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The Craft

Changes to Japanese Beer Definitions

The definition of Japanese beer is changing and as of April 2018, more breweries will be allowed to experiment more with beer styles and flavors without being knocked out of the “Beer” category of malty beverages. Many see this as an opportunity for brewers, both large and small, to expand their market share with a revitalized array of delicious drink options.

Definitions of Beer and Other Malty Beverages

From a legal perspective, beer is defined as using primarily four ingredients: Malt, Hops, Yeast, and Water. Brewers can also use rice, corn, kaoliang, potatoes, starch, or other sugars to brew as long as the malt ratio stays at 68% or above. Using anything outside of those ingredients, or having a malt ratio below 68%, automatically makes the drink a “Happoshu” or what is often referred to as near-beer / low-malt beer. There is a third category, Sparkling Liqueur, which is very low malt content and may have other additives included as well.

Due to these rules, breweries are limited in what styles of beer they can brew if they only have a beer brewing license. A good example of this would be for Witbier (white beer) which are usually spiced with coriander, oranges, or other additives. While this style of beer is an essential and historical part of the beer scene in places like Belgium, this style of beers would have to be classified as “Happoshu” in Japan, not as “Beer”. Another example would be of an IPA (India Pale Ale), where extra hops are added during fermentation; adding any ingredients outside of the initial boil would previously have forced the beer into the “Happoshu” category.

With new rules implemented in April of 2018, the definitions of “beer” are drastically changing to allow breweries more options with their beer brewing licenses.

Changes to the Definitions

Now breweries will be able to use additional ingredients and additives to their beers but continue to be classified as beer. The previous limitation of a minimum malt content of 68% has been lowered to 50%, allowing more options with secondary ingredients to help spice-up or other enhance the beer’s flavor. Additionally, the list of secondary ingredients (mentioned above as rice, corn, potatoes, etc.) has been expanded to include fruits, spices, flowers, and even some extraordinary Japanese ingredients like bonito flakes (flakes of dried and cured skipjack tuna) and seaweed.

With these changes, breweries that only had the beer brewing license are now able to test out new flavors, styles, and even try authentic traditional styles of other global beers like IPA and witbier.

With these changes, beers like Karuizawa-based YO-HO BREWING’s “Suiyobi-no-Neko” (水曜日の猫, Wednesday s Cat), a Belgian white beer infused with orange peel and coriander, may be classified as beer moving forward. While the large manufacturers are also jumping at the opportunity with beers like Suntory’s cassis fruit or Orange peel infused “Beer Recipe”, Kirin’s lemony “Hikouki-no-Kumo-to-Watashi” (ひこうき雲と私, Airplane Clouds and Me), and Asahi’s lemongrass infused 7% beer “Gran Mild” (グランマイルド).


Beer Brewing and the Craft Beer Boom

Obtaining a beer brewing licenses in Japan has always been challenging, with many smaller breweries opting to be “Happoshu” brewers to allow them more flexibility. Previously, in order to obtain a “Beer” brewing license, a potential brewery had to show a capacity to brew 2,000,000 liters a year, which drove the initial required investment to prohibitive levels. This all changed in 1994, where the regulations were lowered to demonstrating a capacity to brew 60,000 liters of beer a year.

After this change in the law, the Japanese craft beer scene exploded with many breweries popping up all over Japan. Many of these breweries, however, quickly disappeared, with many saying that the market was pre-mature or that a majority of the failed breweries were not making consistent, or appealing beers. In short, the late 90s saw over 400 microbreweries open up, but by 2009 saw only 200 left.

2010 saw another explosion of craft beer in Japan, with it becoming popular among many drinking groups, with a high enough demand to entice the opening of many craft beer bars in Tokyo and in other major cities as well.

With these new changes of Japanese beer set forth, those with a beer-brewing license will now be able to experiment with new techniques, flavors, and styles, potentially leading to a full revitalization of the market as brewers, both large and small, seize this opportunity to widen their market share.


What kind of beer do you want to try out in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!