Any Japanese supermarket or convenience store has a dizzying array of beer options. However, a closer look at the labels will reveal that most of these beers are in fact “happoshu” (発泡酒 ) a low malt beer variant that could be compared to warm dishwater. Why would this sort of product have more shelf space than actual “beer”? Money!
Japanese law taxes beer and beer-like drinks based on their malt content. If the drink was brewed with about 67% to 100% malt, it is classified as beer and subject to a higher tax level. If the drink has below 67% malt, or if it uses abnormal ingredients, it is a happoshu and is subject to cheaper taxes. The “normal” ingredients are listed as malted barley or wheat, hops, yeast, sorghum, corn, potato, sugar or starch. Using anything else to provide fermentable sugars marks it as a happoshu.
Since malted barley provides a big part of the flavor of beer, using less of it means the beverage will have less flavor and less body. The tradeoff is significant cost savings. In addition to saving on taxes, the producer gets to use cheaper sources of fermentable sugars. This means that for consumers happoshu is two-thirds to half the price of actual 100% malt beer.
While happoshu may be the lightest of light beers, I have to give a certain amount of credit to the big brewers who make it. They are working overtime to use the least amount of malt possible, while still making something that tastes at least a little bit like beer. That’s a tall order. They also have to contend with the government, whose response to the happoshu boom has been to raise tax rates on low malt alcoholic beverages. They still undercut beer, but by less than they once did.
For research purposes I actually drank a Sapporo Green Aroma. The low malt levels were very evident, but it did have a surprising amount of hop aroma and flavor. I would never make it a habit, but if you had to pick a mass-market happoshu to drink you could do much worse.
The one real bright spot in the happoshu universe is craft happoshu brewers. It is easier to obtain a happoshu brewing license than a beer license. This has led some small start up brewers to get a happoshu license and then make unusual and delicious beers. You can brew fruit beers, some Belgian styles, or even an Earl Grey beer! The only downside for these craft brewers is the one thing you can’t brew is a normal beer. You have to have a lower malt content and non-standard ingredients in everything you make.
Have you ever tried any happoshu? What did you think? Are the cost savings worth the worse flavor? Let me know in the comments!