Rice is, of course, synonymous with Japanese food. It is part of, or an accompaniment to, most meals and often eaten by itself. So it is no surprise that most Japanese beers are rice lagers, meaning rice is used as an adjunct in making the beverage, just as with sake.
Like hops in other parts of the world, different rice varietals impart distinct flavor profiles. While the macro Japanese rice lagers (think Budweiser's analogues) tend to use a flavorless grain, craft beer maker Hitachino has turned to sake for inspiration. The company uses a variety of grains like Omachi (rich and earthy) and Yamada Nishiki (soft and fragrant) to achieve interesting flavors during the brewing process.
I've explored five Japanese beers offered at local sushi joints. Remember, though, that having sushi doesn't mean you must stick with Japanese beer. Germany's Ritterguts Gose is a tarty sour with a salty, mineral-like finish that works well with the fish, while Duck Rabbit's Milk Stout, from Kinston, helps tame the heat of spicy foods through milk. Or consider a classic Czech-style pilsner (like Oskar Blues' Mama's Little Yella Pils) or Haw River's Rusted Plow Farmhouse Saison, an earthy brew made with local honey and dry-hopped with Sorachi Ace, a Japanese hop.
KIRIN ICHIBAN: Calling itself "100% malt, first press," Kirin is a yellow, fizzy, bland lager—tantamount to the Budweiser of Japan in popularity and taste. Indeed, the beer is made stateside by Anheuser-Busch. This very carbonated lager has a dry, rice-wafer-like finish. It can be found in most sushi restaurants.
SAPPORO: This is the oldest beer in Japan, first brewed in 1876. It's cheap, light and refreshing, without much complexity that might spoil your palate pre-sushi. Look for it on draft at Basan in Durham.
HITACHINO: The only Japanese craft beer on this list is undoubtedly the most complex. Hitachino XH is matured in sake casks, and it's highly recommended. Hitachino has some Belgian-inspired ales, too; the Hitachino Nest white ale, for instance, has a grassy, peppery essence with hints of orange peel and coriander at the finish. Though amber in color, the Red Rice Ale, the company's take on a Belgian golden, has the sweetness of a strawberry-and-red vinegar concoction. At 7 percent ABV, it drinks like a hard soda. Look for these in local bottle shops.
ASAHI DRY: The beer that started the "dry wars," as it was the first to adopt the term. Dry refers to a fully attenuated pale lager, meaning all of the sugars used in the fermentation process make it stronger in alcohol and what's essentially a "diet" beer. It is commonly served in a 22-ounce can. Order one next time you visit Carrboro's Akai Hana.
LUCKY BUDDHA: This one pours a golden straw with very little head retention. I try desperately to get a whiff, and it smells like nothing at all. Even PBR has a smell. It tastes like nothing. Even Corona Light has a flavor. This beer just "is," which makes it more Taoist, right? It claims to bring good fortune and enlightenment, and, at under 5 percent, it's definitely not going to overpower anything you are eating. Hey, the bottle is cool, like a little Buddha figurine. I think I'll top it with a candle and let the wax drip down all over it. Suddenly I feel like a hippie. Maybe there is something in this beer... Available at local bottle shops.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rice cold"