By Greg Young
Northwest Asian Weekly
I once lived with a roommate who seemed to prefer an obscure little beer that I had never heard of before. That beer was Sapporo, a rice beer from Japan. At the time it seemed peculiar that he’d prefer that over the local, craft IPA that I’d often bring back, but it occurred to me that it was strange only because I was a bit biased; I’d never tried Sapporo before. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least interested in Sapporo; the fact that it was a rice beer alone was appealing, but I also found myself drawn to the can it came in, the sturdiness and thickness of the aluminum, the fact that it practically took a crow bar to open it, and the way the can was shaped like a pint glass, small and narrow at the bottom, and gradually widening toward the top. And the beer is actually pretty good—light, crisp, flavorful. It was as if Sapporo was some kind of crazy, futuristic, space age beer.
“Space age” might be a bit of an inappropriate way to describe a beer that began its brewing infancy in the late 19th century. Sapporo came to be when a young Japanese gentleman returned from Germany after finishing studying the art of brewing. After returning to his hometown of Sapporo in 1876, he created a brew in commemoration of his home town; Sapporo Premium Lager. Although it probably wasn’t considered a “premium lager” back in 1876. But over the years, Sapporo has branched out into a few different varieties, such as the Premium Lager, the Reserve, and the Premium Light.
Sometime later, I found myself wandering the local grocery store with my newfound appreciation for what turned out to be a love for Asian beer. I came across another high-tech looking Japanese beer, one that had its own hand in revolutionizing beer. It was called Asahi, and it was being sold in a large, 32-ounce aluminum can, with the word “SUPER” in quotations. It was Asahi Super Dry, another famous Japanese beer.
Asahi Super Dry was released in 1987 and sparked a “dry” craze all over the world.
Suddenly, everybody wanted a dry beer; or at least, everyone thought everyone wanted dry beer, and in turn everybody tried to make dry beer. Even Budweiser tried to get in on the action by creating the (very) short-lived “Bud Dry.” Dry beer is brewed using longer fermentation methods, and breaking down sugar further than normal so that it eliminates that bitter beer taste. Fun fact: Asahi sold so quickly that the brewery was forced to post notices in newspapers apologizing for not having enough beer to sell.
Asahi is one of the four big breweries from Japan, topping Sapporo, but second only behind Kirin Ichiban. Kirin is, by far, Japan’s biggest brewery, and top-selling beer. And while it is uniquely Japan’s beer, Anheuser-Busch had been brewing Kirin since 1996 in Los Angeles to sell in the United States.
Asian beers have made numerous efforts over the years to really break out in the United States. Kirin is doing well for itself, seeing a continuous growth for 28 consecutive years, but it would be a disservice to look at a few beers from Asia that have made considerate splashes. There are some breweries in Asia that are big; bigger than we in the states would probably realize.
Beer of the world
Pop quiz: What is the top-selling beer in the world?
You’d be forgiven if your most immediate answer just happened to also be the most obvious. After all, the top-selling beer is a crisp, clean, dry lager, and was used to sponsor the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Though, to my pleasant surprise, the top-selling beer was, in fact, not the great American lager. You’d be close, not way off.
Give up? It’s called Snow. It’s brewed in China.
In fact, the second top-selling beer is also from China. It’s called Tsingtao.
It is so famous that there was an effort a number of years ago to make it just as recognizable in the United States as Budweiser or Bud Light. Crown Imports, the United States’ biggest import company, imports more Tsingtsao during Chinese New Year than any other brand. The importer attempted to maintain that momentum throughout the entire year. Unfortunately, due to complicated marketing exclusivity rights centering on the United States involving a similarly crisp and light lager, Tsingtao remained under the radar.
Snow interestingly does not have a century-long legacy behind it the same way Tsingtao does. It was introduced to the public in 1993, and has skyrocketed up the popularity chain. And here’s the cool part (or depressing part, depending on your point of view): Snow is not available for sale in the United States. Despite that, between China’s Snow, Tsingtao, and even Harbin, and Yanjing (Those four beers, all from China, are four out of the top ten best-selling beers in the world), China controls a quarter of the beer market globally.
These are all big-selling beers competing on a global scale, but give them a try. They are all very good beers, nothing short of the quality one would expect from Asia. When walking through my grocery store, I keep my eye out for new and unexpected surprises, whether it’s Korea’s OB Blue and Hite, or Philippines’ San Miguel. And we can’t forget the popular Vietnamese beers. It would be hard to miss them when visiting a restaurant in Little Saigon. It is pretty much guaranteed you will see “33 Export” and “Saigon export” on the menu or with a meal at the table.
Go international when it comes to testing the waters with beer. There’s always something new to offer. (end)
Greg Young can be reached at email@example.com.