Baseball and sub-par beer in Japan

The great American pastime is taken to new heights in Osaka – right down to the flavourless, watery brew on tap.

It’s often been said that there’s nothing more American than baseball. But after attending a Hanshin Tigers game in Osaka, I decided that a baseball game in Japan is much more entertaining than one in the sport’s birthplace.

For me, a day at the ballpark is about spending time outside, enjoying the view, eating a few hot dogs and probably drinking enough beer to keep myself reasonably entertained. It’s a day of idle chatter with intermittent moments of fooling myself into believing that I have a chance of catching a foul ball; a day where drunk hecklers only take a break from yelling to flag down the beer man for another over-priced brew.

In Japan, things could not be more different.

Entering Hanshin Koshien Stadium, built in 1924, was like taking a trip back in time. With no jumbotron, padded seats or luxury suites, it is one of those increasingly rare old-school stadiums that – absent of unnecessary comforts – keeps the focus on the game.

The atmosphere resembled European football more than American baseball. People stood and chanted in unison, blew horns and clanked mini bats against each other the entire time their team was at bat, and respectfully let the opposing fans do the same for their team. Almost every aspect of the game at Koshien – down to the spectacle of thousands of deflating balloons flying around the stadium during the seventh inning stretch – was better than any other I had ever been to.

Instead of hot dogs, fans dined on sushi and takoyaki (octopus balls), and there was not a beer man to be found. Instead there were beer girls, or “biru no uriko” – Japanese women in bright pink baseball caps, t-shirts and skirts, utility belts full of plastic cups and various other accoutrements, and, most importantly, a mini keg strapped to their backs. 

At US games, beer men come up with clever slogans, hoping to catch the attention of thirsty fans. In Japan, my Australian seat mate turned that relationship around. “Ooh. Look at that bird! I like her,” he would yell. “Wait, wait! Hold it right there, darlin’. Now smile for the camera. What a lovely smile you have. That’s a good girl!”

I’m fairly certain that by the end of the game, despite drinking a relatively modest amount of beer, he had taken a picture of nearly every biru no uriko in the stadium. 

I couldn’t help but think that these girls were subjected to similar behaviour on a nightly basis, all while in stifling heat with roughly 15kg of beer strapped to their backs. Even in their bright pink uniforms, the biru no uriko make US beer men, with the 24-or-so beers they carry, seem like wimps.   

I didn’t have a lot of money on hand (in Japan, it is infuriatingly difficult for foreigners to withdraw money and the stadium only accepted one type of Japanese credit card), so I had a difficult decision to make. I could either spend my 600 yen on the primary ballpark beer, Asahi Super Dry – a crisp, refreshing, but relatively flavourless beer – or I could feast on a delicious order of takoyaki.

It was too hard to justify sacrificing what would have been my first meal that day for a pretty much substance-less beer. I won’t lie, I don’t mind Asahi Super Dry – but only in the following circumstances: with sushi, when too full for a substantial beer or when sitting in the sweltering heat of late July, which this happened to be. But while it’s one of Japan’s top-selling beers, it is by no means a great brew, and has even been credited by some for leading the way in the declining standards of Japanese beer drinkers, who seem to increasingly go for refreshing-yet-flavourless suds over German-style lagers, such as Kirin and Sapporo, which were once all that was available.

A faltering economy and rising prices are also to blame for this movement towards the dull. In 1994, happoshu, a low-malt beer containing less than 67% malt, was created as a cheaper alternative, because Japan taxes beer on malt content rather than alcohol content. When the government adjusted taxes, making happoshu more expensive, the big breweries counted on people’s love of alcohol trumping their discerning palates, and beer companies fought back by creating beer with even less malt. This reached its apex in 2004 with the birth of a new category of beer-like beverages: daisan no biru (third beer). This maltless liquid resembles beer in the same way that vegan shrimp imitates a real crustacean. It contains similar amounts of alcohol, but replaces malt with ingredients like pea and soy protein, and is making up an increasingly large portion of the Japanese beer market. Today, many of the big breweries offer happoshu and third beer alternatives to their regular beers, such as Kirin 1000 or Sapporo Creamy White.

Thankfully, when big brewers were starting to make happoshu in 1994, the government also changed legislation to open previously closed doors for microbreweries. Serious drinkers have been enjoying a surge of excellent craft brews – such as  those coming from Kiuchi Brewery in the city of Naka  for the last few years. But Japan’s best beers are generally not available outside of the country, and even in Japan they’re expensive and can be difficult to find.

So unless I missed a renegade beer man in some dusty corner of the stadium slinging bottles of Baird Beer (a brewery in Numazu, Shizuoka that specialises in unfiltered, keg-and-bottle conditioned beers), there were no microbrews to be found at Koshien. What was available was Ichiban’s Shibori Frozen Draft, an ill-advised gimmicky combination that pairs perfectly decent Ichiban beer (as far as mass-produced Japanese beer goes) with frozen-beer foam, which resembles frozen yogurt in appearance but has a consistency closer to the top of a bubble bath.

The idea behind this frozen foam, created by mixing beer and air, and cooling it to -5C, is that it will keep your beer cold from start to finish – a problem that doesn’t exists if you drink at a normal pace. It’s a “problem" others have tried to fix before: Coors Light invented wide-mouth cans so we could drink our beer faster, and designed the even more absurd “cold-activated” beers, where the can’s colour-changing mountains revealed whether the beer was cold or not, therefore saving us from the arduous process of actually reaching out and touching the can.

As tempted as I was to enter into this drinking experiment, I finally decided to go for the takoyaki. I will always be able to drink lousy beer at baseball games – in fact, at many US stadiums it’s my only choice – but would I have another chance to grab chopsticks and scarf down an order of squid balls before the seventh-inning stretch? Besides, the energy of the crowd gave me all the buzz I needed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly translated takoyaki. This has been fixed.