Rice has been used to make alcohol for many, many years. Sake, the Japanese rice wine, is the type of alcohol usually associated with the grain, but rice can also be used in beer. In the West beer made with rice is generally looked down upon as it’s mainly used in cheap lagers like Budweiser as an inexpensive way of increasing alcohol without adding flavor. Despite this reputation, there are some interesting beers with rice out there.
The most well known type of beer that uses rice as a main ingredient, the rice lager, also comes from Japan. The rice lagers produced by Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi are extremely popular throughout Japan, and at sushi restaurants here in the USA. Because rice lacks certain enzymes that traditional beer grains like barley have, most rice lagers contain a certain amount of barley as well, but it’s the rice that define this style’s flavor and alcohol. As I mentioned before, rice is not a very flavorful grain when used in beer so rice lagers tend to be very light, clean and dry, similar to American lagers like Budweiser and Coors. Hop flavor is also light, with soft, round notes to it.
For many years, there were no craft brewers in Japan at all. A law, which was overturned in 1994, required all breweries to produce at least 2 million liters of beer a year, making it all but impossible for smaller brewers to produce craft beer. Since 1994 there have been a number of Japanese brewers to emerge, many of whom have experimented with the basic rice lager formula to produce some delicious and flavorful beers that are miles away from typical rice lagers.
The beers in the Hitachino Nest series from the Kiuchi Brewery have become well known as some of the best beer produced in Japan. They brew a full line of wonderful western-style beers from their excellent white ale to their spicy Classic Ale IPA. Additionally they also brew some experimental styles that matches western beers with traditional Japanese ingredients. Take for example their Red Rice ale, which combines traditional red rice used to produce premium sake with barley that is fermented with both ale and sake yeast. The end result is a unique fusion of East and West flavors. The beer is light but strong with spicy and tart flavors unlike any other beer I’ve ever had. This ruby red brew is a wonderfully crisp drink for springtime, so be sure to check it out if you can.