It takes one trip to the grocery store in Tokyo to realize that beer is a thriving market. The variety of beers on display represents an amazing spectacle.
Ironically, the panoply of colorful cans faced along the shelves are produced by a mere four domestic brewers: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Sapporo is probably the brand most recognizable here in the United States.
There are two main reasons why we see so much beer in Japan. The first is based on how the Japanese government categorizes and taxes alcohol. The percentage of malt in alcohol separates traditional “beer” from 発泡酒 Happoushu (“sparkling alcoholic drink”). If there is 67% malt, the government defines this as beer and levies a higher tax. Less malt constitutes Happoushu and the tax is lower.
This generates two strata of alcohol drinks marketed at two different price points. As recently as 2004, the government defined a third breed. 第三のビール daisan no birru (“third-category beer”) is defined as having no malt and the tax is lower again. In 2009, the four major brewers also began to release non-alcoholic beer. In the U.S. this type of drink is referred to as “near-beer”. In Japanese, we apply a more literal moniker, ビールテイスト飲料 biiru teisuto inryou (“beer-taste beverage”).
The second reason we see so much beer in Japan is a seasonal cycle of special brews packaged and released. Japanese people love cute packaging. Seasonal brews typically feature pretty pictures; pink cherry blossoms in spring, arctic glaciers in summer, autumnal leaves for fall, and tranquil, snow capped scenes in winter. The marketing twist here is that seasonal brews are customized to compliment seasonal foods. I am not a beer connoisseur so I cannot verify this claim.
You get the idea. There is a lot going on.
If you go into a Japanese grocery store in 2012, here is what you can expect to pay. You can buy a can of beer for about 200 yen (2.50 USD). Happoshu will cost you about 130 yen (1.62 USD). Daisan no birru costs about 110 yen (1.37 USD), while near-beer costs around 100 yen (1.25 USD).
There are only a few varieties of Japanese beer available in the United States. So if you’re a beer connoisseur, you will find a lot to explore on your next trip to Japan!