Japanese-style Rice Lagers Are the Crispy You’ve Been Thirsting
Think pilsner and you’re apt to think Czech. Think Mexican lager and images of maize pop into your cabeza. When you hear Japanese lager, you undoubtedly imagined a light beer made lighter with rice. Asahi Super Dry is the best-selling beer in Japan and it’s made with rice. (And corn!) Whether it’s called Japanese lager or rice lager, it deserves to be called for more often. In this era where “crispy bois” are impacting craft beer (obviously, the macro beer segment is already crispy AF), only a few Oregon breweries lead the charge.
While fermented rice-based beverages date back 9,000 years to China and what would pass as a rice beer appeared nearly 3,000 years ago there (so maybe it should be called Chinese-style lager), even though rice was shunned for a long time, these beers should be as revered as anything those Reinheitsgebot-loving Germans conjure up. Given that it’s as light as a Helles, maybe it could turn into a mainstream style if it were called a Reis Helles.
Possibly the oldest of Oregon’s packaged rice lagers—at least the longest brewed one this author knows of—is Stickmen Brewing’s Gaijin Dream. It makes sense that it debuted in 2016 given that the Japanese Izakaya-inspired brewpub opened in Lake Oswego in 2013. To augment its Japaneseness, the pilsner malt based lager also uses flaked brown rice and is hopped with the Japan-bred Sorachi Ace, giving the floral aroma a complimentary kick of lemon peel for maximum refreshment.
Speaking of dreamy, Ruse’s Shifting Dreams was developed simply to be food-friendly. The style indubitably pairs majestically with pan-Asian cuisine from sushi to curries but don’t overlook it for all your backyard barbecue faves. “The rice expression, light sweetness, and balanced hops give it a long, smooth finish,” says Ruse’s brewer/owner Shaun Kalis. “We feel like they’re equally refreshing as a Mexican lager,” but I could only have one or the other, I’d take Japanese every time.
Among the newest is pFriem’s, which premiered with a gold medal at the 2020 Great American Beer Festival in the International Pilsener category. Not a bad how-do-you-do. Hopped with three lager-friendly varietals—Saaz, Perle, and Celeia—the rice solids in the grist made this a must-buy whenever I found the limited 500-ml bottles (which I take partial blame in its disappearance but it better return soon.) Yes, pFriem’s Sparkling IPA is effervescent and clean, but their Japanese Lager takes the (rice) cake. And it’s not the only brewery in Hood River to make one. Double Mountain, home of the Heirloom Pie (it’s topped with nothing but meaty slices of heirloom tomatoes and is the most perfect pizza on Earth, which I state as a carnivore), makes Jiro Lager. Whereas IPAs may overpower such a delicacy, Jiro proves rice lagers to be a food-friendly style.
No, Japanese-style rice lagers aren’t anywhere near as popular as Mexican-style corn lagers. I’m hyper aware of this because I scrutinize the beer shelves at bottle shops and grocery stores and see many of the latter but score relatively few of the former. Funnily enough, while scanning the aisles I overheard a customer ask an employee for rice beers. I audibly shrieked with glee. It turns out, however, that she mistakenly presumed rice lagers would be brewed exclusively with rice. Unlike premium sake, which is gluten-free, Japanese-style lagers typically feature a quarter to a third rice with the bulk of the fermentables coming from barley malt.
That said, I picked up a great beer called Addition By Subtraction, dubbed a “California rice lager” by Flatland Brewing in Elk Grove which is to say the greater Sacramento area. The beer is gluten-reduced, which, as someone with no gluten intolerance, I don’t mind since they’re as full- (and beer-) flavored as regular beer.
Another gem I discovered on this kick is a Breakside and Logsdon collab called Chaos From Within. It’s brewed with Jasmine rice, so it fits the bill of a Japanese lager, but it’s also dry-hopped, so it can be dubbed an Italian lager. It goes without saying, it’d go smashingly with risotto. Incidentally, the last of my finds was Bonita Siesta brewed by Tacoma’s E9 in collaboration with Lowercase a short jaunt up in Seattle. This lager was brewed with paella rice so naturally it’d compliment Spain’s national dish and could possibly be dubbed a Spanish lager.
Still, mostly these beers are dubbed Japanese lagers. Von Ebert’s newest release is Perceptual Shift. So thirst-quenching is this beer on a rising sunny day, it’s got not only rice but oolong and green tea. Floral. Delicate. Delicious.
Perhaps the one I’ve crushed most inordinately is Level Beer Co.’s 19.2-ounce cans of Sweep the Leg. (It helps that while many pint cans cost five bucks a piece, these stovepipe cans can be found for $3.) “The first batch we made was a pilot beer that was just for fun and we thought it’d be one-and-done,” says brewer/owner Jason Barbee. “The idea was Asahi-esque with about fifteen percent puffed Jasmine rice, Southern Hemisphere hops, kind of mango-coconut sticky rice.” Cut to: it’s a year-round offering for Level now. In the world of crispies, I find nothing beats how light and dry rice lagers are while still delivering a unique, subtly-flavorful kick. And of course that’s where Sweep the Leg derives its Karate Kid reference. No mercy, all flavor.
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