Sapporo Premium vs Kirin Ichiban: Japanese Beer Showdown

The Beer Babe is reader supported. When you buy a delicious brew via our links our partners Drizly and others kick us a few cents to buy a beer.

Share this article

Sapporo and Kirin are the two most recognized Japanese beer brands in the US and abroad. Sapporo, alone, is the number one Asian beer, according to their website. Despite this, their sales represent only small slices of sales in the US (.03 percent and .02 percent, respectively). So we’d guess that most of those sales come from the Nation’s Japanese restaurants.  

In this showdown, we take a closer look at these two pale lagers, Sapporo Breweries’ flagship beer, Sapporo Premium and Kirin Ichiban Shibori, the all malt lager and one of Japan’s most popular beer brands. 


Both beer brands have a long history dating back to the 19 century, each being an integral part of Japanese culture. The Sapporo Brewery is traced back to 1876 and is the oldest in the country. Sapporo was originally part of the state-owned Hokkaido Development Commission but went private a decade later.

The brewery combined with the makers of Asahi beer to create a near monopoly on the Japanese beer market from 1906 to 1949, when the company was broken up. 

After World War II, Sapporo resumed production under the Nipon name in 1956. The brewery has been called Sapporo Breweries since 1964, and since then, Sapporo has developed its own beer portfolio and relaunched the Yebisu beer brand in 1971.

Sapporo Beer Offerings  

Author Andy sampling a Sapporo Premium
  • Sapporo Premium
  • Sapporo Premium Black
  • Sapporo Premium Light
  • Sapporo Reserve
  • Sapporo Reserve
  • Sapporo Pure
  • Sapporo Classic (Available in Hokkaido, Japan)

The story of Kirin begins with the Japan Brewery Company, which was first established in 1885 by taking over the Spring Valley Brewery (1869).

The brewery first sold a beer called Kirin in 1888, and in 1907, the assets of the Japan Brewing Company were purchased, and the Kirin Brewery Company was established.

Today, Kirin’s strategic partnerships expand beyond Japan and brewing. Notably, Kirin has a 100% stake in Lion Nathan Limited, an Australian-based subsidiary that recently purchased craft beer makers New Belgium Brewing and Bell’s Brewery. 

Kirin Beers

  • Kirin Lager
  • Kirin Ichiban Shibori
  • Kirin Green Label (Kirin Tanrei)
  • Grand Kirin (various craft centric, including Grand Kirin IPA)
  • Kirin Free (NA)
  • Kirin Heartland
  • Kirin Nodogoshi
  • Kirin Gogo no Koucha
  • Kirin Frozen


Andy with a Kirin Ichiban (ichiban means “number one” in Japanese)

Sapporo Premium

The first thing you notice is the rice. I’d describe it as baby rice cereal, almost like white bread with a subtly richness that I perceive as vanillin. A very subtle herbal hop character cuts this warm aroma. The aroma is pleasant and invites the beer drinker to take a sip.

Kirin Ichiban

The first impression of Kirin is a skunky, apple-like aroma. This may be due to poor handling of the beer in distribution or at the store where I bought it, but I review what’s available. Other than the notes I’d consider flaws, there were only aromas to comment on. 

For an all malt beer, I’d expect a light, toasted malt. Some floral hops would be pleasant and appropriate to the style in lower levels, but for the most part, this beer did not have much to talk about concerning the way it smelled. If this seems like I’m knocking it, I’m not. I actually like the skunky sulfur smell; it’s rustic and stirs nostalgia in me. This beer isn’t going to turn heads in craft beer bars, but on a hot summer day, you can be sure it will be one of the popular beers ordered. 


Andy: “Kirin pours yellow and clear with a cap of foam”

Sapporo Premium

The Sapporo beer pours straw to a very pale yellow. The head is bright white, and I was impressed by its resilience before finally collapsing. As I enjoyed the beer, the foam left wispy lace marks down the glass that kept track of each gulp I took. 

Kirin Ichiban

The Kirin Ichiban beer poured into a full-sized glass was yellow, clear, and bubbled a spritzy white cap of foam. Unfortunately, the foam did not last and was practically non-existent for the rest of the beer-drinking experience. 


Sapporo comes in cans and bottles

Sapporo Premium

Light, bready malts accentuate the rice sweetness, and herbal hops provide flavor and bitterness, which adds to the crisp taste of this beer. Honestly, this is a great tasting beer, and I am not surprised that this is the best selling beer from Japan in the US. It’s light, crisp, balanced, and has a refreshing taste. More beer drinkers should look at it not as an Asian beer but as a great beer for drinking and food pairings (see here for our full review of Sapporo Premium).

Kirin Ichiban

The Kirin beer was a bit of a mess. Yes, we know it is brewed with malted barley for a rich flavor, but that rich taste gets lost in translation when there are other distracting flaws. Kirin Ichiban has a grainy malt character that reminded me of flour. When I think of rich malt, I think of toasted bread or whole grains. The Kirin beer did not reach those malt levels. Instead, it remained sulfur-like on the palate, tangy and metallic. Again, this could be a poor example of the beer. On a positive note, I liked the bitterness, which complemented the dry effervescence. 


Just the thing on a hot day or night: a cold Sapporo in a frosted glass

Sapporo Premium

Dryness is the key to these Japanese beers. Specifically, dryness is a lack of sweetness from residual, unfermentable sugars. Sapporo achieves this; it’s bone dry. And yet, the rice lends this beer a roundness that is remarkable compared to other beers that share its category. 

Kirin Ichiban

Kirin is a very dry beer, but the excessive carbonation sticks out to me. It has a carbonic bite that makes for an extremely sharp aftertaste. This, combined with the oxidative metallic character, may have detracted from the overall beer experience, but if you can appreciate the beer for what it is, you’d give it a pass.


Sapporo Premium: 140

Kirin Ichiban: 145

Alcohol Content

Sapporo Premium: 4.9%

Kirin Ichiban: 5%

What Do Other People Think About Both Japanese Beers?

To reviewers, these are popular beers from Japan but not the best Japanese beers. Generally, beer-centric review sites like Untappd and Beer Advocate ranked these beers poorly. Influenster, which I’ve mentioned before, reviews all sorts of products, is not made up of beer lovers and tends to rank beers better. You can decide for yourself, but it would seem that the craft beer geeks don’t see these beers having value outside of the setting of Asian restaurants—a bit of a shame, at least for the Sapporo beer.

ReviewerAsahi PremiumKirin Ichiban
Untappd  3.1773.1
Rate Beer2.422.22
Beer Advocate68 (Poor)64 (Poor)

Brewing Process & Ingredients

Not surprisingly, both beers complement Japanese food well

Sapporo and Kirin are lagers, meaning they will undergo extended cold fermentation compared to ales. These beers differ slightly in ingredients, however. Premium is a rice lager brewed to be a refreshing beer with an extremely crisp taste. 

Kirin Ichiban is an all malt lager brewed with malted barley for a rich taste compared to other Japanese beers with rice, like Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. Both beers are brewed at multiple locations around the world with high quality ingredients. 

Final Thoughts: Sapporo vs Kirin

Two mainstream Japanese beers that together have a place in any Japanese restaurant because they are very different beers. Sapporo’s flagship beer, Premium, is a good-tasting pale lager with rice. It is clean and crisp, which would pair well with Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi. 

Kirin Ichiban is an easy drinking beer brewed with malted barley. The beer reminds me of an American style lager, like PBR. Its rich flavor accompanies Japanese food well, too, but would be more appropriate at the hibachi with other fried Japanese dishes.  

My final thought is that Sapporo and Kirin are very popular. If I had to choose, I’d order a Sapporo over the Kirin in most situations, but just because they are popular doesn’t mean they are the best Japanese beers. Sapporo Reserve is another option to consider.

Japan has some quality craft beers, and if you’re searching for beers in Japan or from Japan, you could find better Japanese beers than these.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?

Share this article

Photo of author


Andy Sparhawk is an avid beer lover and the former editor-in-chief for Andy is the lead writer for The Beer Babe and lives in Westminster, Colorado, with his family. As beer enthusiast and experienced beer judge, he loves sharing his experiences with The Beer Babe's dedicated audience of beer enthusiasts.