Kirin Brewery Co. announced Tuesday it will release a malt-free beerlike alcoholic beverage on April 6, joining its biggest rival Asahi Breweries Ltd. in the so-called third-beer market pioneered by Sapporo Breweries Ltd. and Suntory Ltd.

The new suds have been growing in popularity thanks to prices that are lower than beer and its low-malt cousin “happoshu,” which are taxed differently according to their malt levels.

“We have determined that there is a solid consumer need” for such beerlike beverages, Kirin President Koichiro Aramaki told a news conference in Tokyo.

Aramaki said that the firm expects Nodogoshi-nama and its rivals to attract 10 percent of the beer and quasi-beer market in Japan this year.

Kirin hopes to sell 19.7 million cases this year. A case contains 20 633 ml bottles.

Asahi said it will launch Shin-nama on April 20, targeting sales of 22 million cases by the end of the year.

While both companies said prices are open, the new beverages are likely to be priced about 20 yen cheaper than happoshu per 350 ml can. The gap will be even larger with beer.

The price differential is based on the liquor tax, which varies according to each kind of beverage. The new products to be launched by Kirin and Asahi will enjoy lower taxes because they substitute soy protein for malt, which is essential for categorizing a beverage as a beer.

For example, the tax on a 350 ml can of beer is 77 yen. The tax on the same can of happoshu is 46.99 yen. But the levy on the new malt-free drinks is only 24.20 yen.

The decision by the country’s two largest breweries to enter the market was spurred by the success of their innovative rivals, who enjoyed surprisingly strong demand for the cheaper brews last year.

Sapporo, which cracked the market with Draft One last February, has raised its original sales target of 10 million cases twice since launching the brew. Sapporo eventually sold 18.15 million cases of Draft One in 2004, and Suntory posted similar results.

Breweries are expecting a significant number of happoshu drinkers to switch over to the new beerlike beverages.

Yet, with all of Japan’s major breweries set to market the new quasi-beer, concern is rising concern among consumers and brewery officials alike that the government will attempt to raise the tax on the new suds.

Happoshu itself debuted about a decade ago as a cheap alternative to beer by using less malt. But as soon as beer lovers switched to the tax-saving suds, the government increased the tax on happoshu twice.

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