Microbrews get big in Japan

Japanese beer drinkers are tired of the same old tastes from the big four brewers and are instead turning to a growing number of microbreweries across the country for something different.

Figures released Friday by the major brewers - Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi and Suntory - showed that beer shipments fell for a fifth year in 2009, down 2.1 percent to just 472.5 million cases. Each case holds 20 633-milliliter bottles.

Microbrewers, on the other hand, experienced a bumper year, with shipments climbing to 34,000 kiloliters. And while that may still only represent a fraction of the amount sold by the established beer firms, it is an impressive increase on the 14,000 kiloliters that were consumed in 2003.

"It is simply that there are not enough choices in the Japanese beer market, and that is why we decided to start brewing some new and interesting beers," Katsuyoshi Yoshino, head of sales for Morita Kinshachi Beer Co., told Relaxnews.

"Our company was originally a sake maker but we began making beer in 1996 and using unusual ingredients," he said. "Now they can be purchased all over Japan and we are exporting to China and Australia as well."

Based in the central Japan city of Nagoya, Morita Kinshachi produces a range of European-style pilsners, an Indian Pale Ale and an Imperial Chocolate Stout, but among its best-sellers are beers flavored with green tea or fermented bean paste.

The Matcha Draft green tea beer won bronze at an international beer competition last year, while the ingredients of Nagoya Akamiso Lager include fermented red beans, a local speciality that has made it popular in the city.

"For us, the secret is to be original with the beers and make them stand out," said Yoshino.

Other breweries have caught on to the concept of being different, with the Hakusekikan microbewery's Tenen Hachinitsu Kobo Shizen Bakushu taking advantage of the natural yeast found in honey. The Super Vintage brew, meanwhile, packs a punch with three times the alcohol content of regular beer.

Microbreweries were legalized in Japan in 1994 and there are now some 300 companies brewing across the country. Many others have been forced to stop brewing due to the big beer companies' ability to keep prices low as they produce in bulk.

But with sales rising in 2009, despite the global economic crisis, microbrewers hope that drinkers are shifting towards quality over quantity.

JR

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