The Japanese Beer Market
Japanese beer. A can of Kirin Brewery's Akiaji 'Autumn Taste' beer, with colorful leaves adorning the label
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 120mm
2 sec, f/8, ISO 100 — full exif

(photo setup described here)
Japanese Beer du Jour

The Japanese beer market is both interesting and frustrating.

Prior to twenty years ago the few major breweries all produced a few rich beers that were all more or less the same type of beer available since after the war. After WWII the Japanese people suffered greatly, food-wise, so rich lager beer emerged as a way a man could indulge himself, and thus “Japanese Beer” was set in stone for the better part of two generations.

That all changed in 1987 when Asahi Brewery's “Super Dry” was released on the market. If I remember the story I read not long after, a new beer was considered a smashing success if it sold a million cases in its first year. Super Dry sold something like 18 million in its first nine months. It's a clean, crisp, light taste, and appealed very much to the “not your father's beer” flush-with-cash generation of the late-80s bubble economy.

The late 80s and early 90s was an amazing time of awakening in Japan. When I first arrived in 1989 (to work at Omron Tateishi Denki in Nagaokakyou), 39 out of 40 cars in the parking lot were white. By the time I left eight years later, a boom of cultural individualism had resulted in the mix becoming decidedly more colorful, and today, white is not at all a preferred color for cars.

Anyway, the entire beverage market also experienced a cultural awakening, and these days, varieties come and go with the wind (such as this example from the can coffee market that I wrote about last year).

With beer, each brewer has a few “tenant lines,” but 2/3rd of the beer aisle are varieties that come and go in a few months. I think that the churn is mostly due to an attempt to capture the attention of the consumer with “new!” and “improved!” (it may well be that the exact same beer is inside all the differently-labeled cans ), although some of the churn is also of a seasonal nature.

The image at right is from some of my research for this post, Kirin's seasonal Akiaji (“Autumn Taste”) beer. With a can this pretty, the taste must be good.

I just don't get the timing of the marketing, though. According to the beer's blog it'll be on the market through the end of this month*1, but the fall foliage season won't start in most of Japan for another six weeks after that. (For example, I didn't have any foliage pictures on my blog last year until mid November's Kyoto Autumn Foliage (Sort Of) post.)

And therein lies the frustration in the Japanese beer market. I'm reluctant to try a new beer for fear of liking it, because I know that if I do, it'll be yanked out from under me a few months later.

I'll have to consider this post a work in progress, as I believe there's much more research yet to be done. In fact, I think I'll go open another can of research right now....

*1 Yes, the specific beer has its own blog. This is Japan, you know.

All 4 comments so far, oldest first...

You are right ! This “Akiaji” beer tastes good, not like other japanese beers which are light and crispy but not so rich in tastes. So Zak and I are always thrilled when we see these beers in store, and buy only these while they are around. Yes it is frustrating that we cannot get the kind we like all year around, but since most Japanese people like the light and crispy beer, I understand this seasonal, limited only marketing tactics.
About the timing of their sales only in September, when it’s still hot and leaves are turned into brown because of the heat, this is just my guess; People are tired of long summer and, consciously or uncounsiously, looking for something suggestive of its ending, thus the big letter of AUTUMN and picture of beautiful autumn leaves catch these people’s eye. But when a real autumn comes, say in October, people don’t need to look something autumn in beers any more.

Anyways, the picture of Akiaji beer on your post certainly caught my eye and made me want to drink it, but too bad that I am a mother of 3-month baby girl.

— comment by maki on September 11th, 2007 at 2:07pm JST (16 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

Ah, good to see research being conducted with such enthusiasm. We drank gokunama when I was studying in Japan for a short while. It was mostly the description on the can “a masterpiece…” that did it for us. It was such a good time to read and comment on the packaging of products as we enjoyed them in Japan. Here in the states I like craft beers like sierra nevada, magic hat and some imports are great such as chimay rouge.

— comment by Jon on September 12th, 2007 at 12:33pm JST (16 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

This can could be even consired as decoration for my board at home, it is really nice.

— comment by Thomas on September 12th, 2007 at 10:57pm JST (16 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

Dear Jeffrey,

I edit a beer magazine and would like to use your Kirin Autumn Foliage photo to illustrate an article on the preference of major brewers for cans (over bottles and PET). I’m sorry that we can’t pay you but if you allow us to use it, I’ll give you full credits.

Thanks, athle

— comment by Athle Estacio on February 15th, 2008 at 1:50pm JST (16 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink
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