Water. Malt. Hops. Yeast.
These are the four main ingredients in beer production. And while water, hops, and yeast are all undoubtedly important components of the brewing process, perhaps the ingredient which contributes the most to the flavor profile and allows brewers ample room for creativity is malt.
What is malt?
Malt is a term used to describe a grain that has gone through the multi-step process of steeping, germinating, kilning, and roasting—otherwise known as “malting.” This process makes it easier for the brewer to extract nutrients and add flavor to beer.
While barley is still the dominant ingredient used in malts, many brewers use additional grains to create their beer. One such grain which is making waves in the brewing community worldwide is Japan’s most famous grain...rice.
The history of rice beer
Though the rice beer trend is just beginning to gain momentum in small craft breweries across the United States, you may be surprised to learn that most of the beers sold around the world use already rice as a key ingredient, and have been for quite some time.
Japanese breweries such as Sapporo, Asahi, and Kirin as well as macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch have been using rice in beer production for decades. In fact, the “king of beers” has proudly boasted the use of rice on its label since 1876. Consequently, Anheuser-Busch is the largest single buyer of rice in the United States, purchasing over $120 million worth of rice for beer production each year.
Why is rice used in beer?
As it turns out, rice lightens the color and body of beer. Most breweries, including Anheuser-Busch, use rice as more of an adjunct or secondary ingredient, contributing to a clean and dry flavor profile while reducing haze and providing a classic clear finish that is so often prized in lagers.
But more recently, the craft beer world has begun utilizing rice as a leading ingredient—highlighting rice’s ability to create light, refreshing, and crisp beers.
Rice beer as an eco-friendly alternative
However, rice beer has the potential to go beyond simply featuring as an adult beverage at your next pool party. As one Osaka brewery has shown, rice beer can play a role in sustainable eating and food waste reduction.
Japan is responsible for over 5.7 million tons of food waste yearly, with a large portion of that coming from uneaten rice. Embracing the Japanese spirit of 'mottainai', Osaka native and owner of Zipang Curry Cafe, Ikutoshi Ando, partnered with CRUST JAPAN, a company that aims to reduce food waste in Japan, to create a beer made with leftover cooked rice from his restaurant. After some trial and error and assistance from Kamigata Beer Co., the partners were able to produce a beer that has been highly praised for its aroma and drinkability—proving that rice beer can be delicious and a force for change.
Interested in trying Japanese rice beer for yourself?
Here are some Japanese rice beers to keep an eye out for:
Named after a famous soccer player who made a brilliant comeback after being forced into early retirement from injury, Hakumai Shirogane features table rice which has been granted a second life as a fragrant and refreshing beer. Manufactured by Kamigata Beer Co., Ltd. in partnership with CRUST JAPAN Inc. and Zipang Curry Cafe, Hakumai Shirogane is a beer that you can feel good about drinking and makes the perfect accompaniment for sukiyaki or Japanese curry.
The flagship beer of Japan’s first microbrewery is Echigo Brewery’s Koshihikari Rice Beer. Made with Niigata’s premium Koshihikari rice, Echigo Koshihikari is often described as extraordinarily smooth, honeyed, and toasty. It pairs well with oily izakaya foods such as mackerel, yakitori, or karaage.
Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale
This bold beer with its pinkish head from Ibaraki’s Kiuchi Shuzo brewery is for beer drinkers who aren’t afraid to experiment with flavor. With hints of caramel and dried grains mixed with fruity notes like raspberry, strawberry, and green apple, the Hitachino Red Rice Ale pairs well with seafood or can just be enjoyed on its own.
Kujukuri Ocean Rice Ale
Kangiku Meijo, a sake brewery established in the 1800s, has used their extensive experience and expertise in crafting high-quality rice-based alcohol to create the winning beer of the 2022 World Beer Awards for the “World's Best Rice Beer," Kujukuri Ocean Rice Ale. With a low alcohol content of only 4% ABU, this Saison-style ale is as light as it is refreshing. Plus, with its citrus scents, Kujukuri Ocean Rice Ale is perfectly suited for summer.
Try pairing your favorite rice beer with our FOODS THAT PAIR WITH ALCOHOL: “Otsumami” Care Package.
About the author:
Kimberly Matsuno is a professional content writer and editor from the US. Having spent several years living in the Japanese countryside, Kimberly holds a particular fondness for Japanese culture and cuisine—particularly anything made with shiso. You can view more of her work at kimberlymatsuno.com.