Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On Japanese Beer

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan.  Japanese beer is great if you like Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi, or Suntory.  Otherwise, you’re screwed.  Well, that’s not completely true.  I’ve seen a couple Heinekens and Coronas available in a few bars, but there are not a whole lot of options.  I’ve heard rumors that there are microbreweries in Japan, but you sure don’t see their brews available in stores.  Japanese beers aren’t really available in bottles.  Everything comes in a can.  You may have heard that you can buy beers from vending machines in Japan.  That was surely the case when I was last hear six years ago, but I haven’t seen any beer vending machines this time around.  Apparently the government is phasing them out due to underage drinking concerns (duh).  You can buy alcohol at any time and drink it pretty much anywhere in Japan.  You can buy a beer from a 24 hour convenience store, stand outside the bar next door, and drink that beer in front of the bouncers for half the price you would pay for the beer inside.

While there isn’t a whole lot of beer variety, Japan does have something that’s missing in the rest of the world, low malt beers.  Japan taxes beer at an extremely high rate.  Half the price of a Japanese beer goes to taxes.  That’s over 10 times the tax rate of America’s beer.  However, Japan defines beer as water, hops, and at least two-thirds malted barley.  This leaves a low malt “beer” loop hole.  These low malt “beers” are called happoshu (usually labeled 発泡酒).  They contain less than 66% malt and usually add in some sort of liquor as a substitute to make up the difference.  This results in a higher concentration of alcohol at usually 4.5-6%, but also a higher rate of mind splitting hangovers.  About ten years ago the government actually raised the tax on happoshu using 26%-66% malt, so brewers responded by lowering the percentage malt in happoshu to under 25%.  In recent years, brewers have removed malt from the process altogether to create an even cheaper beer.  These beers are called dai-san no biiru, or the 3rd beer and use some sort of malt substitute such as pea or soy protein.

Sapporo uses 100% malt (real beer), 188 yen or $2.45/can

Kirin Green Label uses 25% malt (Happoshu), 130 yen or $1.70/can

Note the 25% and the characters 発泡酒, designating this happoshu instead of beer

Sapporo Draft One uses pea protein instead of malt (dai-san no biiru) 100 yen or $1.30/can

When I first arrived, I looked at beer price, and not knowing any better selected a 6 pack of happoshu.  I soon regretted my decision.  As you can guess, low malt beers are gross.  It didn’t take long for the other guys to explain why my beer tasted so bad.  I guess on the upside, happoshu beer is cheap and it gets you drunk fast, but most of the time it’s really not worth it.


Post a Comment