The big four Japanese beer companies – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory – are in a constant turf war. Game theory keeps them intertwined in a fierce marketing dead heat, and the types of beer they release seem to be hamstrung by a monkey-see-monkey-do strategy and Japanese tax laws.

Over the past seven years, beer companies have produced cheaper and cheaper products by dancing around Japanese tax laws that define beer by barley content,  and politicians have continuously revised the regulations to combat deficits. Brewers first pushed happoshu, a low malt beer, through the tax loophole. Not surprisingly, the beer sold extremely well. Politicians modified laws in 2003 to tax happoshu, and brewers began to “third-type beers” such as Sapporo’s Draft One, which eschews all barley and uses fermentables from peas and corn instead. In 2006, politicians redefined these as “other fermented beverages” to bring them under tax laws.

As the law currently stands, 100% malt beer is taxed at ¥222 per liter, beverages with a barley content of 25-50% at ¥178, and those with less than 25% at ¥134.

Most of these beers have maintained the standard 5% alcohol by volume level, but recently companies have been experimenting with sugar-free beers, alcohol-free beers and beers with higher alcohol content. Kirin just released its strangely titled “Yasumu hi no Alc. 0.00%” (“0.00% for the days you rest”), and the advertisements encourage drinkers to “Please, rest your liver” with some Japanese punnery. The movement for sugar-free beers culminated finally in Asahi’s awful Strong Off – a 7% beer that mysteriously has 60% less sugar – and Suntory’s Relax, a sugar-free brew that boasts seven hops. These beers rely on novelty to help them sell, and the big brewers will continue to swap their mutant beer lineup in and out so their marketing campaigns can stay fresh.

Japanese craft beer companies and craft beer bars, on the other hand, are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: They are brewing more barley-heavy beers, and they are building a substantial audience of good beer fans.

While Japanese craft brewing has existed since 1994, when changes in laws reduced the minimum brewing volume required for a brewing license, only recently have Japanese brewers started pushing the envelope with extreme beers that make use of large quantities of barley and hops.

One example of such a brewery is Yokohama Beer, which on April 11 hosted their Yokohama Beer Spring Party in Shinko Park in Yokohama. There were over two dozen beers from a variety of breweries on tap, and none of the beers cut any corners. Yokohama Beer brought several of its own heavy hitters, including their Imperial Pilsner, Rich Chocolate Stout and Scorpion Deathlock IPA – all 9% or stronger beers extremely heavy on the barley.

Thrash Zone, a heavy metal bar cum craft beer beer, has contract brewed several aggressively hopped beers through Atsugi Beer in the past year and a half – beers like Simcoe, Bloody Simcoe and Hop Slave, two 10-percent-plus India Pale Ales, and Crossover, an IPA-Cream Ale crossover. Many other Japanese brewers have started debuting “Imperial” and “double” versions of their beers, which have more alcohol and more hops. In November 2009, Bryan Baird of Baird Brewing added the Suruga Bay Imperial IPA to his regular lineup, bringing it to nine beers.

Baird made it extremely clear to Japan Pulse why beer is so pricey: “Beer is very expensive in Japan primarily for one reason: extraordinarily high taxation.” The cost puts the average pint of craft beer at ¥800-¥1,200, significantly higher than its industrial counterpart.

This hasn’t stopped craft brewers. Baird regularly brews 40-50 different seasonal beers every year (nearly one a week!), none of which are the tax-advantaged happoshu. Furthermore, events like the Yokohama Beer Spring Party are drawing large crowds (500+ guests attended), and the quality of Japanese beer is starting to be recognized even outside of Japan. Three Japanese breweries were recognized at the World Beer Cup on April 11. Coedo Brewery took Silver in the Specialty Beer category for its Beniaka red ale. Fujizakura Kogen Beer took Bronze in the Smoked Beer category for its Rauch beer. The real winner, however, was Baird Brewing, which landed three Golds in the Specialty Beer, American-style Amber Lager and Belgian- and French-style Ale categories for its Country Girl Kabocha Ale, Numazu Lager and Saison Sayuri respectively.

While Japanese craft beers initially had a sort of souvenir status to them, slowly the number of solid breweries in Japan has grown, and they are now able to rely on quality beer rather than just novelty to compete with Japanese big brewers. Unfortunately it will never be a fair fight until there are significant revisions to Japanese tax laws.

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