Drinking Beer in Japan

Ordering Beer in Japanese Restaurants

Corona beer from Japan with an attached lime packet

Qualifying as Japan's most popular alcoholic beverage, beer is big business in Japan and it's not going to lose any popularity contests any time soon. The five primary Japanese breweries are Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, Yebusi and Suntory, with Asahi Super Dry being the most popular Japanese beer by a decent lead (although Sapporo is my personal favorite).

You will usually order beer in a Japanese restaurant in one of two ways, bin beer (pronounced “bean beer”) or nama beer. The word nama actually means "raw", but in Japanese beer parlance it means a mug of beer poured from tap. If you order a bin beer, the server will bring you a fairly large bottle of beer (about half a liter) along with a chilled cup the size of a juice glass. It's rare to see anyone drinking beer straight from a bottle in Japan, even in homes, so unless you want to stick out, use the juice glass.

Most restaurants will only serve beer from one brewery. This is a marked difference from the US where restaurants and bars serve several brands of beer. For instance, the local Japanese family restaurant, JoyFull, serves Suntory beer. They have Suntory Premium and the standard Suntory, but you're out of luck if you want an Asahi, Kirin or a Sapporo. However, my favorite local ramen shop only serves Asahi, no Suntory or Sapporo.

Japan's Version of Corona

If you look hard enough, you can find Corona here in Japan, either at a specialty store and even sometimes at your local COOP supermarket. Funny thing is, the Coronas here come with a small bag of lime juice slung around the neck of the bottle. Limes are not cheap in Japan but apparently small packets of their juice are.

It's a nice thought, but it's just not the same as cramming a lime wedge down the bottle, capping it with your thumb and turning the whole thing upside down to mix. Still, it's good to be able to get a Corona now and then, even if it's even more skunk than normal.

Happoshu: A Sparkling Low Malt Beer-Like Beverage

Happoshu is a low malt, alcoholic beverage that tastes similar to beer and resembles beer, but technically isn't beer. This is done intentionally in order to get around the beer tax in Japan. As a result of this, happoshu is cheaper than regular beer in Japan. This of course, makes it very popular.

Happoshu is not too common in Japanese restaurants or bars, although you can occasionally find it in the more economically minded establishments. I suppose that it's slight "under class" reputation causes bartenders and restauranteurs to think twice before offering it to their drinking patrons.

Quite frankly, the taste of happoshu isn't the same as beer, and I doubt that anyone would actually choose happoshu over beer if given the choice at the same price point. If the Japanese alcohol tax laws are ever updated to include a tax on happoshu equal to that of beer, I suspect that it would disappear from the face of the earth in an instant.

Don't get me wrong, happoshu is not particularly bad. It's just not particularly good either. I was actually drinking it for a few months before I ever looked at the can close enough to realize that it was happoshu. I just thought it was slightly sub-par beer, but wasn't complaining because the price was right. At the end of the day happoshu gets the job done at a lower cost and for a lot of people, and that's really all that needs to be said.