Japanese Drinks – Beer!

Long, hot days, summer vacation and baseball are the hallmarks of summer and in Japan, are best enjoyed while drinking an ice cold beer!

Japan ranks among the top beer consumers in the world, selling an estimated 718.5 million gallons in 2015 according to the Brewers Association of Japan. Five companies dominate the beer market in Japan, including Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, Sapporo and Orion. These five companies, along with craft breweries, produce the majority of beer in Japan, everything from traditional lagers and ales, happoshu or low-malt beers to new genre beers, which are brewed from non-malted crops.

And those beers are the siren song of summer.

Beer is enjoyed throughout the year, but the warmer days of summer inspire Japanese people to enjoy their beer in large mugs after work at Japanese izakaya pubs, at beer gardens with savory delicacies and served by beer girls at baseball games. Everywhere you can enjoy beer has a story… and the most unique experiences!

Enjoying cold, frosty mugs of beer at beer gardens is a uniquely Japanese experience. Open only during the summer, department stores host beer gardens on their rooftops in the evenings. Customers purchase entry tickets, which entitle them to as much beer and food (and sometimes dessert!) that they can consume during a specified time. Sometime these beer gardens even have themes, like the “Genghis Khan Beer Terrace” at the Odakyu Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Here they serve Genghis Khan Barbecue and all-you-can-drink Hokkaido beer. The highest beer garden in Japan–Beer Garden Patio 28—is located at a height of 453 feet on the 28th floor of the Osaka Rinku Gate Tower building. This beer garden caters to the exclusive gourmand, serving food prepared on order by famous chefs and a varied selection of drinks, not just beer. And one of the largest beer garden in Japan is held in Hokkaido’s Odori Koen. This beer garden can seat 13,000 people and has even more standing room! A few hours in the open evening air, with views of the city lights and airplanes taking off from the neighboring airport, enjoying a cold beer and good company sounds amazing!

If you are interested in learning about the beer making process, some of the major breweries have opened up their facilities to provide educational opportunities and to allow visitors to taste the full line of beers they offer. One of the popular destinations is the Asahi Beer’s Kanagawa Brewery, where you can get an English guide service. The factory tours dive into the process of brewing beer, and end with tastings!

The big breweries have also helped spawn the craft beer movement in Japan. Since the mid-1990’s small-scale breweries throughout Japan have begun making specialty beers, often using traditional methods and uniquely Japanese ingredients. One such brewery is run by brewmeister Momoyo Kagitani, the brewer of Loco Beer, and multiple award-winning brewer of craft beer. Ms. Kagitani has developed a Japanese version of the German kolsh beer, suiting it to local tastes and creating an international sensation. She carries on the tradition of brewing that reaches back to the mid-1880s, when Dutch traders setup their own mini-breweries in Nagasaki to serve their shipmates.

The next time you’re in Japan, enjoy a cold one at your local izakaya, beer garden or baseball game! And don’t forget to share your photos with us!

Japanese Street Food:  Yakitori!

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Who doesn’t love grilled chicken on skewers?

Yakitori is one of the most popular and ubiquitous types of kushiyaki found in Japan and in areas where Japanese food is popular. Yakitori are bite-sized pieces of chicken, skewered and grilled. In Japan, yakitori can be found at yakitori-ya restaurants, street food festival stands and more commonly, at izakaya, or bar and grill style restaurants.

Having them at a street fair or izakaya is quite an experience!

Generally paired with beer or sake, yakitori are perfect for after-work happy hour or after-party noshing. There are quite a few varieties of yakitori. One of the most popular ones is tsukune, which are ground chicken meatballs, glazed with a thin teriyaki-style sauce and often accompanied by shichimi pepper. Negima yakitori are small pieces of chicken thigh skewered on bamboo sticks with stalks of green onion, and occasionally salted or glazed. Without the green onion, these yakitori are called momo, literally meaning “thigh”. Kawa is a traditional yakitori preparation where chicken skin is folded and grilled extra crispy. Tebasaki are grilled chicken wings. Sunagimo are chicken gizzards, rebaa are chicken livers and nankotsu are breast cartilage… marinated, glazed and grilled to perfection. You can even get chicken heart, neck and hind end!

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Grilling yakitori is an art form. Binchotan charcoal is used to heat the grill, which is smokeless and odorless, and made from hard Japanese oak. The wood is fired at extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-poor environment and quickly cooled to make it smooth and long-burning. This charcoal is the best to grill with, as it doesn’t adulterate the flavor of the food.

Eating yakitori is half the fun. Skewers are usually ordered in sets of two or as part of a combination plate called moriawase. You pick your sauce or tare, or just have your skewer sprinkled with salt. Sometimes, ordering sides of boiled eggs, potatoes or vegetables rounds out the meal, but mostly yakitori are delicious with beer and sake and good friends!

Share your izakaya or yakitori-ya story with us… from here in the US or from your trip or stay in Japan. Then stay tuned for next month’s street food showcase!