Drinkers brace for long, hot summer

It is likely to be a long, hot summer this year in Japan, made worse by an anticipated shortage of one little pleasure that makes the heat and humidity bearable - cold beer.

The nation's four major brewers say they may not be able to meet demand after many of their production facilities in northern and eastern Japan sustained damage in the March 11 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.

That has been worsened by the loss of delivery vehicles and damage to the road and rail infrastructure needed to deliver the beer to consumers, in particular those worst affected by the natural disasters.

Production facilities operated by Sapporo Breweries in Miyagi and Chiba Prefecture were damaged in the quake, while critical equipment at the comany's plant in Sendai City was also rendered inoperable. The three sites provide the majority of the company's beer output for northeast Japan.

"We apologize for the inconvenience caused by suspending orders and shipments of some products," said Takao Murakami, president of the brewer's parent company, Sapporo Holdings Ltd.

Production of Asahi Breweries' top-selling beers has also been affected by the natural disasters, with the company's factories in Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures damaged. A spokesman for the company said production of the nation's most popular beer - Asahi Super Dry - has been restarted in Ibaraki but only three of the six lines are operational and output has been therefore limited.

Unless repairs can be completed before the peak season for demand starts, then the firm estimates that shipments will be 30 percent lower than it would expect during the summer.

Similarly, Kirin Brewery anticipates a 20 percent fall in shipments as its key plants in Sendai City and Ibaraki Prefecture have reported damage to brewing equipment.

One month after the earthquake, there are already indications that deliveries are slowing down as shipments arriving in stores in some parts of Tokyo have fallen from six days a week to just three times weekly.

The earthquake has come at a bad time for Japanese brewers, which are already struggling with falling domestic demand.

Total shipments of beer and reduced-malt beers - which are cheaper as they benefit from lower government taxes - fell 2.8 percent in 2010 from the previous year. The 459.17 million cases that were shipped was a record low for the sixth straight year since comparable records were first kept in 1992.

Analysts blame the gradual decline in beer consumption in Japan on an aging population and weak demand among younger consumers, who have less money to spend on going out and a far wider array of drinking options than previous generations.

Yet as Japan tries to rebuild from what has been the worst natural disaster in living memory, there are plenty of people living and working in the disaster zone who would like nothing more than to be able to raise a cold glass of beer at the end of another tough working day.

JR

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