This post was inspired by a recent beer poll I conducted on Twitter about Japan’s largest beer producers and which brands people preferred.
Japan is a huge global beer market. It is the 7th largest consumer of beer and it remains a very popular drink. In Japan, the beer industry is ruled by 4 major breweries.
The major players are listed below as well as their market share (2015):
Asahi – 35.5%
Kirin – 30.3%
Suntory – 15.3%
Sapporo – 10.2%
(These numbers and some other information in this post are from the Wall Street Journal “The Numbers” blog.)
The major macro breweries in Japan put out a relatively standard beer. I would say a typical mass-produced Japanese beer is very similar to ones found in America or Canada. There is nothing complicated about the taste and it’s not really for “adventurous” beer drinkers.
There are 3 types of beer made by the major producers that can be purchased in Japan. You can buy regular beer, happoshu and “new genre” beer. Happoshu is a low-malt beer with a malt content less than 67%. It’s popular with many because of the lower price (good if you’re on a budget). The lower malt content makes for a cheaper price since beer is taxed by the Japanese government by the amount of malt used to brew it. A typical can of Happoshu may go for 120 yen while a regular beer may be more than 200 yen. (The photos posted in this story were taken in late March 2017 and you can see the price variation between the two types of beer.)
“New genre” beer is beer that is brewed from other crops like peas of corn to avoid Japan’s taxes on malt.
Although these companies dominate the Japanese beer market, craft beer is starting to catch on. In recent years, craft breweries are popping up throughout Japan as are craft brew stores and pubs. In a recent interview on the Just Japan Podcast, Rob Bright from beertengoku.com discussed the craft beer industry in Japan. There is also another interview in the Just Japan Podcast library with the people behind the Kyoto Brewing Company. If you are a fan of Japan and beer you’ll want to give that one a listen as well.
The major breweries in Japan from time to time try to diversify and reach out to craft beer drinkers with special “craft beer” series. These brews normally have a little more flavor than a standard beer, but they simply fall short of being a true craft beer. The flavors tend not to be very strong or complicated.
Japan is a country that enjoys its beer. You can purchase it at any convenience store or supermarket across the country.
In recent years beer sales have actually been in decline in Japan while sales of whiskey and wine are increasing. Anecdotally, I have seen a noticeable expansion in the wine sections of my local supermarkets here in Kobe, Japan over the past few years.
The large breweries have been trying to diversify their businesses by purchasing whiskey distilleries and wineries in other countries.
Grab yourself a beer and enjoy!
Beertengoku on the Just Japan Podcast:
Kyoto Brewing Company on the Just Japan Podcast:
Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast and the Just Japan News Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff. Kevin is a Canadian educator who lives in Kobe, Japan with his family.
Follow him on Twitter: @jlandkev