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.
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.