Sapporo and Kirin are among Japan’s biggest beer brewers. Although Sapporo is probably more familiar to American drinkers, as the #1 most consumed Asian beer in America, Kirin remains a firm favorite in the Japanese market. If you’re wondering which beer is better, look no further than this guide to Kirin and Sapporo. First, the quick answer.

Sapporo is more of a classic Japanese-style lager, while Kirin Ichiban is more firmly rooted in the German brewing tradition. Sapporo is a lighter beer that uses rice in the brewing process, while Kirin Ichiban is 100% malt. Sapporo has a cleaner, crisper flavor profile than Kirin. Like most Japanese beers, they are both best enjoyed with a nice bowl of ramen.

This is hardly the whole story when it comes to Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban. In this article, we take a close, in-depth look at Sapporo Premium (or Sapporo Draft as it’s known outside the US) and Kirin Ichiban. We’ll discuss the contrasting flavor, smell, appearance, and history of each beer, as well as their brewing process, calories, and alcohol content. You’ll have a firm grasp of these two phenomenal Japanese beers by the end of this article.


Both Sapporo and Kirin trace their origins to the late 19th century. Sapporo, Japan’s oldest beer brand, was founded in 1876 by Seibei Nakagawa. He founded his fledgling brewing company in the town of Sapporo, naming the brand for the town. Curiously, considering that Kirin Ichiban is a more German-style beer, Nakagawa learned to brew beer in Germany. Sapporo’s first lager was launched around this time. 

The company that became Kirin, The Japan Brewery Company, was established in 1885. This was during the takeover of the Spring Valley Brewery, founded in 1869 by William Copeland, a Norwegian-American brewer. They started selling Kirin beer in 1888, establishing Kirin Brewing as a separate entity in 1907. Kirin set itself apart from other Japanese beers by importing German ingredients and employing German brewers. 

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Sapporo Premium has a very similar taste to many classic American light lagers. It’s clean. It’s crisp. It’s ideal for a warmer climate. There are notes of malty sweetness, and surprisingly well-rounded bitterness considering that it’s a lager. This beer’s flavor does not overstay its welcome. It lingers for only a moment on the palate, hoppy and light, before giving way to a clean, barely-there aftertaste. This flavor palate makes sense when you consider that Sapporo Premium is meant to be consumed with an aromatic, flavorsome Japanese meal: it should complement the distinct umami, citrus, and salty flavors of Japanese cuisine.

Kirin Ichiban is a similarly easy drinking beer, with a malty, bready taste. It’s actually a little buttery on the palate, with minimal bitterness and a fuller body than Sapporo. This is because Sapporo is brewed using rice as a key ingredient, giving it the characteristic thinner taste of an Asian beer. The gentle malt notes soothe the tongue and give this beer this a subtly stronger flavor than the Sapporo Premium offers. 


As you take a sip of Sapporo, you’ll notice the classic silky, carbonated sensation of a standard lager. It’s crisp, refreshing, and well suited to the beer’s lighter flavors. 

Kirin Ichiban has a surprisingly prickly mouthfeel. It actually feels more carbonated than it looks, which may catch some drinkers off-guard. This is far from overbearing or unpleasant, and offers a pleasant tongue-tingle to complement this beer’s light malty flavor.


Sapporo’s aroma reminds one of uncooked rice, which checks out considering that rice is a key ingredient in the brewing process of this beer. It also has some light grainy cereal notes, not unlike that of a Coors or Keystone Light, especially as you first open the can. 

Kirin Ichiban, on the other hand, has a more complex aroma. There are distinct notes of hops, with a faint hint of banana that recall North German lagers in its sweetness. There’s a little bit of the grassy, herby background notes to this beer’s aroma, a pleasant accompaniment to this easy drinking beer.


Sapporo Premium has 140 calories per 120z serving. Kirin Ichiban offers slightly more calories at 145 calories per serving of the same size. 

It’s worth nothing that, although there’s only five calories’ difference between these beers, post-work drinking with one’s co-workers is a staple of Japanese culture. It would be easy to consume either of these light, easy drinking beers in bulk while doing so. 

Alcohol Content

Sapporo’s ABV of 4.9% is almost identical to Kirin’s at 5%. As with the calorific content of these beers, this difference is negligible, and unlikely to have much impact on most drinkers.


Sapporo, poured out of the can, fills your class with a clear, pale yellow beer. The white, pleasantly foamy head doesn’t last long, as you’d expect from a typical lager, with the beer settling easily into the glass.

Kirin’s pale gold color is almost transparent and looks great if you’re drinking outdoors on a sunny day. Its two-finger head is a fine, white color and lingers for a surprisingly long time.

Sapporo Premium, as it’s mostly consumed in the US, comes in a very cool silver can! As with the beer’s flavor, most American drinkers will be familiar with the design of this can as it echoes the famous Coors or Keystone
“silver bullet”. The can is made from steel rather than aluminum, and has a decent amount of weight to it. It feels more like you’re holding a miniature keg than a can of beer! Once upon a time, Sapporo sold their beer in a can with a fully removable top. They shaped the can like a beer glass in order to mimic the experience of drinking Sapporo beer from a glass! Alas, Sapporo no longer offer the fully removable top, but they’ve kept their cool-looking beer can.

Kirin Ichiban makes sure you won’t mistake it for typical Japanese beer: it boasts that it’s made with 100% hops right there on the can. The can also features an impressive Japanese design of the Qilin, the mythical horse-like creature for which the brand is named.

What Do Other People Think About Both Beers?

Below, we gathered the scores of both beers and compared them to each other. Ratings are on a scale from 1-10.

Average Score6.56.13

Both of these Japanese beers are similarly rated, with some identical scores. Most users seemed to narrowly prefer Sapporo Premium, earning Japan’s oldest beer brand an average score 0.37 points higher than Kirin.

One Beeradvocate user said of Kirin Ichiban:

Simple lager, kind of sweet, light body. This is very easy to drink, and refreshing. Goes well with sushi as it’s no overpowered flavor. Nothing super exciting here but nothing wrong either.


Brewing Process & Ingredients

Both of these breweries have refined their processes over the past one hundred and fifty years. Sapporo use yeast, malted barley, water, hops, and, of course, rice to make their beer, and also use buckwheat in small amounts in the brewing process. This use of buckwheat mirrors a common brewing practise in Africa, setting Sapporo apart from many other Asian brewers.

Kirin are very proud of their German brewing heritage, and detail the brewing process for Ichiban on their website. Chief among the factors setting Ichiban apart from other Japanese beers is their use of 100% malt. The other ingredients in Ichiban are hops and water. Kirin also use only the first press of their wort, giving the beer its name – “Ichiban” being the Japanese for “first”. The first press of the wort, Ichiban claims, has a clearer, purer flavor without the bitterness and full body of the second press. 

Brand Image

Considering that Sapporo and Kirin are two of Japan’s biggest brewers, their international and domestic reputations are quite similar.

The major difference between the two brands is Sapporo’s firm foothold in the United States. Sapporo Premium is marketed and branded clearly as a rival to the classic middle-American light lager, down to its flavor and silver can. This considerable effort is certainly not in vain, as Sapporo Premium remains the best-selling Asian beer in the United States. Kirin, on the other hand, more heavily embraces its Japanese heritage and identity, as is evident on Ichiban’s gorgeously designed label.

Kirin positioned itself as a more refined, premium brewer than Sapporo, with much of the brand identity focused on Kirin’s proud heritage and use of premium ingredients.

Sapporo vs Kirin

Generally speaking, Sapporo has a cleaner, crisper taste than Kirin Ichiban. Sapporo is widely preferred in the American market, while Kirin has a firm foothold in various international markets, including at home in Japan, in Europe, and even South America. 

Both these beers would go great with a Japanese dinner. Next time you’re out for sushi or ramen, try either one – or both – and enjoy the beer as its makers intended.