Bottom Shelf Beer Olympics: Japan

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor you don’t have to.


Today would have been my father's 60th birthday. He was a good guy and a small chunk of me is crushed that he went dead before he had a chance to go gray, but it's been several years now, plus I'm more of a celebratory sort of memorialist than a mournful one, so this isn't a sad day on my calendar.

When I remember my dad's birthday—and I don't always, which is OK because neither did he—I do try to mark the occasion in some small and festive way. Most years that means drinking 500 cans of Miller Lite and ordering but not bothering to eat a roast beef sandwich, but the traditional homage doesn't fit into this year's schedule, so I'm going with the less festive but equally tributary approach of leaving the TV on all day at maximum volume. This will probably piss the neighbors off, but they got pretty feisty last year sometime around the 475th can of Miller Lite—shortly after I accidentally flushed the darts and had to replace them with nectarines and, man, you have no idea how hard you have to throw a nectarine to get it to stick in a dartboard—and I can't plan my life around trying to please the implacable.

My imaginary daytime friends tend to be radio people rather than TV people, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I started mashing remote buttons first thing this morning. I was hoping a judge show would come on, or maybe an aerobics one if they still have those, but instead I got the Olympics. That's reasonably all right; I like sports and also the other sorts of weird competitions they air during the Olympics, such as "Who can make the most condescendingly patriotic truck commercial?" and "archery."

Since it looks like the next couple weeks of media are going to be dominated by coverage of coverage of the coverage of the Olympics, it seems as good a time as any to undergo a Bottom Shelf survey of the best of the worst of cheap international beers. Allow me to disclaim: By "cheap" I mean the lowest-priced readily available imports. I realize that Molson may not be the cheapest beer sold at the gas station across from the library in downtown Mooseflute, Nova Scotia, but it's among the cheapest ones they send across the border, so it qualifies for this tournament.

If I stick to my plan—and, spoiler alert, I won't—we'll start by figuring out the best American-accessible budget brew from each of several individual nations and then pit these winners against each other at the end of August to capriciously and ignorantly declare which is the world's best cheap beer. SPORTS AND BEER AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AHOY! First up, Japan.

The three most common Japanese beers in my part of America are all contact brewed in North America: Kirin Ichiban is made by Anheuser-Busch in Virginia and Los Angeles; Asahi comes to us by way of Molson's Toronto facilities; and Sapporo is from Ontario as well, some fun-sounding place called Guelph, to be exact. I don't think this poses much of a problem in terms of evaluating them. It just means they're a bit fresher than if they'd swum all the way from Japan.

I'm not sure if I think it's a coincidence that the one brewed by Anheuser-Busch tastes the most Bud-like, but there you have it: Kirin Ichiban is definitely the beer to order at a sushi place if you want the most familiar-tasting thing possible and have the good sense to avoid Heineken. Alas, familiar doesn't always mean pleasant. The can says it's "Brewed for Good Times," by which they seem to mean it's the perfect beer for any occasion that is already so much fun that it can't be dragged down by sweet, grainy, malty yellow swill that smells like wet paper and tastes like Bud Light that's been back and forth in the beach cooler a few too many times.

Asahi Super Dry is better. It claims to be "Brewed for All Seasons," which I'd amend to "all of the seasons when you'd like a decent beer but don't necessarily demand an outright good beer." It has a very faint nose, which is a nice thing in this class of adjunct lager, and a vaguely fruity taste underneath the expected cheap grain. It's not the world's nicest fruit, but it provides a welcome diversion and a commendable bit of character. Asahi will do.

Sapporo is the clear winner, though, in my book. Its strongest traditional attribute is obviously the oversized curvy silver can, but I even enjoyed it from a regular old 12-ounce bottle. Like Asahi, it benefits from a subtle smell that doesn't make a big fuss about its low-born adjunct lager nature. Sapporo is complex and interesting (for the genre), with a distinct fruitiness—mostly apple, along with firm-fleshed, pitted things—joining the standard macro-lager action. "Japan's Oldest Brand" is a bit unusual but in a pleasant enough way to advance to the finals of our search for world's finest bottom shelf beer. Up next: I dunno, maybe Canada? Stay tuned.