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Monday, 1 April, 2002, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Cheap drink helps keep Japan cheerful
Asahi happoshu
"Brewed for the good times" ... and for the bad
test hello test
By Charles Scanlon
BBC Tokyo Correspondent
It has been a dismal winter of recession in Japan but the cherry blossom is out two weeks early this year and with it, a hope that the worst may be over.

We love beer but the taste of happoshu is similar and you get much more for your money

Japanese drinker
The annual spring parties are being celebrated with customary enthusiasm, but look more closely and there are tell-tale signs of the times.

It looks like beer but many of the revellers are drinking happoshu - which means fizzy alcohol, a substitute much cheaper than the real thing.

"We love beer but the taste of happoshu is similar and you get much more for your money," says one man.

A can of happoshu is about 40% cheaper than beer, although the alcohol content is the same.

One group I talk to is sticking with the traditional brew, but only for today.

"Today is a special occasion - cherry blossom viewing - so we want to drink special - something [to make us] feel rich," says one man.

The big Kirin brewery in Yokohama is cranking up production. Happoshu has grabbed more than 40% of the beer market and demand is still growing.

Tax advantage

It all began four years ago when the company saw a tax loophole. The revenue they pay is based on the amount of malt or barley that they use.

Japanese drinking happoshu
The taste is inferior but the alcohol content is the same

"In Germany beer must be made from 100% malt and in the past we couldn't create the taste of beer without using a lot of it but happoshu is less than 25% malt - with new technology we make the rest out of corn starch and other products," explains Kirin's Masatoshi Umeno.

Visitors to the brewery can sample the products side by side.

Given the choice, many people would probably stick with beer, but if the taste of happoshu is slightly inferior, it is doing nothing to hold back sales.

Fierce competition

And with competition between the big companies hotting up they are all working hard to improve the product.

There is now a bewildering choice of beers and happoshus on the market.

There are no plans to export happoshu because overseas, it would not have the same tax advantage.

Economists may fret about the perils of a deflationary spiral but Japanese drinkers, used to paying some of the highest prices in the world, are not complaining.

See also:

05 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Recession blues hit Japan's hoteliers
11 Jul 01 | Business
Osaka's universal ambitions
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