Rice Lager


Last year at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), I noticed an interesting trend – cleaner, drier beers. Not just the sexy cold IPA that everyone was talking about, I also saw several breweries with beers called Japanese rice lager, or simply a rice lager. These were like either a standard American lager or an international lager, but a little drier in the finish, often a little paler, and very refreshing to drink. If I liked the word “crushable” it would be applicable here, but I also find the term overused so let’s just say the drinkability is high.

Since the style seemed to be trending a bit, I decided to dig into it further to see if there were any common elements. Certainly, American lagers have been made with adjuncts (including rice) for a long time. Budweiser traces to 1876 and is well known for using rice. But this kind of beer was different, so perhaps the Japanese rice lager term works better since it helps differentiate from other adjunct lagers.

There is no defined style from the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) for this beer (nor from the Brewers Association at the moment), so individual beers could fit into different categories depending on how they are made. I think it could fit in Category 1B American Lager if the IBUs were 18 or less, and Category 2A International Pale Lager if they were greater. Neither is a perfect fit, so maybe I’ll explore adding this as a provisional style in the future. In either case, when entering this in competition say “Japanese rice lager” in the comments so judges will know what to expect, which is similar to the advice I gave for Mexican lager.

Rice Lager History

As I said, rice has long been an ingredient in pale lagers in the United States, but this type of beer is something different. This style really traces to the type of beers made in Japan starting with Asahi Super Dry in 1987. Japanese brewers had done market research and determined that their customers would prefer a dry beer with a crisp finish, light body, little to no sweetness, and a lack of an aftertaste. They also had been researching various methods of increasing attenuation in beer.

Asahi traces its history back to 1889 as the Osaka Beer Company, but the brand name begins in 1892. Its flagship beer was Asahi Gold until Asahi Super Dry was introduced. After its initial success, the notion of dry beers was subsequently adopted in Europe and North America in addition to other Japanese breweries such as Sapporo with the Premium Beer and Kirin with their Lager. 

For those who remember the U.S. beer market before 2000, there was a brief phase where large breweries were marketing beers as dry. Around the same time, they were also talking about ice beers. Neither term was really explained well, so average consumers might have been confused by a dry beer (thinking dry as the opposite of wet, instead of the opposite of sweet, as it is intended) and ice beers (thinking it meant they were frozen somehow). These fads for the most part dropped, but the Japanese beers continued to be well received.

Japanese brewers had done market research and determined that their customers would prefer a dry beer with a crisp finish, light body, little to no sweetness, and a lack of an aftertaste.

Fast forward to current times and I have noticed smaller U.S. craft breweries dabbling in the style. I think I first tried one in Pittsburgh during the National Homebrewers Conference in 2021. The most memorable example I tried at the GABF in 2022 was Hayabusa from Beachwood Brewing in Southern California. I subsequently tried a great version during the World Beer Cup from Upslope Brewing in Boulder, Colorado. My old homebrewing friend Julian Shrago is the Brewmaster and Owner of Beachwood and he kindly provided some insider information about what he has learned from the style. 

Sensory Profile

The starting point conceptually is the space covered by American lager and international pale lager (which itself encompasses what was previously known as premium American lager). We are talking about a standard-strength pale lager around 5% ABV. The color is on the light side, 2–3 SRM perhaps, clear, highly carbonated, and well attenuated.

The body of the beer is light and there is little to no sweetness or aftertaste. The overall impression is a very clean beer, smooth, but exceptionally dry and crisp. The finish of the beer is what sets it apart from the other styles — it has a dry, crisp, clean finish that is produced by having a low finishing gravity and high attenuation. The fermentation profile is clean and smooth without strong flavors.

Bitterness levels can vary, which is why I hedge my bets about whether it fits better in the American Lager or International Pale Lager category. The Japanese examples are around 20 IBUs or so, so I think they might fit into that latter category. However, the adjunct quality of the beer tends to move it back towards the American Lager category. The rice doesn’t add much flavor, but does lighten the color and finish of the beer.

Late hops are rare, often absent, and the bittering hops are clean without any harshness. I always found Asahi Super Dry to be a great match with sushi, so the light flavors and crisp finish doesn’t interfere with the delicate flavors of the food. The challenge with this style is keeping it interesting without making it too big or flavorful, since losing that drinkability is a critical error with the style. If the beer tastes heavy or lingers too long, I’m moving on.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

The grist for a Japanese rice lager is typically a pale lager malt, such as a Pilsner malt, and some form of rice. I think U.S. Pilsner-type malts work well, as German or continental Pilsner malts may have too much flavor. If you do choose a German malt, choose something relatively neutral and avoid the characterful floor-malted versions or those that start bringing in too much toasty flavor. Julian from Beachwood recommended Rahr Premium Pils as the base malt.

Rice is a difficult ingredient to work with when brewing. Wolfgang Kunze in Technology Brewing and Malting says that “rice is the hardest adjunct to use.” This is because the starch granules are very small and firmly embedded, rice swells a lot during gelatinization and is often quite viscous, but mostly because rice has a relatively high gelatinization temperature (153–196 °F/67–91 °C). The gelatinization temperatures vary between rice varieties, so most brewing texts recommend cooking rice at 185–194 °F (85–90 °C) to be safe. Gelatinization matters since this is what makes the starches soluble and therefore accessible to enzymes during mashing. If the adjuncts aren’t gelatinized, they can’t be mashed.

Do you see the problem? If you attempt to mash rice at normal brewing temperatures the starches won’t be available. If you attempt to gelatinize the rice you will denature the enzymes needed for brewing. A Catch-22? Maybe, but traditional American breweries solved this with the double-mash approach. The adjuncts (corn or rice, typically) are cooked at higher temperatures in a cereal cooker with a small portion of the barley grist and then added back into the main mash once the starches are gelatinized. The main mash then proceeds normally with the enzymes from the barley converting all the starches. Traditionally, U.S. brewers would use a large percentage of adjuncts but compensate with enzymatically potent 6-row malt. Modern 2-row malt often has sufficient enzymes to handle considerable amounts of adjuncts as well, but the technique precedes their availability.

If you just want to add rice to the mash I suggest to use flaked rice. Like other flaked grains (barley, wheat, oats, rye, corn), flaked rice is pre-gelatinized and therefore you don’t have to use a double-mash process. Another common product is rice syrup solids, which is a liquid form of rice. This is basically the liquid malt extract version of rice, and can be used in much the same way, by adding to the boil. Just note that different forms of rice syrup solids exist, and they have different levels of fermentability. Select versions with the highest degree of fermentability for the most authentic results.

Julian recommends using liquid alpha amylase enzymes in the mash to increase fermentability, which is a technique common among American macro brewers. I’ve heard some recommend using other enzymes such as glucoamylase or amyloglucosidase like in a brut IPA, but I’m not a fan of these. One of the reasons why brut IPA went away so quickly is because brewers had inconsistent results with the enzymes, and often overattenuated the beers while producing off-flavors. Asahi doesn’t use special enzymes, but does use a highly attenuative yeast strain.

Taking some clues from cold IPA, you can increase attenuation with higher levels of adjuncts or by using step mashes. Even adding up to 10% of a simple sugar like corn sugar can increase fermentability. Brewers have several options available, but should pick methods they understand and can control, and ones that have the fewest negative side effects on the finished beer. I have no problem with using a step mash or a lower temperature infusion mash to increase fermentability, and it’s probably a good place to start.

Hops are a relatively minor part of the beer. The IBUs are not that high, so using either noble hops for bittering or something clean like Magnum is appropriate. Late hops are rare, but a light use of Saaz, Tettnanger, or Hallertauer is fine. I’ve seen some recommend using Sorachi Ace because it’s Japanese, but I don’t really care for the flavor and aroma. Sometimes it tastes like the lemon character found in Pledge® wood cleaner to me, or it can even have a dill-like quality. Neither is something I want here, so I tend to stay classic.

The yeast is a clean lager strain, like the W34/70 strain. I prefer lager strains that don’t produce much sulfur, but it is also important to choose a strain that is known for being able to fully attenuate a beer. Julian has also recommended a Mexican lager strain like White Labs WLP940 or an American lager strain such as White Labs WLP840. American strains may introduce a touch of fruitiness, which is not unwelcome in this style. Asahi reportedly uses a proprietary high-attenuation strain. 

Julian made some recommendations regarding water chemistry and pH that he feels are important to the style. He shoots for a mash pH of 5.2 using acidulated malt or lactic acid, but also monitors the pH at other stages. He adjusts to a pH of 5.0 with lactic acid as the beer goes into the fermenter, and targets a final pH of 4.2 after fermentation. He uses a chloride-to-sulfate ratio of 2:1. He believes the combination of pH, chloride level, high carbonation, and low finishing gravity is key to a soft but dry finish. Lessons learned from brut IPAs could apply here regarding finishing gravity and bitterness levels. Very dry beers support fewer IBUs when evaluating balance, so you may wish to taste your finished beer to decide if you should reduce the bitterness level or not.

Homebrew Example

My example follows many of Julian’s recommendations without being an outright clone. He told me he has adjusted his recipe several times to suit his taste and his desire for a craft version of mainstream macro lagers. I’m following his lead and using a good U.S. Pilsner-type malt, flaked rice, and corn sugar. A single infusion mash on the low side encourages attenuation, as does adding some amylase enzymes that are designed to help convert cereal grains during brewing.

My hop choices are classic, Magnum for bittering and a light touch of Hallertauer for some flavor. The finishing hops can be omitted if you prefer no hop flavor, or a different noble hop can be substituted if you like it better. I’m using the mineral and pH recommendations Julian provided, along with my usual reverse osmosis (RO) water regime. The yeast choice here is the widely available W34/70 strain, with the fermentation schedule recommended by Julian. He recommends dumping the trub to improve the finished flavor, but not everyone can do this on their systems. I like his idea of a Mexican lager strain, but that is a little harder to find at times.

Brewing with rice can be a bit challenging, kind of like working with rye. If you find gumminess a problem in the mash, even with the enzymes, some rice hulls can help reduce the chances of a stuck mash. I like having a good, clean lager on tap, and this one has a refreshing quality while still being interesting. Achieving the right finish and balance takes a little bit of effort, but the results are worthwhile.

Rice Lagers By the Numbers

OG: 1.040–1.050
FG: 1.002–1.006
SRM: 2–3
IBU: 12–25
ABV: 4.2–6.0%

Rice Lager

pilsner-lager glass, with no stem, a pale straw-colored beer with rocky head
Photo courtesy of

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)

OG = 1.043  FG = 1.004
IBU = 20  SRM = 3  ABV = 5%

6.5 lbs. (3 kg) U.S. Pilsner-type malt
1.5 lbs. (680 g) flaked rice
8 oz. (227 g) corn sugar (15 min.)
½ tsp. Amylex 4T liquid alpha amylase enzyme
4.6 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.33 oz./9 g at 14% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Hallertauer hops (10 min.)
SafLager W-34/70, LalBrew Diamond, Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Lager), or White Labs WLP830 (German Lager) yeast
7⁄8 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric or lactic acid. Add 1 tsp. of calcium chloride and ½ tsp. of calcium sulfate to the mash along with the alpha amylase enzyme.

This recipe uses an infusion mash. Use enough water to have a moderately thick mash (1.5 qts./lb. or 3.1 L/kg). Mash in the malt and rice at 146 °F (63 °C) and hold for 60 minutes. Begin recirculating, then raise the mash temperature to 169 °F (76 °C) and recirculate for 15 minutes. Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort. Adjust pH to 5.0 with lactic acid, if necessary.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe. Add the corn sugar with 15 minutes remaining in the boil. At the end of the boil, let wort settle, then begin chilling.

Chill the wort to 54 °F (12 °C), then pitch the yeast (aerate if using a liquid strain), and ferment for five days at this temperature. If your system allows you to be able to dump the trub and settled proteins, do so after fermentation is confirmed to be active (alternatively, you can rack to a secondary fermenter). After five days, allow the yeast to free rise to 65 °F (18 °C) until complete. Rack to a new fermenter and lager for 2 months at 32 °F (0 °C). Adjust pH to 4.2 with lactic acid, if necessary.

Rack the beer, prime, and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.6 v/v.

Rice Lager

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)

OG = 1.043  FG = 1.004
IBU = 20  SRM = 3 ABV = 5%


4.2 lbs. (1.9 kg) Pilsen liquid malt extract
1.5 lbs. (680 g) rice syrup solids
8 oz. (227 g) corn sugar
½ tsp. Amylex 4T liquid alpha amylase enzyme
4.6 AAU Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.33 oz./9 g at 14% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Hallertauer hops (10 min.)
SafLager W-34/70, LalBrew Diamond, Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Lager), or White Labs WLP830 (German Lager) yeast
7⁄8 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Use 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C). Turn off the heat. Add the malt extract, rice syrup, corn sugar, and enzymes; then stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Adjust the pH to 5.0 with lactic acid, if necessary. Hold at this temperature for 15 minutes then turn the heat back on and bring to a boil. 

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated. At the end of the boil, let wort settle, then begin chilling. Chill the wort to 54 °F (12 °C), pitch the yeast (aerate if using a liquid strain), then top off to 5.25 gallons (20 L). Follow the all-grain instructions for the fermentation and packaging guidance.

Issue: November 2023