Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Yebisu Beer: Home of Tokyo's Biggest Beer Garden

Feb. 26th, 2011:

When people think of Japanese alcohol, they are most likely to think of sake.  However, there are many more offerings in Japan when it comes to alcohol besides sake.  Besides sake and sochu (another Japanese drink made from fermented sweet potatoes popular in Kyushu), Japanese people also enjoy a whole host of western origin drinks as well.  Quite possibly the most popular every day drink would be beer.  Japan's taking to beer along with Japan having a heavy drinking culture has brought on the enamoring of beer gardens in the German style, complete with large size drinking glasses (rare in Japan otherwise) and popular German food (think pretzels and sausages).  The biggest and most famous of them all in Tokyo is Yebisu Beer Garden in Ebisu, Tokyo.

This gigantic complex is home to not only the beer garden, but to Yebisu Beer and its museum as well.  Yebisu Beer today is owned by Sapporo, the most famous and first brewery of Japan.  In my opinion, Yebisu is the best of the macrobreweries that Japan has to offer because it still retains some of its roots  from its history of being more European in style and has more flavor and a larger variety of tastes compared to the other macros.  The other macros are basically all the same as typical Japanese beer and even its varieties basically being more a change in can than a change of flavor.  The beer is good and refreshing enough, but gets a bit bland and boring quickly (if you couldn't tell, one of the things I miss is easily accessible American and European beer).  Yebisu suffers the least from this and has a couple of good offerings with a dark beer and a hoppier beer called fittingly enough, The Hop.  Here is Yebisu's current lineup that I have found and tasted with a small review of each.

The whole lineup of Yebisu Beer that I have found in cans.

The three most common varieties, from left to right: Premium Yebisu, Silk Yebisu and Yebisu Black.

Premium Yebisu: The standard Yebisu.  Similar to many of the other macro Japanese beers, but a bit deeper and more complex taste than the usual crisp and light Japanese beers.  The malt definitely helps provide a fuller taste than other common beers here.  Yebisu comes the closest of the mass-produced beer to being different from the typical Japanese beer and being more like a pilsner you might find in other places around the world.

Silk Yebisu:  Very similar to Premium Yebisu, but a little lighter and smoother.  Not much else to say here.

Yebisu Black:  One of the rare dark beer options to be had here from one of the major Japanese breweries.  Nice mixing of malt flavors, with a deeper malt flavor in the beginning and the aftertaste of a sweet and slightly bitter caramel malt.  Although compared with beer outside of Japan, I think most people would consider it a bit 'watery.'  Even so, I'm happy that the option exists for a major Japanese beer.

Kohaku Yebisu: The can on the left is from 2010, the can on the right from 2011.

Kohaku Yebisu: Yebisu's amber ale.  I've only had the new one once, but the taste from the previous one and this new one seem to be really different.  In 2010 - early 2011, it started as a mild flavor, but then a strong hop flavor comes in.  In the canned Kohaku this was too sharp and bitter for my liking, but at the tasting salon it was much better blended and had a pleasant hop taste that was rare to find in a Japanese beer.  The one I've had more recently had an overpowering malt flavor and the hop taste was gone.  The malt taste was bitter and too overpowering in my opinion.

The last three that I've found so far, although these are hard to come by.  From left to right: Yebisu The Hop, Yebisu Cho-choki-jukusei and Yebisu Asuka Cruise. 

Yebisu the Hop:  Easily my favorite Japanese macro beer.  One of the few that realizes hops can be a taste used in beer and doesn't have to be bad.  Still a weak flavor, but noticeable hop taste while drinking and even a slight hoppy aftertaste with a pretty good balance of sweet and bitter.  The only bad things about it considering its Japanese macro beer status is the difficulty in finding one.

Yebisu Cho-choki-kujusei: Definitely the most interesting and complex tasting of the beers here.  Some slight malt taste, but masked by a variety of sweet flavors and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  An interesting effort, especially in a place with little experimentation, but wasn't my favorite.

Yebisu Asuka Cruise: The deal with the name is that it was originally a special edition served on the Asuka II cruise ship.  Otherwise it was a limited edition beer and one that I doubt will be sold again.  Not much of a difference from the Premium Yebisu, but slightly lighter, smoother and slight tastes of bitterness.

Yebisu Beer's name and logo come from the god Ebisu (Yebisu), one of the Seven Gods of Good Luck (Shichi Fukujin) that I briefly mentioned at the end of my experience in Shibamata's Taishakuten.  Yebisu is the only of the Shichi Fukujin to originate in Japan, as the rest are of Chinese origin.  Yebisu is the god of fishermen, luck, business prosperity and fair dealing.  Yebisu usually is wearing formal court clothing and holding a fishing rod and a red sea bream or red snapper.  The fish is a mark of good luck. [1]

The statue of Yebisu in the entrance hall of the Yebisu Beer Museum.

You might have noticed that I have been using Yebisu and Ebisu interchangeably so far.  However, there is a reason for this.  The character Ye in Japanese, ゑ/ヱ is an old character that was dropped following orthographic reforms after World War II.  The Ye character was done away with and is pronounced the same way as the E character in Japanese today.  So when talking about the god or the neighborhood today the correct spelling would be Ebisu, but the brewery kept the historical character of Ye in its name.  Otherwise, there is no difference between the two.

Before going straight to the drinking, we decided to do the museum tour.  Despite its small size and being a subsidiary of Sapporo now, Yebisu Beer has had a long and impressive history of its own.  Yebisu was also one of the pioneers in brewing in Japan starting in 1890 (Sapporo brewery was founded in 1876).  At the time, they brought German brewmasters to brew beer and teach the Japanese how to do it.  They built the brewery out in the farmlands of then sparsely populated present day Meguro Ward. [2]

A picture of the original building, now on the outside of the present building.  It might be too small to see, but the sign was written in German and not English, 'Yebisu-Brauerei' noting its German roots in brewing.

This gave its beer a higher quality than others in the area and even brought some of the first international recognition for Japanese beer.  These awards included a gold prize in the Paris Expo of 1900 and the grand prix of the 1904 St. Louis Expo.  This is more impressive considering the time it took to transport these bottles to the competitions in a time when it could take a month or more to transport them there. [3]

A 1900s era gift box of Yebisu Beer.  Besides the logo carved in the wooden box, the two medals they won can also be seen in the top left and right.

On August 4th, 1899, Yebisu opened the first beer hall ever in Japan.  It opened in Ginza, Tokyo headed by Kyohei Magoshi who was the head of Japan Beer Brewery Company. [4]

A model of the original beer hall building in the museum.

Beer at the time was sold at 10 sen.  Considering a bowl of noodles was sold for only 1 sen at the time, beer was an expensive luxury item.  However, the beer hall increased not only the popularity of Yebisu Beer, but beer as a whole.  In fact, the original beer hall still exists today, but under the name Sapporo Lion Beer Hall denoting its ownership by Sapporo.

This increased popularity created the need for a train station at the Yebisu plant.  In February of 1901, a freight station was built at the Yebisu factory and in 1906 the current Ebisu station was built and also started passenger service.  By 1928, the surrounding area was renamed Ebisu, one of the few places in Japan where an area and train station were named after a company. [5]

The old Yebisu station.

Yebisu Beer was very successful until World War II.  Due to the war effort, money and resources couldn't be wasted on leisure items, so the government heavily regulated the industry.  At first, the government enforced a set price for beer.  In 1940, distribution was controlled by the government and by 1943 all brand labels were abolished, meaning beer could still be produced, but no long received any label besides a standard government label. [6]

The government labeled beer from the late war period.

Much different from these labels the year before brand labels were abolished.

With brand labels abolished, brewing companies were blocked from operating and many of Japan's breweries never reopened.  Only the largest of them reopened, Asahi, Sapporo and a few others.  Small breweries were gone, only to return in recent years.  Yebisu seemed to share the same fate; its doors seemingly closed forever.  However, in December of 1971, Sapporo brought Yebisu back to life due to customer request and Yebisu has now continued ever since. [7]

After the museum tour it was time for some tastings.  The tastings were included with the tour.  It was two free drinks and some nice Yebisu Beer Hall snacks.  However, they only gave you 10-15 minutes for the whole tasting and gave a 5 minute introduction which you're supposed to wait for so the free tasting time felt rushed and wasn't the nicest.  Next to the free tasting area is a tasting salon, which while costing money, has nice food options and your choice of 4 different varieties and no time limit.  We spent a lot more time here.

The first step is to get special Yebisu tasting salon coins.  Everything on the menu costs 1, 2 or 3 of these coins.  (Drinks cost 1 and only the best entrees cost 3).  In the front of the tasting salon are vending machines just for these coins (you'll find that there are vending machines for everything imaginable here).

What those two coins went to.  Yebisu Black on the left and Kohaku Yebisu on the right.

Both beers were much tastier at the tasting salon, but especially the Kohaku Yebisu.  I had mentioned above in the reviews about the difference between in the can and at the tasting salon, but it was a much larger difference than I was expecting.  It actually made for a really nice beer while there.  I initially bought it only because I wanted to try all of the beers that they were offering and wasn't expecting much because of my previous experiences, but it ended up being a pleasant surprise.

At the tasting salon we also lucked out, because we had happened to come to the museum during their 1 year anniversary, so we received some nice glassware to take home when we got our drinks.

Front and back.

Of course, the museum visit wouldn't be complete without taking a picture of the giant Yebisu can in the front.

This is about 6 feet tall.

After the museum, we decided to walk around the beer garden and have dinner there.  The beer garden itself is a beautiful area combing stores and restaurants that look like an old German town and mashing it perfectly with the spectacular modern glass arch over the rest of the beer garden.  It's a really pleasant place to take a stroll, or you know, have a beer.

We had dinner in one of the smaller restaurant buildings.  Everything was set up as a beer garden experience, but in a restaurant and with Beatles songs playing the whole time (European feel here almost always automatically means Beatles music).  Dinner was quite good, as we had typical German beer garden food such as sausages, pretzels and the like.  I also had Yebisu Creamy Top Stout, which is a very nice stout, that's smooth and creamy but not much else going for it.  It was very good for what it is.  After dinner, we finished our trip to Yebisu Beer Garden and returned home.  If you happen to be in Tokyo after a long day, this might be just the spot to take a rest.


1. Mark Schumaker, "Ebisu (Yebisu),"

2. "Yebisu Tour English," Museum of Yebisu Beer, February, 2011.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy Yebisu, I've obviously had the original, and I've had the white can. I've yet to see anything else. I'm currently living and going to school in Fukuoka at FLCC. But, I keep my eyes open for any other beers that are not found in every conbini in the country and grab them up when I can... beer stores that have iroiro are hard to come by around here, although there are a few hiding around randomly.