Japanese Beer Culture: What makes a good beer in Japan?

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Beer is popular around the world, but different cultures have their own preferences and ways of enjoying it. Japan is no exception, with certain beer types and brands dominating the market. Japanese beer culture also has its own traditions when it comes to serving and drinking the beverage.

A Japanese favorite

When you think of Japanese alcohol, you might expect sake to be one of the most common choices. In a way, this both is and isn’t accurate. In Japan, “sake” refers to alcoholic drinks in general, not specifically to rice wine. The Japanese name for rice wine is “nihonshu.” And while it is a popular traditional drink in the country, nihonshu doesn’t come close to leading the Japanese alcoholic beverage market – that honor goes to beer.

Japanese beer culture traditions

When people go out drinking together, it’s common for everyone to order the same thing for the first round of drinks and to toast together. It’s good manners to wait until everyone has been served and a toast is made before drinking. If you’re having bottled beer, it’s customary to drink from a glass rather than the bottle, and to pour someone else’s drink for them rather than pouring your own.

Lager is the leader

In Japanese beer culture, lager is the way to go. In 2017, lagers accounted for over 90% of the Japanese beer market. This is why many people from North America and Europe, where ales are more popular, tend to think Japanese beer is bitter. Four companies supply the majority of beer in Japan: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Together these Japanese breweries make up over 93% of the market.

Craft beers only make up around 2% of the beer market in Japan, but they’ve increased in popularity substantially over the past several years. Japanese craft beers are popular among millennials, women, and wealthy seniors, and are notable in that demand for them has been rising while growth in the Japanese beer market as a whole has been stagnating.

Suggested reading: Global Craft Beer Industry Expects Stronger Growth Through 2022

Beer varieties in Japan

Alcohol taxation laws have led to three main beer categories in Japanese beer culture. Beer is currently taxed according to its malt content, so Japanese brewers have created types of beer that contain little or no malt in order to offer their products at cheaper prices and attract more customers. Regular beer has the highest and is therefore taxed the most, making it the most expensive of the three types. Happoshu, or “sparkling alcohol,” is similar to beer but has less malt in order to fall under a lower taxation level. Its flavor and alcohol content are similar to those of beer, but the lower amount of malt makes for a lighter taste.

Finally there’s Shin Janru (“new genre”) beer, otherwise known as “third beer” or “daisan no biru,” and it’s the newest type on the market. Recent tax changes resulted in happoshu becoming more expensive, so brewers created a new beverage with no malt content at all. Shin Janru uses pea, soy, or wheat instead of malt, and tastes lighter than happoshu.

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The value of a good foam

Visitors from other countries may be surprised at the level of foam popular in Japanese beer culture. Japanese beer intentionally has a higher ratio of foam to liquid, as the layer of foam prevents the beer from losing its carbonation and flavor. The foam on Japanese beer tends to be creamy and is a sign of good quality. It’s so important in Japan that manufacturers design both glasses and beer taps to create an optimal level of foam.

Because it’s so important to Japanese beer culture, brewers and other vendors in the industry are constantly looking for ways to innovate and be creative with foam. For example, several years ago Kirin created frozen beer foam, a product that behaved similar to soft serve and could be added to the top of a glass of beer. Beam Suntory created a device that could be attached to a can of beer and would mimic the foam that’s normally achieved from pulling draft beer. And just last year, Suntory created a machine that would print pictures onto beer foam, hoping to attract more customers at a time when younger people are drinking less beer.

Suggested reading: Top 6 Beer Trends to Look Forward to in 2020

Drinks to go

Depending on where you live, you may be used to getting beer from grocery and convenience stores, and you’ll find beer in these stores in Japan as well. Beer cans are commonly available at convenience stores and at train station kiosks, as well as in supermarkets. What you may not be used to, however, is vending machines.

Japan has a great love of vending machines and you’ll find them everywhere, selling a wide range of food, beverages, toys, personal essentials, and more. While not as common as they used to be, there are still beer vending machines around the country, particularly in business hotels. Japan’s legal drinking age is 20, so customers need an ID card to use the machines. Be careful where you enjoy your beer, however – drinking beside a vending machine is fine, but eating or drinking while walking is considered rude.

The future of Japan’s beer market

Growth has been slow for the Japanese beer market over the past few years, due at least in part to changes in liquor taxes in 2017. Craft beers have been the exception to the rule, experiencing strong growth in popularity and in the number of breweries providing them. However, the market is expected to see an upswing in the near future.

Japan is a key player in the international beer market, ranking fourth in the world and second only to China in the Asian market. The global beer market is expected to grow by nearly $100 billion between 2020 and 2024, with half of that coming from the Asia-Pacific region. Learn more about the industry and the challenges and trends that will impact it with Technavio’s market research report.