A high tax rate is to blame for remarkably expensive beer in Japan. Current taxation is 222 yen per liter, pushing the price of an ordinary 350-ml can of beer to 225 yen.

The economic recession beginning in the early ’90s spurred brewers to find a way to sell cheaper beer. The solution was found in a loophole in the beer tax regulations, which defined beer as having a minimum of 67 percent malt in the fermentable ingredients. Beers brewed with less were classified as happo-shu (sparkling alcoholic beverages), and were taxed in two categories. Those containing 25-66 percent malt were taxed at 152.7 yen per liter, while those with 25 percent malt or less were taxed at 83.3 yen per liter. In place of malt, brewers can use lower-cost materials such as rice, cornstarch, saccharified starch and sugars.

Suntory was the first to release a beer-style happo-shu (hereafter referred to as low-malt beer) with their Hop’s Nama in 1994. Brewed with 65 percent malt, it was comparable in flavor to many beers, while its price of 180 yen represented a sort of tax revolt among beer drinkers.

In April 1995 Sapporo released an even cheaper low-malt beer, Drafty, at 160 yen. With only 25 percent malt, Drafty fell into the lowest tax bracket.

As sales of both Hop’s Nama and Drafty grew, the tax officials got wise. In 1996 they lowered the minimum malt content for beer, and raised the under-25 percent malt tax to 105 yen per liter. Suntory responded with Super Hop’s, a new beverage containing 25 percent malt and going for 150 yen a can, while Sapporo lowered the price of Drafty to 145 yen.

In 1997, Orion Beer of Okinawa (Japan’s fifth largest brewer) entered the low-malt beer market with its interestingly named Aroma Tone, which was followed in 1998 by Kirin with the introduction of Tanrei. Asahi is now the only major brewer that does not produce a low-malt beer.

Although low-malt beer sales continue to increase, they still only represent about 10 percent of the entire beer market.

Many people choose low-malt beers on the basis of price, but some actually prefer their lighter body and flavor. To determine if there was much difference between the taste of light beer and low-malt beer, I set up a blind tasting of all four low-malt beers, along with three light beers. Kirin Lager was also included as a control. Naturally, low-malt beers cannot be expected to compare favorably with true full-malt beers since it is malt that gives beer its flavor.

The tasting panel included myself, this paper’s sake columnist John Gauntner and three other beer enthusiasts. Beers were ranked on a scale of 1-10. All tasting comments are mine, but points indicate the average score of the four tasters.

Suntory Super Hop’s (7 points, low-malt beer) — This one we mistook for a regular beer. It has a faint hop aroma, with full beer flavor, and is quite nicely balanced save for a hint of sourness. It has a brisk, bitter finish. This is certainly a well-made effort for a brew containing 25 percent malt.

Kirin Lager (6.25 points, regular beer) — Pronounced aroma, a bit sweet, with a full malty taste and a clean finish. Although it was one of the best tasting, most guessed it was a low-malt beer.

Suntory Mugi no Kaori (5.5 points, low-malt beer) — Slightly medicinal, sour aroma, but with a rich body and full flavor. This differs from the other low-malt beers because it contains just under 50 percent malt, putting it into a higher tax category. It contains malted wheat in addition to the malted barley normally used for beer, giving it a taste slightly resembling the Belgian white beers made with both wheat and barley.

Kirin Lager Special Light (5.3 points, light beer) — In this beer I encountered a “cheap” sour flavor initially, leading into a parade of various off flavors, finishing with a strange grainy aftertaste. Although it wasn’t to my liking, other tasters gave it more favorable scores.

Kirin Tanrei (4.25 points, low-malt beer) — A grassy, grainy aroma, followed by a dull taste and a slightly metallic finish.

Asahi Beer Water (4.25 points, light beer) — A sour aroma, followed by a sugary, grainy flavor. It had an unusual syruplike softness, and a clean finish with little aftertaste.

Sapporo Brau (4 points, low-malt beer) — A rich malty aroma, some bitterness, and a satisfactory finish.

Sapporo Calorie Half (4 points, light beer) — A decidedly grainy aroma, with a taste marred by an array of off-flavors, finishing with a thin, sour aftertaste. Alcohol is only 3 percent, so perhaps this beer would be improved by making it a bit stronger.

Aided by the recession, low-malt beers continue to gain market share. They may well disappear, however, if the curious beer tax provisions that have created this category are removed. The fact that these beers taste remarkable despite having less than 25 percent malt is proof of the brewers’ high level of technical skill. Since their introduction nearly five years ago, I have noticed a continual improvement in flavor and drinkability, making me wonder what they could taste like five years from now.

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