There’s a popular saying in Japan, “toriaezu nama,” or “let’s start with a draft beer.” People often say this when arriving at an izakaya, a Japanese-style pub. First comes beer. Then comes food. Across Asia, there is a strong connection between beer and food, and a growing number of Asian-cuisine restaurants in the U.S. highlight this connection.
Bryan Baird makes beer thinking about balance, character, and complexity. “But in the Japanese aesthetic, balance reigns supreme,” he says. Baird founded Baird Brewing Company with his wife, Sayuri,in Numazu, Japan, in 2000. It has since expanded to five taprooms across Japan and helped Adam Guttentag open Harajuku Taproom in Los Angeles. Guttentag calls Harajuku Taproom a Japanese craft beer izakaya, where he serves yakitori-style food—charcoal-grilled skewers—to pair with Baird Brewing’s beers, which occupy 20 of 22 taps.
Baird Brewing’s Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale is brewed as a traditional American pale ale, but Baird adds freshly ground wasabi and green tea from Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture to produce subtle flavors that won’t overwhelm the beer or the food next to it. “We reimagined if pale ale started in Japan, what it would it be?” Baird says.
While it can be difficult to ensure availability of the same craft beer to 217 domestic restaurants, chain P.F. Chang’s does manage to carry international staples like Tsingtao from China and Tiger from Singapore, as well as Japanese Kiuchi Brewery’s Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale—a Belgian strong ale that beverage director Mary Melton favors. “It’s full, spicy, and fruity,” she says. “It’s not a beer you mow the lawn with.”
Ivan Ramen on Clinton Street in New York serves craft Japanese lagers like Hitachino Nest Yuzu Lager, because it makes a great team with ramen, according to general manager Cat Brackett. While Ivan Ramen serves this beer in cans, B. United International Inc. has found a creative way to distribute Nest Yuzu Lager in draft to other restaurants by importing it in large temperature-controlled containers that act like mobile secondary fermenters instead of plastic one-way kegs, according to division manager George Flickinger. The beer is then kegged at B. United’s facility in Connecticut. “It’s really as fresh as can be. It’s as if you’re drinking right from the bright tank,” he says.
A beer that is always available at Ivan Ramen is the Japanese Asahi Super Dry. Brackett says Asahi was a favorite of chef Ivan Orkin when he lived and cooked in Tokyo.
It’s easy to dismiss industrial imports like Asahi or Kingfisher, which is from India, as international substitutes for domestic lagers, but these beers perform an important function at the dining table. “There’s a lot going on in Asian cuisine,” Melton of P.F. Chang’s says. “There can be sour, spicy, or sweet flavors. A lager blends well with all of it, whether it’s something delicate like sushi or spicy like Mongolian beef.” Using rice in addition to barley can make Asian beers lighter, crisper, and drier, allowing diners to cleanse their palates between bites of high-flavored foods.
Daikaya in Washington, D.C., offers several Japanese craft beers, but Sapporo draft is the restaurant’s best-seller, according to Monica Lee, beverage director. Lee says it goes well with the Sapporo-style ramen that is richer and cloudier than Tokyo ramen. “Sapporo is great with everything the way Champagne goes with everything,” she says.
BiergartenLA in Los Angeles is a Korean-German gastropub that serves an array of European ales, but also carries industrial Korean lagers like Kloud, Cass, and Hite. Ann Kwon, general manager, says these beers mesh well with spicier food but also heavier German food. Kwon admits it’s easier to drink more of light beer, and sometimes that’s what people want. In Korea, she says, beer is an alternative to drinking water.
BiXi Beer in Chicago makes its own Asian-inspired beer instead of importing it. The restaurant brews beers that complement the food cooked by Korean-American chef Bo Fowler.
Many of the beer ingredients, like puffed jasmine rice and Sichuan peppercorn, are sourced from East Asia, says general manager Elliott Beier. The beers are brewed for balance, such as Unspoken Rule, a light golden ale brewed with jasmine pearl tea that Beier likes to pair with the restaurant’s seafood lo mein because the beer and seafood accentuate each other’s flavors.
Asian beer is influenced by American culture the way American food is influenced by Asian culture. There is a balance in the way Asian beer bridges both cultures, whether it’s a partnering brewery in Japan, an Asian-Midwestern brewpub, or new solutions to transporting imported products. This is the dance of balance with Asian beer. “Toriaezu nama”: first beer. Then food.