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The Hakata brewery of Asahi, Japan's biggest brewing company

Beer in Japan mostly comes from the country's four major breweries, Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory, which mainly produce pale lagers around 5% ABV. Beer is immensely popular, far ahead of sake consumption.[1]

As well as Pilsner style lagers, the most commonly produced beer style in Japan, beer-like beverages made with lower levels of malt, called happōshu (発泡酒, literally, "bubbly alcohol") or non-malt happōsei (発泡性, literally "bubbly"), have captured a large part of the market, as tax is substantially lower on these products.

Microbreweries have also become increasingly popular since deregulation in 1994, supplying distinct tasting beers in a variety of styles that seek to match the emphasis on craftsmanship, quality, and ingredient provenance often associated with Japanese food.

Craft beer bars and pubs are also popular in Japan's major cities, with Tokyo and Osaka having vibrant craft beer scenes, generally with a focus on locally produced and imported beers from the US and Europe.[2] In 2014, Kirin entered the craft beer market with the launch of a wholly owned subsidiary, Spring Valley Brewing, and two brewpubs in Daikanyama, Tokyo, and Namamugi, Yokohama, which opened in 2015. Industrial brewery Sapporo also released a craft line in 2015.


Although the tradition of sake brewing long predates European contact, beer is thought to have been first introduced to Japan in the 17th century during the Edo period by Dutch traders. However, beer was not widely available until the end of the 19th century, with the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 opening Japan to foreign trade.[1] European-style beer was not always immediately popular: one Japanese official described the beer presented by Commodore Matthew Perry at Kanagawa as tasting like "bitter horse piss".[3]

As Japan reopened to foreign trade during the Meiji period, imported beers such as Bass Pale Ale and Bass Stout were available in limited quantities in the foreign settlements, but trained brewers from Europe and elsewhere also arrived to contribute to the growth of the local industry.

The brewery that would become Kirin Brewery Company began in Yokohama in late 1869 as the Spring Valley Brewery, a private business established by Norwegian-American William Copeland.[4] The Sapporo Brewery was founded in 1876 as a part of a government-directed development plan for Hokkaido. Asahi Breweries traces its founding heritage to the start of the Osaka Beer Brewing Company in 1889, and the launch of the Asahi Beer brand in 1892.[5]

Restrictions during the Second World War that limited the use of rice for making sake boosted beer consumption; by the 1950s, beer was Japan's most popular alcoholic drink.[3] In the 1980s, the country gained renown for its "dry" beer, pioneered by brewers like Asahi.[3]

Market size

Beer (and beer-like happoshu) are the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan, accounting for nearly two thirds of the 9 billion liters of alcohol consumed in 2006.[6]

Japan's domestic consumption of the total 187.37 million kiloliter global beer market in 2012 was about 5.55 million kiloliters or about 3.0%.[7] This statistic for total beer consumption in Japan also includes the beer-like happoshu.

In terms of national per capita beer consumption Japan ranked 51st in 2014, equivalent to 42.6 liters per person, reflecting the diversified alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage market enjoyed by Japanese consumers.[8] Demographic factors are expected to continue to push down sales of mass-market beer products in Japan for the foreseeable future as younger consumers are drinking less beer than previous generations.[9] For the calendar year 2013, overall shipments for Japan's five largest brewers were 433.57 million cases, (a case is equivalent to 12.66 liters of beer or 27 US pints) more than 20% off the market peak achieved in 1992.[10]

However, for locally produced craft beers accounting for less than 1% of domestic beer consumption[11] and selected premium imported beers, market opportunities continue to expand. According to local market data, in the first eight months of 2012, shipments of domestic craft beer rose 7.7 percent while sales by Japan's largest brewers continued a year on year decline.[11]

As of January 2014, Asahi, with a 38% market share, was the largest of the four major beer producers in Japan followed by Kirin with 35% and Suntory with 15%.[10]

In 2020, Kirin surpassed Asahi in the Japanese beer market, holding a 37.1 percent share compared to Asahi's 35.2 percent.[12] This marked the first time since 2001 that Kirin outperformed Asahi. Kirin's market share increased by 1.9 percentage points year-on-year, while Asahi's share decreased by 1.7 percentage points.

Beer vs. happoshu

Japanese convenience store selection of beer and happoshu. Packaged very similarly, happoshu is distinguished by its lower price and the absence of the word "beer" (ビール).

Brewed alcoholic beverages in Japan are labelled and taxed according to their malt content (i.e., amount of alcohol derived from malted grains): legally, "beer" (ビール, bīru) must have at least 50% malt,[13] while beverages with less malt are collectively called "happoshu" (発泡酒, happōshu).[14]

Happoshu (also translated as "low-malt beer")[1][15] is taxed less than beer, and thus has appeal to the consumer. Beverages with less than 25% malt or no malt at all are often called "third-category beers" (第三のビール, dai-san no bīru),[6] or "new genre" (新ジャンル, shin janru),[16] in reference to their even lower tax, despite not being labelled beer as such. To replace the highly taxed malt, brewers have developed innovative sources of starch and sugar to be fermented into alcohol not commonly used as brewing adjuncts elsewhere, including soy peptides and pea protein.[17]

A tax law revision[13] that went into effect in 2018 lowered the malt requirement for the beer category, allowed more ingredients in beer, and introduced a plan to have beer and happoshu taxed at the same rates in 2026. This erosion of happoshu's favorable tax rate "may in the long run favor traditional beer".[18] Before 2018, the beer requirement was 67% malt.[18][13]

Major beer producers

Dry Wars

The Dry Senso or ドライ戦争 (どらいせんそう, dorai sensō) meaning Dry Wars, was a period of intense competition between Japanese brewery companies over dry beer. It began in 1987 with the launch of Asahi Super Dry by Asahi Breweries which led to the introduction of dry beer by other breweries.

The Kirin Brewery Company, which held 50% share of the Japanese domestic beer market, launched Kirin Dry in February 1988 in an advertising campaign featuring actor Gene Hackman, and in April of the same year launched the all-malt Kirin Malt Dry. However, they were unable to stop Asahi's momentum. In 1990 Kirin launched Ichiban Shibori in direct competition with Asahi Super Dry, but ended up cannibalising profits on their own Kirin Lager Beer brand. Kirin never ended up regaining its 50% market share.

Sapporo Breweries launched the doomed Sapporo Dry in February 1988, and in May 1989 rebranded their flagship product Sapporo Black Label as Sapporo Draft to an unfavourable reception. Production of Sapporo Dry and Sapporo Draft was halted less than two years after their respective launches, and Sapporo Draft later returned to being Black Label.

Suntory launched their Malts brand in February 1988 in an "I don't do dry" campaign, while at the same time launching Suntory Dry, later rebranded Suntory Dry 5.5 in an advertising campaign featuring boxer Mike Tyson after increasing the alcohol content from 5% to 5.5%. This achieved reasonable results, although not enough to slow down demand of Asahi Super Dry.

The Dry Wars were criticised in an episode of the manga Oishinbo (the Gourmet), published at around the same time.[citation needed]

Seasonal beers

Many breweries in Japan offer seasonal beers. In autumn, for instance, "autumn beers" are brewed with a higher alcohol content, typically 6% as opposed to the common 5% of Asahi Super Dry. For example, Kirin's Akiaji beer. The beer cans are typically decorated with pictures of autumn leaves, and the beers are advertised as being suitable for drinking with nabemono (one-pot cooking). Similarly, in winter, beers such as 冬物語 or Fuyu Monogatari (ふゆものがたり, translated as "The Winter's Tale" on the can) appear.[19]


In 1994, Japan's strict tax laws were relaxed allowing smaller breweries producing 60,000 litres (15,850 gal) per year for a beer license or 6000 litres per year for a happoshu license. Before this change, breweries could not get a license without producing at least 2 million litres (528,000 gal) per year.[1] As a result, a number of smaller breweries have been established throughout Japan.

After of relaxation of tax laws in the early 1990s, the commonly used term for microbrew in Japan was ji bīru (地ビール), or "local beer", although Japanese microbrew industry professionals are increasingly using the name "craft beer" (クラフトビア, kurafuto bia) in their labels and marketing literature.

There are currently over 200 microbreweries in Japan, although many in this number are financially tied to larger sake producers, restaurant chains, resort hotels or similar.[20] Microbreweries in Japan produce various styles of beer including ales, IPAs, stout, pilsner, weissbier, kölsch, fruit beers and others. After the relaxation of the Liquor Tax Law in 1994, there was an initial boom in microbrewing, but the quality of regional microbrews were often mixed and initial consumer enthusiasm leveled off. The popularity of low-cost happoshu (low-malt beer), compared to the high cost microbrews, forced a number of early microbreweries out of business. The dominance of the major industrial brewers and the relative high cost and low volume involved in producing micros led to their only being known to a small number of beer enthusiasts.

In the 2000s however, thanks to factors such as licensed production for some bar and restaurant chains, cooperation between micro breweries, and a more educated consumer base, craft beer has seen a more sustained rise in domestic demand. Improved product quality, word of mouth marketing facilitated by social media websites, the attention given to the rise of US-based craft brewing industry and the growth of independent craft beer retail outlets in major cities,[21] have all contributed to the recent success enjoyed by Japanese craft brewers.

Today there are a growing number of regional microbrew festivals held throughout Japan, including the Great Japan Beer Festival series held annually in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Yokohama. Every year, the Japan Craft Beer Association holds the Japan Beer Cup, while a competing organization, Japan Craft Beer Support, has launched the annual Nippon Craft Beer Festival.

Notable microbreweries

Methods of distribution

Beer can be sold in vending machines although, this has become much less common in major cities.

Other than in serviced restaurants and bars, in Japan beer can be purchased at a wide variety of outlets, including supermarkets, convenience stores, and kiosks at train stations. Beer can also be sold in vending machines although, as of 2012, this has become much less common in major cities. Some vending machines have motion activated advertising that displays on small TV screens embedded into them. They play beer commercials and jingles that are seen on TV and heard on the radio. These vending machines began to be phased out in June 2000, mainly over concerns of underage drinking.[citation needed]

Drinking culture

The legal drinking age in Japan is 20 years old. In terms of drinking culture, beer drinking and opening formal toasts with beer, as a part of a group, sports team or after-work corporate social bonding activity, is widespread.

Beer can legally be consumed almost anywhere in public, with notable exceptions for organized events, summer festivals and spring cherry blossom parties. Social convention means that open consumption of alcohol on the street or ordinary commuter trains is rare.[22] Japan has very strict laws against operating a motor vehicle or riding a bicycle during or after the consumption of alcohol. Fines, prison time and other penalties can also apply to individuals deemed responsible for supplying alcohol to an intoxicated driver and those traveling in the same vehicle.[23]

Japanese beers available outside Japan

Japanese-style commercial brewing and beer products have been successfully exported worldwide or are produced locally under license and are distributed in a number of overseas markets.

In the US, all four major Japanese brands are available. These include Sapporo Draft, Kirin Ichiban (Number One, as opposed to the normal Lager which is not available), Asahi Super Dry, and Suntory Premium Malt's. Asahi is produced by Molson in Canada,[24] Kirin is produced at Anheuser-Busch facilities in Williamsburg, Virginia and Los Angeles, and Sapporo is produced at a Sapporo-owned brewery in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Suntory, brewed in and imported from Japan, is available on tap in select major markets.[25] The availability of brands depends on an individual state's liquor laws, resulting in some beers being available in some places and others not. For example, in Oklahoma, Asahi Super Dry, Sapporo, and Orion are available, whereas in Texas, Kirin Ichiban is prevalent.

Kiuchi brewery was the first Japanese microbrewery to export beer from Japan.[citation needed] Many other Japanese microbreweries now export to North America, Europe, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.


Although it is technically illegal in Japan[1] to produce beverages containing more than 1% alcohol without a license, the law is rarely adhered to for homebrewers, and homebrewing supplies are available from high street stores and websites.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Harrell, Bryan (2012). "Japan". In Oliver, Garrett (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Beer. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 503–504. ISBN 9780195367133.
  2. ^ "Discovering Tokyo's Craft Beer Bars". The City Lane. 2014-06-17. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  3. ^ a b c "How Beer Came to Asia". JSTOR Daily. 31 January 2024. Retrieved 5 February 2024.
  4. ^ Alexander, Jeffrey W. (2013). Brewed in Japan: the evolution of the Japanese beer industry. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: UBC Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-7748-2504-7.
  5. ^ Oliver, Garrett (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-19-536713-3.
  6. ^ a b Campbell, William (2007-04-13). "What the Japanese are drinking". The Japan Times. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  7. ^ "Global Beer Consumption by Country". Kirin Beer University Report. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  8. ^ "Global Beer Consumption by Country 2014". Kirin Beer University Report. Kirin Holdings.
  9. ^ "Beer in Japan". Euromonitor Reports. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  10. ^ a b Kachi, Hiroyuki (January 16, 2014). "Japan's Beer Drinkers Still Not Raising a Glass to Abenomics". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  11. ^ a b Yamaguchi, Yuki (7 June 2013). "Imported $60 Stout Opens Doors for Japan Craft Beer Revival". Bloomberg L.P. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  12. ^ Jeong, Young ho. "Why Asahi lost its No. 1 spot in the Japanese beer market for the first time in 20 years".
  13. ^ a b c "酒 税 法 等 の 改 正 の あ ら ま し (Summary of revisions to the Liquor Tax Law)" (PDF). National Tax Agency (Japan). 2017-04-01. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-04-02. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  14. ^ ビール酒造組合. "なんでもQ&A". ビール酒造組合 (Brewers Association of Japan) (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 2012-07-22. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  15. ^ "Winners emerge in crowded market for purine-free low-malt beer". Nikkei Asia. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  16. ^ Fujikawa, Atsuko Fukase and Megumi (2016-08-31). "Japan's Beer Industry – The Numbers". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  17. ^ "Japan's 1st zero-carb regular beer to hit shelves in Oct". Kyodo News+. 2020-08-27. Archived from the original on 2021-03-02. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  18. ^ a b "Japan: New beer taxation to turn beer and malt industry upside down". 2 April 2018. Retrieved 2021-06-06.
  19. ^ "エイジゲート | サッポロビール". Retrieved 2019-01-25.
  20. ^ Meli, Mark (September 2013). Craft Beer in Japan, The Essential Guide (1st ed.). Yokohama: Bright Wave Media Inc.
  21. ^ Swinnerton, Robbie. "Craft Beer Market, Tokyo's artisan ale haven". CNN Travel. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  22. ^ "Should time be called on public drinking?". BBC News Online. 2 June 2008.
  23. ^ "To Foreign Nationals who Drive Vehicles in Japan" (PDF). National Police Agency. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 May 2016. Retrieved 22 August 2016.
  24. ^ "Molson to brew Asahi Super Dry".
  25. ^ "Suntory Debuts "The Premium Malt's" Pilsner Beer in the US". 15 April 2022.