Hokkaido is undoubtedly the birthplace of the modern Japanese beer that is loved around the world. The famous Sapporo Beer factory's history books recall the efforts of the Meiji government in 1869 venturing to Hokkaido to set up the 'Kaitakushi' program - a planned effort to establish industry in the island and annex it as part of Japan.
The Kaikushi program had many arms and factions, but one that would drastically shape the culture of Hokkaido [named Ezo at the time], was the beer brewing factory that was established in 1876 and spearheaded by Seibe Nakagawa, a Japanese brewer who had trained in Germany. He implemented the cold brewing process [a traditional technique used by the Germans] and incorporated barley and hops that were sourced from local Hokkaido farms.
Now, after 150 years, Sapporo beer is one of the most well known Japanese beers on the market. Despite its mass production and availability in every convenience store in the country [and in most liquor store 'International' sections around the world], the pride of Hokkaido beer brewing has always been anchored in locally sourced ingredients and careful technique.
That mentality lives on today in the growing number of microbreweries that continue to establish in every town as the years go on. Each is a reflection of the unique landscape, produce and culture of the town, and it's true that trying a local craft beer in Hokkaido can be a unique destination experience, just like trying a regional dish or viewing locally made art.
So we decided to give you the low-down on what locally brewed beers are available in Niseko from the two breweries: Niseko Brewery and Lupicia Brewery [plus we've thrown in some other Hokkaido-based beers that can be found in the area]. And what better way is there to describe the taste of these beers than to try them ourselves? Here are what we thought some of Niseko's ready-to-buy craft beers.
Preferences: Lagers, Belgians, Pale Ales in the Summer
Describe your beer-tasting career: I started drinking beer at around 19 when I finally found that premixes and ciders were too sweet. I usually drink run-of-the-mill lagers and pale ales for my pocket's sake, but I love to look in the craft beer section for a wildcard every now and then. I can't deny my typical Australian taste in beer that comes from growing up in a hot, summery climate: I'm partial to crisp, clean tastes that aren't too heavy or flavoured [but not ones that taste like water - I'm looking at you Coors Light].
Preferences: Lagers, Pilsners, Pale Ales
Favourite Japanese Beer: Sapporo Black Label
Describe your experience with beer: I'm not a beer connoisseur so to speak, but I love to drink beer and change it up occasionally for a different taste. There's nothing better than a weekend BBQ under the sun with friends and a cold beer. I hail from Australia, and our taste tends to lean towards a fresh and dry flavour, so naturally I love most Japanese beer. Now that I'm living here and seeing the shift towards craft beer, it's nice to see - it's only natural that Japan breweries would do a great job of it, as they do so with pretty much everything else they try their hand at!
Preferences: Porters, Stouts, IPAs, Ambers... any style of beer can be delicious if brewed well.
Favourite Japanese Beer: The Japanese craft beer scene has been taking off lately, to have me pick a favorite would be like asking me to choose my favorite child. Fortunately, I currently have no children. There are some small Japanese craft breweries that make incredible beers, they can be hard to find. I think a favorite beer should be widely available and easy to find just about anywhere you go. For that reason, I pick the Aooni IPA available in most Lawson convenience stores. This is an American style IPA brewed by Yo-Ho Brewing Company out of Nagano. The best smaller production beer I've had would be a two way tie, by chance both beers are brewed in Hokkaido: 1) a New England style IPA brewed by Wakasaimo Honpo Brewery out of Noboribetsu, Hokkaido called the Oni Densetsu Oyunuma IPA and 2) the Black Rainbow Imperial/Double Black style IPA brewed by Hopkotan Brewery out of Furano, Hokkaido.
Describe your beer-tasting career: I've just counted, I have 97 bottles and cans of different beers in my apartment. You could safely say I enjoy the occasional beer. I got into trying craft beer when I was in university back home in Texas. Something I didn't know or appreciate at the time: Texas has one of the greatest craft beer scenes in the world. Over the years, I've begun to learn what it is I do and don't like and have learned to enjoy sipping on old favorites just as much as trying new brews. Moving from the beer Mecca of Texas to the powder snow Mecca of Hokkaido was a rough transition at first. Japan is not known for its craft beer. Luckily, the craft beer scene in Japan has been seeing tremendous growth. While sourcing new and interesting beers is still not as easy as it'd be in back in the United States, it has been very exciting to see the arrival of new breweries and to see more and more bars and shops selling domestic and international craft beers.
- Niseko Brewing Belgian Ale
- Niseko Brewing Pilsner
- Niseko Brewing Deep Powder IPA
- Niseko Brewing Afterglow Pale Ale
- Niseko Brewing Porter
- Lupicia Brewery Yotei Pale Ale No. 1
- Sapporo Classic (Only Hokkaido)
- Sapporo Classic (Only Hokkaido) Spring Edition
- Hopkotan Brewery Naimono-Nedari Pale Ale
- North Island Coriander Black
Belgian Ales are traditionally yeasty, fruity and heavy on the malt - Niseko Brewing's Belgian Ale is described as a nice middle-ground between a pilsner and a pale ale in terms of flavour, and is quite fruity and light. Subtle flavours like coriander and orange come through as a unique addition to this slightly wheaty take on the European favourite.
Overall we thought this was a beer that is perfect for Summer: we instantly noticed the bright, citrusy orange flavours in this one and found it quite easy to drink.
Pilsners are known to sit on the less flavoursome end of the beer spectrum, but are beloved for their drinkability, clean taste and no-fuss profiles. This pilsner is described as fresh and balanced, with a sweet yeasty and slight bitter taste from the hops.
We considered this beer 'the control' - it was definitely the least complex in terms of flavour and 'oomph' - we thought it was clean and fresh like a good pilsner should be, and would be a good option for people just starting to get into beer. We would recommend having this ice-cold, so its refreshing qualities can shine through.
The IPA [Indian Pale Ale], while a darling of the modern craft beer boom, is quite a divisive beer due to its strong, hoppy and bitter flavour. For beer lovers, it's a type of drink with endless potential and flavour combinations, which makes it exciting. But for the regular beer drinker, it might be a once-in-a-while choice that is fun [and boozy due to the high alcohol content], but ultimately too intense and heavy for a back-to-back drink session.
We found this one to be a classic IPA - plenty of hops, quite bitter and almost... dank? You can definitely taste the fermentation of hops in this beer, so it's a good bet for those who love organic beers or like strong tasting IPAs.
Pale ales are precisely that - a light coloured beer that uses predominantly pale malt. This beer is somewhat considered the catalyst for the modern microbrew industry due to it's distinction from deep dark beers of days past. This pale ale is described as a malty brown ale with a citrusy and hoppy scent.
This was one of our favourites from the taste test as it captured the attention of the Aussies who like easy-to-drink beers and the American who craves flavour. It drank incredibly smooth but was nowhere near flavourless - we noticed a nutty flavour which wasn't too bitter and noted it would be great for Autumn.
Porters are arguably the hardest beer to convince people of - it's dark, thick and packed with flavour, and drinking one is often compared to eating a full meal. But that's also what makes the humble porter worthy of its cult following - it's an experience with a long history and endless flavour possibilities [once Kacey tried a coffee-chili-chocolate porter... it was the most millennial thing she's ever done]. This porter is made to represent Hokkaido's earth and sea with locally sourced salmon, kelp and shiitake mushroom.
As expected, this porter was flavourful and dark right off the bat. We could taste a smokiness which was likely due to the salmon and mushroom additions - Miles recommends drinking this one at room temperature or slightly cooled rather than ice cold.
This is the first beer from Lupicia Brewery - new kid in town. The brand is known for its teas around Japan and locally in Niseko for its fabulous restaurant and bakery. Now they are trying their hand at brewing, and their first batch of the 'Yotei Sanroku Beer' is readily available around the area. This beer is described as "a traditional top-fermented pale ale [that is] is fresh and unfiltered. Savor the deep and rich flavor that pairs well with various meat and seafood dishes."
This pale ale was definitely richer and heavier than Niseko Brewing's, and was notably more bitter. We got slight flavours of berry, and as the description suggests, it would be best paired with a robust meal like classic Hokkaido jingisukan [lamb bbq] or yakitori. We think this would be best sipped ice cold.
So here's the thing - if you're looking for a beer that you can only get in Niseko [well, technically all of Hokkaido] but don't want to burn a hole in your pocket - this is your guy: Sapporo Classic. While Sapporo is readily available around the globe, this specific brew is only stocked in Hokkaido and has earned the status of being Sapporo Black Label's more exclusive and flavoursome brother.
We're not going to lie to you - this isn't the first time we've tried this beer. It's a right of passage for any new resident to Niseko to try and subsequently feel like a true local with this beer, so it's a staple in our drinking routine. It's fresh and clean as per the Sapporo namesake, but has a slightly more bitter taste for that 'kick' that is perfect for après ski or after a hike in the mountains.
This beer is very similar to the aforementioned Sapporo Classic, but is a limited Spring release, so it only comes around each Spring in Japan. It is described as refreshing with a hoppy flavour, and has an emphasis on a hoppy aroma, just like spring flowers in Japan.
This beer was a nice shake up from the Sapporo Classic we know and love. It's not as bitter as the original Classic, and lived up to its Spring inspiration as it was smooth and had an almost sweet aftertaste. It was malty and a lighter, less intense taste, so nice for people who don't drink beer very often. Fun fact - a seasonal Summer Classic will be released this June that is described as refreshing and highly carbonated.
This pale ale was on the hoppier side, but still tasted clean and light. Miles noticed subtle hints of pine, and regarded it as a classic American-style pale ale, while Kacey could taste some hints of stonefruit. In general we found it less carbonated than the other options and a solid choice if you're looking for a Hokkaido-made brew and are a fan of flavoursome beers.
This is the other beer we found at Patty Daddy in Kutchan town, and comes from North Island Beer in Ebetsu, just east of Sapporo. The Coriander Black is their signature dark beer that is described as rich, herby, and - you guessed it - with a fresh aroma of coriander.
This beer, while certainly dark in colour, was not too overwhelming in deep flavours - overall it tasted medium to light, but with a dark aftertaste. It wasn't too heavy, and had a smooth texture while not feeling syrupy. The toasty herb flavour came through well, however we noticed the head dissolves really fast, which was a little disappointing.
Beers we didn't get to try
We got to try all but one of the year-round Niseko Brewing beers, but as the seasons change there are lot more on offer!
- Niseko Brewing IPL [Indian Pale Lager] - Year round
- Niseko Brewing Rosee Biere - Seasonal
- Niseko Brewing Apple Ale - Seasonal
- Niseko Brewing Powder Life Pale Ale - Seasonal
- Niseko Brewing Meikyu Dashi IPA - Seasonal
- Niseko Brewing Raspberry Wheat Ale - Seasonal