Beer is a drink that is popular wherever you go in the world. Japan is no exception and the beer culture is immense. Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world, as well as Japan. There are four major breweries in Japan: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. These four stalwarts also control some of the other larger brands in Japan and have a strong connection with Japanese people. They dominate the market that was until very recent history until the laws changed and the microbrew culture started to grow. In the 7 years that I have been in Japan, I have seen this change happen, or at least I have grown to understand it a lot more. The big four breweries control most of the market by placing their products within the different izakaya and bars in the country but there is a growing movement to see more craft beers and import beers being served. Japan is changing and it is getting exciting to see the number of small craft brews being created and hopefully I will be able to try some of them more often.
At the top of the pyramid of beer companies is a two way battle between Asahi and Kirin. Asahi has been the dominant force recently and are well known for their Asahi Super Dry. Asahi has a full range of products from the most popular Asahi Super Dry to the Asahi Premium which battles for the premium beer market in Japan. They are also the main distributor for Orion beer, based in Okinawa, as well as several other foreign based beers such as Hoegaarden, Bass, and Stella Artois. Asahi aggressively advertises their beers with music rocker Masaharu Fukuyama and golf sensation Ryo Ishikawa. They are infamously known by their headquarters, located in Asakusa, because their main building is designed to look like a frothy mug of beer and the building next to it is called the turd, for obvious reasons. Asahi has a lot of power within the beer market in Japan. Everyone talks about Asahi and their products and you can find a lot of pubs and restaurants serving Asahi Super Dry. During the summer months, Asahi goes into overdrive, as with all the other beer companies, by heavily advertising Asahi Super Dry Extra Cold. This beer is pretty simple as you just take the regular Asahi Super Dry and chill it to around -2C to 0C to create this extra cold beer. They capitalized on this fad by opening their Extra Cold Bar in Ginza where rich salary men can go and enjoy this cold beer in a standing bar. It is an ingenious marketing ploy where the tap itself is relatively cheap and the cost to upgrade a bar to those specs are negligible compared to the profits gained by the bar itself. Asahi is not the only company capitalizing on a gimmick but they were the first ones that I know of to do so for the summer.
Kirin is the second largest, and until recently the largest, beer company in Japan. They are one of the more recognized names internationally and they have a larger domestic lineup of beer compared to Asahi. Their main product is Kirin Ichiban Shibori. It has changed slightly over the years but still retains its basic original form. Kirin puts a lot of money into Ichiban Shibori by employing Ichiro Suzuki as their spokesperson. You can see him in most Ichiban Shibori ads enjoying a cold one on a hot day. Kirin also sells Heartland, a premium brand of beer as well as foreign brands such as Budweiser, Heineken, Guinness, and Kilkenny. Compared to Asahi, their advertising efforts are not as striking and focus a little more on nature and how at one their beer is with nature. At least that is the visual aspect of their commercials recently as I don’t always understand what they are saying. Kirin has recently jumped on board with a summer gimmick called the Ichiban Shibori Frozen Draft. No, this is not a popsicle-beer, but rather a beer with a slurpee on top. The slurpee is an aerated frozen beer concoction that is very similar to the slurpees you can buy at 7-11. It isn’t very delicious to eat the beer slurpee but it does help keep the beer cold. The slurpee portion itself is cooled to -5C to help keep the beer cold for around 30 minutes, or so the advertising says. It is an interesting beer to try but a little difficult to drink. Trying to drink the beer without the slurpee is very difficult but I will say that if you drink moderately you will find that by the end the slurpee will have melted into the beer and your beer has stayed cold the entire time. I can’t tell you how often I am in a beer garden outside and the beer gets warm because I didn’t drink it fast enough.
Sapporo is one of my favourite beer companies and it is ranked number 3 in Japan. They are home to Sapporo Kuro (Black) Label as well as the owners of the Yebisu Beer Company. Sapporo Kuro Label is designed to compete with the typical Kirin Ichiban Shibori beer and they do their best to compete. When visiting Hokkaido, you can also get the Sapporo Classic. It is a special brand of Sapporo that is specific to Hokkaido only. On occasion, they do export Sapporo Classic to other areas of Japan but it is a very seasonal thing. In Hokkaido, Sapporo Classic is widely available. Yebisu is the premium brand for Sapporo. It is considered its own company due to the heritage of the company itself, but on paper it is just a brand within Sapporo. It was once the oldest brewery in Tokyo and a complex history led it to be revived by Sapporo. Yebisu is so popular that is has a neighbourhood named after them in Tokyo, just one station south of Shibuya (Ebisu Station). Sapporo and Yebisu are a little different in terms of their own marketing strategies. Sapporo uses a lot of famous, yet serious actors for their advertisings. Yukie Nakama, a famous actress, promotes their all hop beer and Naoto Takenaka is promoting their kuro label. Naoto Takenaka is a respected actor and comedian and the commercials featuring him depict him talking to a young guy in what looks to be a kohai/sempai (teacher/student) situation. They are promoting how adult it is to drink Sapporo Kuro Label and a lot of their commercials reflect this. Yebisu does the same with Kenichi Matsuyama and Koji Yakusho. Unlike the Sapporo commercials, the Yebisu commercials depict both Kenichi Matsuyama and Koji Yakusho in nature enjoying good food and good beer. Kenichi is well known for his portrayal as L in “Death Note” while Koji Yakusho is international known for his role in “Tokyo Sonata”, a smallish film that was in the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. As for imports, Sapporo doesn’t import a lot of foreign based beers even though they do own a Canadian brewery, Sleeman’s. Sapporo tends to keep things a little closer to their heart rather than going all out with foreign acquisitions and important several brands of beer.
Suntory is by far the smallest major brand of beer in Japan. Suntory is better known for their whiskeys rather than beer, and this was mainly popularized in the movie “Lost in Translation” where Bill Murray’s character had to do several commercials promoting Suntory Whiskey. It is a classic movie for people to watch before visiting Japan and it is definitely on the ball when it comes to how people feel when they first visit Japan. There are only two brands of beer under the Suntory label, Malt’s and The Premium Malt’s. Malt’s beer is actually not popular and hard to find in most convenience stores. The Premium Malt’s is the popular brand and it is marketed as a premium beer in Japan. It is heavily marketed with Eikichi Yazawa, a singer, Katori Shingo, member of the boy band SMAP, and Yuko Takeuchi, an actress. The main series of commercials for The Premium Malt’s are done in black and white with only the beer being in colour. A lot of the commercials also highlight the flavours and naturalness of the beer itself highlighting the production process and the ingredients. Being one of the smaller brewers, they can easily promote the quality of their beer rather than using gimmicks. They come off as being proud of the quality of their beer and that is enough to push their sales at the moment.
There is a lot more to Japanese beer than the major brands. There are a lot of gimmicks going around, especially in the summer and autumn months. They have a lot of promotions beyond what I have mentioned here. Each brand has their own distinct flavours and you really just have to try it to find the one you like the most. It can take a bit of time to find the one you like the most but it doesn’t take too long. Unlike North America where you can often find several types of beer in one bar, Japan tends to concentrate their offerings to one brand with exclusive deals. The beer companies are quick to provide free glasses to their customers, especially the big ones. Beer sales can be very lucrative in Japan considering the number of after work parties Japanese people go to. It is hard to talk about Japanese beer in just one post as I have completely neglected the burgeoning craft brew segment in Japan. It is an interesting time in the beer industry in Japan and I think things will only get better in the future.