Sapporo is Japan’s oldest beer brewer. It’s also the the #1 most consumed Asian beer in America, with Sapporo Premium (also known as Sapporo Draft overseas) outselling all other Asian beers in the US market. Sapporo also offers an all-malt premium beer called Sapporo Reserve. Which beer is better? First, the quick answer.
Sapporo is best known for producing classic Japanese style lagers. Although Sapporo Premium has a somewhat lighter, crisper flavor, while Reserve has a maltier flavor indicative of its 100% malt brewing process. As with many Japanese beers, these beers taste best served chilled, in a glass, alongside a nice bowl of ramen.
In this article, we’re going to look closely at both of these Sapporo beers to determine which of the two reigns supreme. We’ll examine their smell, flavor, history, appearance, mouthfeel, calories, alcohol content and the brewing process, examining what we like and what we don’t about each beer. You’ll be a black belt in Japanese lager knowledge by the end of this article.
Sapporo, founded in 1876, is Japan’s oldest beer brand. Seibei Nakagawa, after learning the art of beer brewing in Germany, opened his brewing company in the town of Sapporo. They launched their first lager, inspired by classic German beers, around this time.
Today, Sapporo has five breweries in Japan and, catering to their loyal American fanbase, the Sleeman brewery in Canada, and Sapporo Brewing Company in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the USA. Sapporo Premium as most American drinkers would have it comes from the Wisconsin brewery. Sapporo Reserve is brewed and bottled at the Sleeman brewery in Ontario, Canada.
Sapporo Premium’s crisp, clean taste recalls a classic American light lager. With some hints of malty sweetness and minimal aftertaste, this is a highly drinkable beer. It has some lightly hoppy sweetness, but overall Premium is not an overwhelmingly strongly flavored beer.
Sapporo Reserve is bolder, maltier, and grainier on the palate than Sapporo Premium. As you’d expect from a European lager, it doesn’t have much body, although it lacks the watery body of Premium, likely due to the exclusion of rice from the brewing process. The grain taste is more reminiscent of corn than the usual toast or bread notes one might expect from a lager. It has a slightly peppery “bite” to the finish, although this is subtle.
Like most Japanese beers, these are designed to be enjoyed alongside a nice Japanese meal. Sapporo Reserve in particular feels like it would pair well with strongly flavored fish like salmon or tuna that are popular in Japanese restaurants.
Sapporo Premium has the silky, carbonated mouthfeel on your tongue that you’d expect from a typical American lager. It’s very crisp and very refreshing, if a little thin.
Sapporo Reserve, on the other hand, is much sharper up front. It’s crisp and clean, like Premium, softly carbonated, and has a little more body and a crisp, dry finish. The mouthfeel of these beers are more similar than they are different, but astute drinkers will notice subtle differences, mostly that Sapporo Reserve has a touch more body and breadth to its mouthfeel, just as it does with its taste.
Sapporo Premium has an aroma typical of Japanese beers, not unlike the smell of a freshly opened bag of rice. This light cereal scent is similarly reminiscent of American light lagers.
Sapporo Reserve has a more complex aroma by a long way. There are hints of citrus, plenty of sweet malted cereal notes, and even a touch of the herby cut-grass smell of some European beers. Overall it’s not an overly aromatic beer, but it has a touch more character than Sapporo Premium.
This is a negligible difference of only eleven calories. Over time, if you’re consuming these highly drinkable beers in bulk, that might add up, but for most beer drinkers you can consider them about the same.
Sapporo Premium has a fairly standard ABV of 4.9%, very close to the 5.1% ABV of Sapporo Reserve. This won’t make much difference at all to pretty much any beer drinker, but Sapporo Reserve is slightly stronger in terms of alcohol percentage.
Sapporo Premium, poured straight out of its silver can, pours a nicely clear, pale yellow beer. The silky white head barely lingers on the glass, as is standard for lagers.
Sapporo Reserve is a touch darker in color, more of a honeyed gold shade with a nice white head with plenty of lacing. It’s not a dark beer by any stretch of the imagination, but its shade of gold with about a finger’s width of white head looks absolutely gorgeous in the beer glass.
Sapporo won a Best of Packaging award in 2020 for their White Belgian-style beer, and their dedication to great packaging carries through to their other products. Sapporo Premium comes in a hefty steel can that looks just about indestructible. Most of its competitors in the American market also come in silver cans, but they look pretty flimsy by comparison.
Sapporo’s can is similarly designed to the “silver bullet” style cans made famous by the like of Coors Light, but made of steel instead of aluminum. Once upon a time, Sapporo’s Premium beer can had a fully removable top, which, coupled with the can’s shape – like a beer glass – allowed Sapporo drinkers to mimic the experience of drinking Sapporo from a glass! Sapporo have retained the beer glass-like shape to the can, but switched to the typical pull tab for their can tops. Sapporo Reserve comes in a similarly shaped steel can with a golden bottom, reminiscent of the lovely golden color of this 100% malt beer.
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.
Both of these Sapporo beers rate similarly across the board. Users seemed to narrowly prefer Sapporo Reserve, although Influenster users gave Sapporo Premium a slim lead of 8.8 compared to 8.6.
One Beeradvocate user said of Sapporo Reserve:
There is nothing overpowering about this brew, it has a super nice balance to it. Really Refreshing drinking brew. This brew would go nice with any meal lunch or dinner.Source
Brewing Process & Ingredients
Sapporo, the oldest brewing company in Japan, was named for the town of Sapporo in which the brand originated. Sapporo use yeast, malted barley, water, hops, and, of course, rice to make their Premium beer. They also use buckwheat in small amounts in the brewing process, not unlike the process for making some African beers.
Sapporo Reserve sets itself apart by using 100% malted barley. Sapporo Premium as sold in the US is brewed at Sapporo’s brewery in Wisconsin. If you’re buying Sapporo Premium in Canada, or Sapporo Reserve anywhere, it’s probably from the Sleeman Brewery in Ontario, Canada.
Sapporo has long been a market leaders in Japanese beer. Sapporo’s branding reflects its roots: a premium import for local drinkers. The original Sapporo brewery marked an attempt to bring the high standards and prestige associated with German brewing to Japan. Accordingly, the brand tends to market itself as a high-end product, represented by their use of gold stars and quality materials in everything from the beer itself to the cans the beer comes in.
Sapporo Premium is much closer to a middle-American beer than Sapporo Reserve would be. As the best-selling Asian beer in the USA, Sapporo Premium caters remarkably well to the American palate. This may well be because Sapporo traces its origins to old-school German brewing practises, just as many American breweries do.
Sapporo Reserve is listed among the brand’s premium offerings, somewhat confusingly for American drinkers familiar with their flagship product, also named Sapporo Premium. Overseas, what is known in the US as Sapporo Premium is named Sapporo Draft. Sapporo Reserve is aimed at more discerning drinkers with its fuller body and emphasis on the all-malt brewing process.
Sapporo Reserve vs Premium
These two beers from Sapporo have more in common than they don’t. Specifically, Sapporo Reserve feels more like Sapporo Premium’s bigger, bolder brother. They’re both low-risk, highly drinkable lagers perfect for a hot day.
As an established favorite among American beer drinkers, those who enjoy Sapporo Premium will likely enjoy Reserve just as much, if not more, especially if they prefer a fuller, more robust beer.
Both of these Sapporo beers are best enjoyed alongside a hot, salty meal. Ramen? Perfect. Fried chicken? Why not! Really, any fried or barbecued meal would pair great with either of these beers. The Japanese tend to brew their beer to be enjoyed alongside traditional Japanese food, so next time you’re enjoying a tuna roll or a steaming hot bowl of ramen, try ordering a Sapporo to wash it all down.