You would think that when it comes to Japanese alcoholic beverages, the more traditional sake would be the first one I wrote about here. But no, after sampling some of its finest whiskies some columns back, I found myself once more trying out a non-sake Japanese product – beer this time.
According to an interview on Suntory’s website with Kiyoshi Yoshizawa, former professor of Tokyo University of Agriculture, beer in Japan has always been divided into two different styles: a full-bodied tasting beer, and a lighter one with a more refreshing feel. Then there is the happoshu (literally “sparkling spirits”) beers, which are beer-like drinks made from less than 67% malted barley (a beverage can only be classified as a beer in Japan if it contains more than that amount of malt).
Coincidentally, the beer I tried this time was from the same company that produces the whisky that I tried previously – Suntory.
Suntory is one of Japan’s four major beer producers, the other three being Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo. Suntory is the smallest, according to its executive general manager Satoru Abe, affectionately known as “Tiger-san”, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently for the launch of Suntory’s The Premium Malt’s beer at Fukuya Japanese Restaurant.
While the company’s main product is still its award-winning whiskies (which include Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki), Suntory’s beer was the brainchild of the company’s second president – Keizo Saji (son of Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii) – who wanted to diversify the company’s products from whisky and wine to beer and non-alcoholic beverages.
Unfortunately, with three major players already in the Japanese beer market, Suntory’s beer didn’t really hit its stride until much later. In fact, it was only recently that the company is finally seeing some returns from its beer business.
“For more than 40 years we didn’t make any profit from our beers!” Abe said matter-of-factly. “Since we started in 1963, it’s been very hard for us to catch up with the other three companies. But in 2008, 46 years after we started it, we finally went into the black.”
One of the key elements of Suntory’s recent success is the quality of its beer, especially The Premium Malt’s beer.
Made according to the standards set by the famous German Beer Purity Law (which states that beer can only be made from malted barley, water and hops), Suntory produces The Premium Malt’s from 100% malted barley, pure natural water and aromatic hops that are specially imported from Europe in refrigerated containers.
This blend of ingredients produces a nice aromatic lager that is full-bodied and flavourful, but somehow refreshingly light at the same time, with a nice lingering aftertaste.
“Most other beers in Japan mix their malt with corn starch or rice – we use only 100% malt, so it is more full-bodied than others,” said Abe. “Also, most lagers would use cheaper bitter hops for their beers, but we use the more expensive aromatic hops so we can get a more floral aroma.”
The company’s commitment to making The Premium Malt’s out of such high quality ingredients means that it is positioned as a high-end beer, and priced higher than most other Japanese beers in the market.
It is so strict about the quality of the beer that it has even devised a pouring technique that utilises a specially designed glass.
“First, pour the beer straight down to generate the foam, then wait 20 to 30 seconds for it to settle a little,” Abe explained as he demonstrated the technique. “Then, tilt the glass and pour it down the side of the beer to top it up. The beer should always have a good head of foam to keep the flavour in.”
True enough, when tasted side by side with a separate freshly poured glass with minimal foam, the one that adhered to the technique tasted creamier, less flat and less bitter.
Suntory’s focus on quality is finally paying off as it has finally managed to rise to the third position in the Japanese beer market. Not only is its beer finally making the company some money now, but according to Abe, Suntory’s is the only beer that is seeing some growth in the dwindling Japanese beer market.
“The beer market in Japan has been shrinking for more than 60 years. In fact, the total alcohol consumption has been dropping,” said Abe, adding that the typical stereotype of a Japanese office worker who goes boozing after hours and crashing in capsule hotels afterwards is also changing thanks to the advent of technology.
“Alcohol used to be a way to unwind after work, but these days they have more options – iPhones, video games, and so on. Many young people also prefer to go straight home after work these days.”
According to Abe, it’s not that people are not drinking alcohol anymore – they just want something better to drink. “The key element (in our success) is the quality of our beer – today’s Japanese are looking for better quality products,” he said. “People are drinking less in volume and are more particular about the taste now. So if they want something to drink, they would prefer to try something that is good in quality.”
Having tried Japanese beers and whiskies, Michael Cheang reckons it’s about time someone taught him something about sake already.