premium, its light finish holds up particularly well with rich flavors. This is perhaps best exhibited in the Sapporo Beer Hall, located next door to the museum. Here, visitors can take part in an all-you-can-eat-and-drink feast with a local Hokkaido delicacy known as jingisukan.
Borrowing its name from the Japanese pronunciation of Genghis Khan, jingisukan is a bottomless serving of local vegetables and lamb meat, cooked at your table on a cast-iron grill. Once grilled to your liking, dip the meat in the Beer Hall’s sweet and savory soy sauce blend and wash it down with an ice cold beer for the perfect combination. Afterwards, there’s even a chocolate beer for dessert.
Lamb is not the only option though. When you’re deciding what to eat with your beer, remember that Sapporo city is also home to one of the largest fresh fish markets in all of Japan. Every morning at the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market, the day’s fresh catch is brought in and auctioned off to local restaurants and distributors. Though you aren’t allowed to enter the fray and bid on your own 300 kg bluefin tuna, members of the public are welcome to come watch the daily auctions which typically start around 4am.
After the auctions have finished, the outer market opens to all visitors, and there you can purchase your fill of the freshest seafood imaginable. Buy some to take home for later, or order a chirashi sushi bowl, fresh sashimi served over a large bowl of rice, to enjoy right then and there. Whichever you choose, just be sure to remember the beer!
Address: Kita 11-jo Nishi 21-chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo (see map)
Hours: 6am to 5pm every day for the outer market, with auctions running from 4am to 7am.
Transport: 10 minute walk from Soen Station on the JR Hakodate Main Line.
What’s your favorite Japanese beer? Let us know in the comments below!
This article is sponsored by the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO).