Posts Tagged ‘beer’

Big (only) in Japan? Rooftop beer gardens

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Hankyu Top Beer Garden

Quaffing brews in the beer garden on top of Hankyu department store

The global economy is in shambles. Summer temperatures and humidity have reached record levels all across the northern hemisphere. In Japan this means two things for certain – an increase in the sales of odorless underwear and an increase in the sales of cheap no- and low-malt beer and beer-like beverages. However, this year real beer has also made a small comeback thanks to a boom in beer gardens.

While beer gardens are a Bavarian tradition (the term comes from the German “Biergarten”), the Japanese have been at the game since 1953, when one debuted on top of the New Tokyo Osaka Daiichi Seimei Building, and they’ve added their own unique touches to the fun. Technically beer gardens can and do happen on the ground (or below ground, in which case they are called “beer terraces”) or in any open area with enough space, but in Japan there is a romantic attachment to ones held on the roofs of department stores and other tall buildings. This makes them top draws in late summer after the rainy season has passed and when fireworks season has started.

Generally the drink service at beer gardens is “nomihodai” (unlimited refills) for a set period of time (90 minutes to two hours), and often food is included as well, putting the ¥3,000-¥4,000 ticket within the budgets of many consumers.

This year Yomiuri and Nikkei Shimbun have both noted that the customer base has also diversified. While the rooftop atmospheres lit with lanterns evoke a Showa-era scene filled with smoke and businessmen, more and more women are taking advantage of the offerings, and some beer gardens are offering healthier, low-calorie fare that incorporates hijiki seaweed and burdock as well as sweets such as tai-yaki. Nikkei Trendy Net also noted that there are more women working and therefore probably more women who want to take advantage of the liberating atmosphere of beer gardens as a form of stress relief.

On a linguistic sidenote, in Japanese beer is normally written “biiru,” but when put next to the Japanese “gaaden,” it is written and spoken “bia.” Japanese commenters on Yahoo! note that this is because it’s closer to the English pronunciation of the word “beer,” but that begs the question why it isn’t always pronounced like that.

Photo: Karl Baron

Major beer companies diet excessively while craft brewers beef up

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

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.

Japanese "beer": So much alcohol, so little barley.

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.

Continue reading about craft brewers in Japan →

Big (only) in Japan? Beer salesgirls

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

beergirl

A beer uriko hard at work at the Waseda-Keio baseball game.

This marks the debut of a series where we ask “Big (only) in Japan?” We have a hunch but we want to hear from you. Have you seen this outside of Japan? Let us know in the comment section below.

In Japan, the end of March brings warmer weather, cherry blossoms and the start of the baseball season. Opening Day for the Pacific League was on March 20, and the Central League opens March 26. Lead by self-organized cheerleading teams, the crowds will chant elaborate cheers and songs (often a different cheer for each player), wave flags, jump up and down, and in the process work up a serious thirst for an ice cold beverage.

Enter the beer salesgirl – in Japanese, biiru no uriko (ビールの売り子). In Japan, “Hey, beer man!” will not only earn you strange looks because you are yelling in English – additionally, no men serve beer at baseball games here. The task is instead performed by young women who wear special backpacks that contain a miniature keg of beer. Dressed in short shorts and team uniforms, they move throughout the stadium seats, serving fresh beer right off the tap to reenergize the hordes.

Continue reading about biiru no uriko →

Trends in Japan 2009: drinks

Monday, December 21st, 2009

A Suntory higball, just in time for year-end parties

A Suntory highball, just in time for year-end parties

It might be fair to say that this year in booze could be summed up by the giant pile of puke I stepped over on the train platform last night. Though consumers were willing to spend less money on their end-of-year parties, the results witnessed  throughout Japan’s transport network during December are much the same as last year: troops of unconscious party victims lying prostrate over the seats of platforms and trains.

Despite this carnage, there have been efforts by the alcohol industry to encourage sensible drinking. 2009 was the year that saw the three big beverage companies — Asahi, Kirin and Suntory — launch non-alcoholic beers, perhaps in response to raised public awareness of the problems of driving under the influence. Recent years have seen stiffer penalties for drinking and driving, and police are becoming increasingly aware of the problem of drunken cyclists, an issue which had been tolerated in the past.

But nothing fuels a good drinking session like threat of financial meltdown, and if consumer’s budgets were a little tight, the alcohol industry did their level best to provide intoxication at bargain-basement prices. Standing bars that offer cheap drinks and no table charge became less trendy and more ubiquitous, with some offering draft beer for the insanely cheap price of ¥300 a glass. We also witnessed some crazy nomihodai offers such as drink all the vodka you can in an hour for just ¥780.

Continue reading about drinking trends in 2009 →

An artsy Octoberfest weekend in Tokyo

Friday, October 30th, 2009

A map for the Kunst Oktoberfest gallery tour

A map for the Kunst Oktoberfest gallery tour

This may be Tokyo Design Week, but there are a number of interesting art events worth your time as well. Some are best seen this weekend:

1) This Saturday only is the Kunst Oktoberfest, a free bus tour of an impressive number of interesting contemporary art galleries. Simply hop on and off the buses as they snake through Chuo-ku to places like Ginza’s Gallery Koyanagi and TOKYO Gallery+B.T.A.P and Bakurocho’s CASHI and Radi-um von Roentgenwerke. The buses give you around twenty minutes at each gallery before whisking you away to the next spot.

Oh, and did I mention that there will be free COEDO beer on the bus? Here’s a review of last year’s. The map you see on the right can be found on the Japanese press release here.

2) ULTRA 002 just opened at Spiral in Omotesando. What makes this contemporary art fair unique is that is focuses on individual directors instead of the galleries they work for. Here you get to see a single person’s vision in ways other fairs can’t provide. Runs until November 3rd.

3) One of the most talked about contemporary artists in the world right now is Cao Fei. Her ongoing “RMB City” project just opened at the Shiseido Gallery in Ginza and is worth a look. The videos you see there all take place in a virtual city she created in Second Life. This even includes an interview about the project with both the artist and interviewer represented by their avatars. Read The Japan Times review here.

4) The artist Ai Wei Wei is another Chinese contemporary heavyweight whose show “According to What?” is on a global tour, and will be at the Mori Art Museum for only one more week. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. More info on Ai Wei Wei here.

Drowning recession sorrows in cheap booze

Monday, October 5th, 2009

¥790 vodka nomihodai!

¥780 vodka nomihodai!

Standing outside Shimokitazawa station on a gloomy Saturday afternoon were these two guys trying to brighten up the day with an almost unbelievable offer: one hour’s worth of vodka nomihodai (drink all you can) for only ¥780.

Welcome to the wonderful multicolored, slightly vomit-spattered, world of recession drinking.

In addition to a proliferation of nomihodai offers, cut-price tachinomi (standing only) bars, where the customer sacrifices the comfort of a seat in return for cheap drinks and no table charge, are becoming ubiquitous. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun the number of standing bars in Sendai has increased fourfold since last year.

Continue reading about recession-style drinking →

Sobering up

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Suntory Fine Zero

Over the next three months Toyota will be testing a system to prevent drivers from starting their engines when inebriated. The onboard breathalyzer system will test the alcohol content in the driver’s breath before they start the vehicle. If the alcohol levels are high enough, the ignition will either lock or the driver will be given a warning.

Since the system will be tested nationwide on trucks from Toyota’s subsidiary company, Hino Motors, it appears that Toyota is targeting companies who need to check on the sobriety of their employees. However, considering Japan’s toughened stance on driving under the influence, it might not be long before we see them in ordinary consumer vehicles. And granted, while this isn’t a first for onboard breathalyzer tech (Nissan showcased an even more sophisticated onboard breathalyzer prototype back in 2007), Toyota might be closer to getting the show on the road.

In addition to stiffer penalties for DUI in Japan, regulations were even extended last summer to punish citizens for riding their bicycles when under the influence. Offenders can now face imprisonment of up to five years and fines of ¥1 million. While police officers are generally rather relaxed about enforcing certain road safety laws, such as allowing cyclists to ride on the sidewalks, according to an account in The Japan Times, the law regarding drunk cyclists in Japan is being taken seriously by both citizens and police.

At least the major beer brewers are tweaking their product ranges to jibe with the changing climate. Suntory is due to launch their new non-alcohol beer, Suntory Fine Zero, on Sept. 29, and it will be lined up next to Asahi’s Point Zero, on shelves since Sept. 1, and Kirin Free, which debuted early this year.

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