Our feature this week is Yebisu, a German pale lager based on the Dortmunder style. Originally established in 1887 as the Japan Beer Brewery Company, Yebisu took its name from the Japanese god of fishermen and luck, one of the seven Gods of Fortune. The brewery was initially located on a plot of farmland in what is now Mita in the Meguro ward of Tokyo. In 1928, the district and nearby train station adopted the name of the brewery, establishing the district of Ebisu (“Yebisu” is the archaic spelling). In 1906, Yebisu, Sapporo, and Asahi combined to form the Dai-Nippon Beer Company, Ltd., which for nearly fifty years maintained a virtual monopoly on the beer market in Japan. But as a result of wartime rationing and supply shortages, Yebisu was discontinued in 1943; after 1949, Dai-Nippon broke up into Sapporo and Asahi. Yebisu, today owned by Sapporo, was finally relaunched in 1971 as a German-style barley beer. In 1988, Yebisu moved its brewery to the city of Chiba; the Yebisu Garden Place was constructed on the site of the old brewery in Tokyo. Sapporo’s headquarters are today located in the Yebisu Garden Place complex.
As is the case with Sapporo and Kirin, Yebisu has its roots in German beer. In the late 1880s upon the brewery’s foundation, Yebisu (then the Japan Beer Brewery Company) invited German brewmaster Carl Kayser to teach brewing techniques to the Japanese workers. Kayser was a brewer by profession who was born and raised in the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany. He worked for Yebisu for nearly nine years, assisting the company in the production of a pale lager and a dark lager, while adhering to the tenets of the German Beer Purity Law enacted in 1516, which restricted brewing ingredients to malt, hops, and water. Yebisu to this day continues to use 100% malt, whereas brands such as Asahi Super Dry use adjuncts like rice. Upon its initial release in 1890, Yebisu beer quickly gained popularity, becoming Tokyo’s representative style; its fame spread overseas within a decade, taking the gold prize in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.
Around the world today, the most widely available and regularly consumed beer style is pale lager. Much of the credit for this state of affairs goes to the modern Bohemian pilsner, first presented to the public in the city of Plzeň in the Czech Republic in 1842, 45 years before Yebisu’s founding. Its sudden popularity was due to its relatively pale color, made possible by novel English kilning techniques; its distinctive earthy, herbal, and spicy hop flavor; and its crystal clear appearance, thanks to Bavarian-style lagering. The style spread across Europe in the space of a few decades, inspiring regional adaptations along the way. Among such adaptations was Dortmunder, first brewed in the Westphalian city of Dortmund, at which time the area was a major center for coal and steel. In 1873, a handful of breweries banded together to form the Dortmund Union, the brewery credited with originating the Dortmunder style. While brewers used similar malt and hops as the Bohemian pilsner, one of the more noted differences came from the hardness of the local water, which contains high levels of sulfates and chlorides, whereas the water in Plzeň is very soft. The hop character of Dortmunder benefits from the minerals in the same way as English pale ale brewed in Burton-upon-Trent, whose high-sulfate water mellows hop harshness while giving the bitterness a crisp accent.
Yebisu pours a deep, vibrant amber and an eggshell-white head. In the aroma is a delicate, vaguely grainy sweetness and a slight flowery, lime-like tartness. The bitterness is muted but foregrounded against the lightly grainy, honey-like malt. The hop flavor is not especially strong but has an earthy, tart, and somewhat spicy taste. The sweet grains become more apparent in the aftertaste. The carbonation is crisp and the body is on the light side of medium.
Overall, my impression is that Yebisu delivers a more flavorful and better balanced beer than other mainstream brews in Japan. While the hop bitterness is more apparent than the malt sweetness, it doesn’t completely dominate; at the same time, the bitterness itself is relatively mild, compared for instance to Asahi Super Dry’s karakuchi bite. The malt flavor is also more pronounced throughout, providing an agreeable backdrop for the hops. In the end, it’s smooth enough to be very drinkable and crisp and flavorful enough to be refreshing.