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In malt we trust

36 Comments
By James Hadfield

Each Friday, we end the week with a few cans of beer from the convenience store. Come 6 p.m. or so, whichever staffer has the least to do will perform a quick lap of the office to rustle up funds, and then head off to Sunkus to stock up on suds. It’s a simple routine, but nonetheless things sometimes go awry. One dedicated gourmand elected to walk an extra few hundred meters to import shop Seijoishii, returning with a selection of fancy brews whose quality was not, alas, matched by their meager quantity. Darker still was the day when a member of the design team came back with an unusually bountiful supply. But as the bags were opened, people’s awe turned to horror. This wasn’t beer: it was happoshu.

Of the roughly 336.8 million cases of beer sold in Japan between January and September this year, just over 50% were either happoshu or third-category beer—low-malt and no-malt tipples that have evolved in response to idiosyncrasies in the country’s liquor taxes. Whether by accident or design, most of us have tried them at some point, and either recoiled at the taste or admitted that, meh, it wasn’t all that bad. Such are the heights toward which happoshu and its ilk aspire: they’re drinks that are defined in shades of mediocrity, like cover versions of real beer played by musicians of wildly varying competence.

Historically, an alcoholic beverage has needed to contain at least 66.6% malt to be considered beer in Japan, and breweries have devised all kinds of ways to take advantage of this loophole. In the ’80s, Asahi mixed beer with fruit juice to create Be, while Suntory took the shochu-wari route with a vile-sounding drink called BiHi.

When the government relaxed licensing on liquor sales in 1989, opening the door for discount shops to sell beer in bulk, it renewed the pressure on breweries to reduce the cost of their products. Suntory threw the first stone in 1994 with Hop’s (malt count: 65%), and lawmakers responded two years later by changing the tax threshold. This dance has continued ever since, and today more than 30% of “beer” sold in Japan doesn’t contain any malt at all—it hails from the dark hinterlands of the so-called third category, made from corn, barley, soybeans and puppy-dogs’ tails.

If you look at the numbers, this all makes sense. When you buy a 633ml bottle of beer here, 45.1% of the retail price is actually liquor and consumption tax, compared to 34.3% for a can of happoshu, and 24.9% for that third-category stuff. According to figures released by the Brewers Association of Japan, that’s about 12 times higher than the U.S., and 20 times higher than Germany.

Call me an idealist, but when the liquor tax has birthed a "Twilight Zone" scenario in which more than half of the beer sold barely even qualifies as beer, it might be time to give that tax a rethink. I’m not going to deny that some people may actually prefer happoshu. Nor will I dismiss the potential appeal of drinks like Kirin’s hangover-courting Strong Seven or Suntory’s sugar-free Relax, even if it tastes a bit like licking tin foil.

Still, given the choice between bastardized beer and the real thing, I suspect that the majority of Japanese consumers would rather drink the latter. With small breweries finally gaining a foothold in the market, too, a reduction in the tax rate could help nurture a more diverse and sophisticated beer culture here—one where affordably priced "ji-biiru" sits alongside Super Dry in the convenience store fridge, and happoshu is relegated to the bottom shelf.

At the very least, it would make Friday evenings at the office more fun.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

36 Comments
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In order to protect domestic shochu and sake brewers, the government has long chosen to tax alcoholic beverages by type rather than by alcohol content, the latter being the approach taken by most every other country. The problem with the former is that it requires a legal definition. Whereas most countries consider what looks, waddles and quacks like beer to be beer (and frankly doesn't care what you call it as the tax will be the same), a fermented grain beverage may smell as sweet but may not legally be called beer.

"What's in a name?" might be a fun game to play after a few happoshus, but the necessity of stocking a variety of all three (current) types must drive retailers mad at the wasted cooler space. The government could save both consumers and producers much trouble by reforming the tax system in line with generally accepted practices.

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happoshu and asahi super dry are a crime against booze...

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The tax should be based on alcohol content alone, that would soon get rid of those awful beer-like drinks. If it's a choice between a beer-like drink and nothing I'll take nothing every time.

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Of the roughly 336.8 million cases of beer sold in Japan between January and September this year

I think that was mostly because of me, thank you very much.

Each Friday, we end the week with a few cans of beer from the convenience store.

A few cans? Weaklings!!

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hey beer snobs, i'll gladly take your unwanted beer-like drinks anytime!

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A very well written report. It is actually based on fact as opposed to most gaijin "fact" that is spun after 4 beers. Before coming to Japan I was told that the beer was really cheap - which pleased me. I tried one of these "cheap beers" and angrily piffed the rest of it down the sink. What makes me laugh even more than the dire state of Japanese beer is when I see the worst of the worst imported beers selling for 600 Yen at an import shop. Get wise - brew your own.

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I love asahis sugar free one. As someone who watches the waistline (and gains a kilo just for looking at the full fat super dry) Its fantastic. Only 24 calories a can!

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I would not be surprised if Asahi has changed the formula for Asahi Super Dry so that it is taxed as a Hoppo-shu beer in order to rake in bigger profits. I say this because I think the flavor has changed lately to resemble a cheaper beer.

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I love the fake beers. They are lower in purines so I do not get gout attacks when I drink them.

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The fake beers are just terrible. I have tried many of them and indeed do end up pouring them down the sink. I often have parties at my house for adult students. A few people always bring the dreaded fake beer. But do they drink it? NO! They drink my Sapporo or Ebisu or other nice beer that someone has been kind enough to bring. So on Sunday I am left with a fridge full of fake beer (which goes down the sink automatically now). Enough said about the fake beers. Good article! I agree that the tax does not make any sense when companies can get around it by just selling crap.

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what are the highest malt content beers in Japan?

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Started drinking Kirin's green label 70% less sugar happoshu a few years ago. Got so used to it that the quality beers (Malt's etc) taste vile in comparison: thick and sweet (a bit like the wife) and all but undrinkable. Makes me popular at parties, though, I bring along a few cans of the "good" beer and don't touch it. Just hoover up the cheap stuff.

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Great article. (And, yes, Lemur is a beer snob.)

koriyamaboy: I hear you!

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Is there such a thing as a beer snob?? Wine I can see but beer drinkers are not usually the snobby type. But if not liking crap tasting beer makes you a snob, then I guess I am one too.

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So on Sunday I am left with a fridge full of fake beer (which goes down the sink automatically now).

Where I come from, wasting beer (even fake beer) like that would automatically get you a slap in the head. Man up, gourmet boys. Mottaiinai!!

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Wow, someone is way too serious about their drug here. :/ A drink every Friday? Some of us don't need to drink to unwind, or to have fun. I wouldn't even consider drinking a part of any night where I had fun.

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kyushujoe

Got so used to it that the quality beers (Malt's etc) taste vile in comparison

Well that's your first mistake. Malt's has never been a "quality beer". Premium isn't bad, but it still doesn't stand up to Ebisu or Sapporo.

And um, why does the government tax malt content? Is malt the root of all evil? I can understand tax on alcohol content, but not malt.

Also, don't get me started on protecting the shochu makers. Pathetic.

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I wouldn't even consider drinking a part of any night where I had fun.

Well GOOD FOR YOU. The rest of us like our booze.

I'm not sure why the beer is taxed so high in Japan - the liquor/shochu taxes are really low, I think.

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Well kyushujoe, you can come to my place anytime!!

Funny comments all around. And I loved this article. It is interesting and as DentShop said, based on facts.

goddog, I feel you and the gout problems, mate. Try the Kirin Tanrei W, 99 purine cut. Haven't had a bout with gout since it came out. Doesn't taste great but when you remember how painful gout can be, no beer tastes better...

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I used to drink the fake stuff when I was a student (= damn short on cash). I haven't touched it in many years. And I drink beer almost every day (the rest of the days I drink wine:). But I have nothing against happoshu: it's good to have a cheap alternative for students of those who don't care that much about the taste, and a real beer for those who care for the extra price and quality. After all, even wine has its Beaujolais

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Thanks PeaceWarrior and others who used the word "purine" here. Everytime I saw the words "プリン体" in ads, I couldn't figure out what custard or pudding had to do with beer. Now I finally get it!

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Cheers kawachi,

I learned a lot about it when I had to put my life on hold because of gout. It is worse than all the bones I've broken in my life (and I've broken loads of them). Truly the worst pain I've ever, ever experienced.

Happoshu is not so bad when you think of the painful alternative.

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the hangovers off that happo-shu muck are something brutal.

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I wouldn't even consider drinking a part of any night where I had fun.

Well nobody cares. Dont come into a beer article and start preaching teetotalism. Just looking for trouble.

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Don't like fake beer?

Then don't buy it.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Amida. We dont buy it. People bring it to parties and then drink the more expensive real beer. Then we are left with it. Cant you read?

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what are the highest malt content beers in Japan?

Of the mass-market beers, try Ichiban shibori, Malts and Ebisu. There may be one or two others but practically all the rest (including Kirin Lager and Sapporo Black Label) are made with rice and cornstarch. Check the ingredients list.

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Can proudly say I've never drank either second or third category "beer" in my time here. And don't intend to. If things ever got that bad, I'd read the handwriting on the wall and go home.

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Well good for you, herefornow. I give anything a try before judging it, so I've tried my fair share of 2nd or 3rd beers. They are obviously not as good as "real" beer. But if you're up for it, the best 2nd beer is Kirin Tanrei Nama and the best 3rd beer is Sapporo's Mugi To Hoppu.

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Enjoy your crap Japanese "beer". I'll be enjoying this Saison Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang in New York! Our government is completely screwed up, but at least they let people make decent, real beer.

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@2020hindsight

maybe the tax on malt is so high if they import it..they tax the s**t out of anything elese worth bringing into the country

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Of course malt is not the only thing that makes a beer. Relax, for example, contains acesulfame potassium which many believe may be carcinogenic.

Despite the high cost, I try to drink local 地ビール in glass bottles, since cans typically make any beer taste like crap. I bet happoshu in glass bottles would taste better than more expensive beer in cans.

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Well alls I got to say is we love dai 3 beer, when I say we I'm talking bout those of us who have gluten intolerance or celiac disease. To drink beer like this back home you have to pay through the nose, please no bad jokes. Cheers ps for those who can drink real beer nothing goes past a VB

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

koriyamaboy, you either need new friends....

or start writing byob (that means NO happposhu) on your invites...

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Our government is completely screwed up, but at least they let people make decent, real beer.

Plenty of great beer in Japan, dude. It's not all Super Dry and happoshu.

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i wonder if 211 steele reserve would sell well in japan. do they sell 40oz. beers in japan?

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