Types of beer in Japan

The basics

There are 4 main companies and 3 main types of beer. The 4 companies are:

The 3 categories of beer are:

  • Beer
    • Premium beer
    • Beer
  • Happoshu (low-malt beer)
  • Happosei
    • Added liquer type
    • Non-malt/barley type

What's the difference?

Indeed, what is the difference? Like most things in life, it comes down to the simple matter of money, in the form of alcohol taxes in this case. Unlike most countries which tax according to alcohol content, Japan's Alcohol Tax Law determines tax based on malt content. The higher the malt content, the higher the tax.
Apparently, when beer was first introduced to the masses in the Meiji Era, it was deemed a luxury product because all the malt had to be imported from Germany so they stuck a high tax on it. It's anyone's guess as to why they don't reform this archaic law.

  • Biru or beer must have a malt content of over 66.6% and contain no added liqueur. Taxed at about ¥70 per 350ml can, the normal and premium types sell for between ¥190 and ¥230 in most shops.

  • Happoshu is low-malt beer and must have under 66.6% malt content and no added liqueur. Taxed on a sliding scale depending on the amount of malt, in reality most happoshu has about 10% malt content and incurs a tax of about ¥30-40 per 350ml, which is usually priced at about ¥160.

  • Happosei (also called shin genre), all contain some added liqueur. Sometimes made with malt or barely but usually from other crops such as peas or corn. Strictly speaking, it's not beer at all so it incurs a minimal tax of about ¥20 per 350ml can and retails at about ¥120.

2011 saw an overall drop in beer sales, especially with biru which fell to below 50% of the total beer market for the first time. With people becoming more cost-concious due to ongoing economic problems, happosei has been the main beneficiary and now accounts for 35% of overall sales with happoshu taking the remaining 15%. It is quite likely that happosei will overtake biru in the near future.

Already, there is a huge battle underway within the happosei market. Right now, this is how things stand:

  1. Nodogoshi (Kirin)
  2. Kinmugi (Suntory)
  3. Clear Asahi (Asahi)
  4. Mugi to Hoppu (Sapporo)

Chart of beers

Main beer types and companies in Japan
Company Premium Beer Happoshu New Genre
Asahi - Asahi Super Dry Asahi Style Free
  1. Clear Asahi
  2. Asahi Off
Kirin -
  1. Ichiban Shibori
  2. Kirin Lager
  1. Nodogoshi
  2. Mugi no Gochiso
Tan Rei
Green lable
Sapporo Yebisu Sapporo Black Label Hokkaido Namashibori
  1. Draft One
  2. Mugi to Hoppu
Suntory Premium Malt -
  1. Hop's Draft
  2. Mugi Dry
  1. Kinmugi
  2. Jokki Nama

The Japanese consumer

Two particulars of beer consumers in Japan are a demand for lots of choice and an obsession with chilled beer (which is why nearly all commercials feature an ice-cold beer followed by "sappari!"). To the annoyance of foreigners, a big head is also the norm here on nama-biru.

So while the Big Four focus mainly on lager, there is some demand for tastier beers such as ales, stouts or wheat beers which is what Japan's many microbrewries or ji-biru compete for. Unfortunately, they are not only difficult to find but comparatively expensive.

Premium beer

Right now, there are 2 premium beers, Suntory's The Premium Malt's, and Sapporo's Yebisu. If you going to give someone beer as a gift, these are the ones.

Beer

The most popular beers by a distance are Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Ichiban Shibori and Sapporo Black Label. These brands are often found on restaurant menus.

Happoshu

Beginning in 1994, companies started to develop a new type of beer with reduced malt content in order to avail of a lower alcohol tax rate. Kirin Tanrei holds the number one spot.

Happosei

The lastest type to arrive, offering even cheaper beer due to lower tax rates, this segment has exploded in popularity and accounts for the vast majority of the new beers.

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