Major beer companies diet excessively while craft brewers beef up

April 22nd, 2010 by Daniel Morales

Rest your liver, say the big brewers. Low-alcohol beers and sugar-free beers are booming.

Rest your liver, say the big brewers. Low-alcohol beers and sugar-free beers are booming.

The big four Japanese beer companies – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory – are in a constant turf war. Game theory keeps them intertwined in a fierce marketing dead heat, and the types of beer they release seem to be hamstrung by a monkey-see-monkey-do strategy and Japanese tax laws.

Over the past seven years, beer companies have produced cheaper and cheaper products by dancing around Japanese tax laws that define beer by barley content,  and politicians have continuously revised the regulations to combat deficits. Brewers first pushed happoshu, a low malt beer, through the tax loophole. Not surprisingly, the beer sold extremely well. Politicians modified laws in 2003 to tax happoshu, and brewers began to “third-type beers” such as Sapporo’s Draft One, which eschews all barley and uses fermentables from peas and corn instead. In 2006, politicians redefined these as “other fermented beverages” to bring them under tax laws.

As the law currently stands, 100% malt beer is taxed at ¥222 per liter, beverages with a barley content of 25-50% at ¥178, and those with less than 25% at ¥134.


Current-day Japanese “beer”: So much alcohol, so little barley.

Most of these beers have maintained the standard 5% alcohol by volume level, but recently companies have been experimenting with sugar-free beers, alcohol-free beers and beers with higher alcohol content. Kirin just released its strangely titled “Yasumu hi no Alc. 0.00%” (“0.00% for the days you rest”), and the advertisements encourage drinkers to “Please, rest your liver” with some Japanese punnery. The movement for sugar-free beers culminated finally in Asahi’s awful Strong Off – a 7% beer that mysteriously has 60% less sugar – and Suntory’s Relax, a sugar-free brew that boasts seven hops. These beers rely on novelty to help them sell, and the big brewers will continue to swap their mutant beer lineup in and out so their marketing campaigns can stay fresh.

Japanese craft beer companies and craft beer bars, on the other hand, are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: They are brewing more barley-heavy beers, and they are building a substantial audience of good beer fans.

While Japanese craft brewing has existed since 1994, when changes in laws reduced the minimum brewing volume required for a brewing license, only recently have Japanese brewers started pushing the envelope with extreme beers that make use of large quantities of barley and hops.

One example of such a brewery is Yokohama Beer, which on April 11 hosted their Yokohama Beer Spring Party in Shinko Park in Yokohama. There were over two dozen beers from a variety of breweries on tap, and none of the beers cut any corners. Yokohama Beer brought several of its own heavy hitters, including their Imperial Pilsner, Rich Chocolate Stout and Scorpion Deathlock IPA – all 9% or stronger beers extremely heavy on the barley.

Kegs at the Yokohama Beer Spring Beer Party: Barley-heavy craft brews drew a crowd of over 500.

Kegs at the Yokohama Beer Spring Beer Party: Barley-heavy craft brews drew a crowd of over 500 thirty beer lovers.

Thrash Zone, a heavy metal bar cum craft beer beer, has contract brewed several aggressively hopped beers through Atsugi Beer in the past year and a half – beers like Simcoe, Bloody Simcoe and Hop Slave, two 10-percent-plus India Pale Ales, and Crossover, an IPA-Cream Ale crossover. Many other Japanese brewers have started debuting “Imperial” and “double” versions of their beers, which have more alcohol and more hops. In November 2009, Bryan Baird of Baird Brewing added the Suruga Bay Imperial IPA to his regular lineup, bringing it to nine beers.

Baird made it extremely clear to Japan Pulse why beer is so pricey: “Beer is very expensive in Japan primarily for one reason: extraordinarily high taxation.” The cost puts the average pint of craft beer at ¥800-¥1,200, significantly higher than its industrial counterpart.

This hasn’t stopped craft brewers. Baird regularly brews 40-50 different seasonal beers every year (nearly one a week!), none of which are the tax-advantaged happoshu. Furthermore, events like the Yokohama Beer Spring Party are drawing large crowds (500+ guests attended), and the quality of Japanese beer is starting to be recognized even outside of Japan. Three Japanese breweries were recognized at the World Beer Cup on April 11. Coedo Brewery took Silver in the Specialty Beer category for its Beniaka red ale. Fujizakura Kogen Beer took Bronze in the Smoked Beer category for its Rauch beer. The real winner, however, was Baird Brewing, which landed three Golds in the Specialty Beer, American-style Amber Lager and Belgian- and French-style Ale categories for its Country Girl Kabocha Ale, Numazu Lager and Saison Sayuri respectively.

While Japanese craft beers initially had a sort of souvenir status to them, slowly the number of solid breweries in Japan has grown, and they are now able to rely on quality beer rather than just novelty to compete with Japanese big brewers. Unfortunately it will never be a fair fight until there are significant revisions to Japanese tax laws.

Tags: , , ,

One Response

  1. Check this out, the making of kirin free, the overacting it’s just hilarious.


Recent Posts

  • 100 years of Japanese beauty in one minute

    Cut is setting its lens on Japan as it shows the dramatic changes Japanese women have gone through in the past century.

  • Studio Ghibli on a roll with licenses for new toys

    Nibariki has new wind-up toys inspired by Studio Ghibli’s “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.”

  • ‘Japan Sumo Cup’ is possibly the most Japanese thing ever

    In this rhythm game, players choose a real sumo player, ride an actual race horse and compete against characters from “Street Fighter.”

  • YouTubers in Japan with 100,000 fans and counting

    YouTube threw a big celebration for more than 20 YouTubers living in Japan who have over 100,000 subscribers.

  • Finding laughs in translations that have lost the plot

    The Orikaeshi Honyaku Dictionary site, which boasts the catchphrase “from Japanese to Japanese,” roughly translates as “Chinese whispers.”

  • Japan tricks out the Halloween treats

    Halloween is a time to carve pumpkins, enjoy a few scares and, most importantly, shovel as much candy as humanly possible into one’s own mouth. While the practice of door-to-door trick-or-treating may not be a thing in Japan, the custom of eating special Halloween snacks certainly translates. Plenty of companies, both overseas and domestic, are […]

  • Ginza Cozy Corner takes dessert into hyperdrive with ‘Star Wars’ cakes

    One Japanese confectionary vendor is about to find the Force deep within a sweet tie-up. Ahead of the December release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Ginza Cozy Corner, which has outlets nationwide, has made a line of “Star Wars” sweets that are truly out of this world. The treats themselves are all based on people […]

  • Warning: This viral video of high school girls might make you blush

    Cosmetic company Shiseido has recently uploaded a YouTube video that is blowing viewers’ minds with a bona fide twist. In the promo video, titled “High School Girl? — The Makeup Secrets of High School Girls,” the camera weaves through a classroom full of drop-dead cute young women who pout and wink like true pop idols. […]

  • Sharp dials up the fan service to celebrate 20 years of ‘Evangelion’

    For those who have always dreamed of owning an Evangelion robot, this might be the closest you get. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the popular “Neon Genesis Evangelion” animated series, Sharp is releasing a special smartphone that pays homage to the show both in the device’s hardware and software. The phone itself is detailed […]

  • Tokyo plugs into Google Play Music

    If you haven’t heard the latest news from Google Play, you may have missed your opportunity to tune into a Google Play Billboard. From Oct. 8-24, music lovers can head over to Shibuya to, literally, plug into a selection of over 3,500 songs. The Google Play Billboard is meant to give visitors a much-needed chance […]