Business Reboot 1/‘At-home drinking’ gets closer to experience at restaurants and pubs in Japan

Courtesy of Asahi Breweries Ltd.
The comedy duo Trendy Angel is seen on the top two screens during an online drinking party organized in late March by Asahi Breweries Ltd., with 1,000 people logging on.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Asahi Breweries’ newly designed Asahi Super Dry can produces a foamy head.

A thousand people, all strangers, toasted each other via the internet in late March, nearly all raising cans of Asahi Super Dry, delivered directly from the factory. The online drinking party was organized by Asahi Breweries Ltd.

With scenes of cherry blossoms in various parts of the country projected on their screens, the participants enjoyed a virtual viewing party with cans of the venerable beverage. Also taking part were Trendy Angel, a comedy duo, who lifted the mood of the get-together with their yell of “Kanpai, Pep, Pep, Peh!”

The online get-together was the ninth of its kind held since last spring. For each one, applications to join exceeded the quota set for admission. The gatherings have even proven popular among people in their 20s and 30s, a generation of Japanese said to be distancing themselves from beer.

“Even amid searches for new lifestyles, people are still looking for settings where they can enjoy drinking beer together, and feeling connected with each other,” said Takeshi Furusawa, who is in charge of beer marketing at Asahi Breweries.

The get-together also marked an occasion for Asahi Breweries to introduce a new product that is tailored to at-home drinkers.

Asahi Breweries has redesigned the can for it new version of Super Dry so that customers can enjoy a beverage similar to the foamy drafts served at restaurants and pubs. Pulling off the entire top of the can causes a foamy head to rise to the top.

The company tried various iterations to re-create the foamy tops even if the beer is chilled, an effort that went right up until the last moments before its market debut.

The secret lies in the tiny bumps on a special coating inside the can. The bubbles that form on these bumps — just like the bubbles formed on the minute imperfections on the inner surface of a champagne glass — create a finer foam than the one seen when beer is poured into a glass.

Tatsuru Nakajima, a brand manager in charge of developing the new product, said, “We were particularly keen to enable customers to enjoy such a feeling of expectation as if being served with beer at pubs and eateries.”

On April 6, Asahi Breweries started selling the new type of canned draft beer at convenience stores nationwide, earlier than other kinds of retailers. As the volume of sales exceeded the levels Asahi Breweries expected, however, it temporarily stopped shipments just two days after the product’s debut in order to catch up to demand.

Kirin Brewery Co., on the other hand, has fully launched its Kirin Home Tap service, a subscription service that lets members enjoy an authentic draft from a tap at home.

Through the service, members rent a small draft beer server and can receive either two or four 1-liter bottles of beer to be mounted inside the device. The beer selection includes brews made with domestic hops, characterized by delicate tastes and flavors. The bottles are delivered directly twice a month, packed for optimal freshness.

Kirin Brewery has been offering this service since 2017, and despite the relatively high prices — four 1-liter bottles of beer a month cost ¥8,250 — the brewery has been flooded with subscription requests. Last year, would-be subscribers had to wait for up to eight months to get their first sip.

Kirin Brewery President Takayuki Fuse said, “Consumer needs related to enriching their time at home have been growing.”

Market shrinking for 16 years

Behind the scenes, the domestic beer market continues to shrink. The sales volume for regular beer and beer-like beverages has been declining for 16 straight years, down 40% from the peak in 1994. Beer-like beverages contain smaller amounts of malt and other ingredients, which lowers the beer tax rate. Even as the nation’s declining population shrinks the overall market, alcoholic beverages that compete with regular beers, such as canned chu-hai (shochu-based highball) and canned whisky highball, have become more diverse.

Then came the spread of the novel coronavirus, which dealt a major blow to the main part of the beer market — bars, restaurants and pubs.

Overall sales of beer in 2020 dropped 9% from the previous year. While sales of so-called third-category beers — beer-like beverages that contain no malt and are more often consumed at home — have increased 3%, regular beer sales plunged 22% as people refrained from going out and establishments reduced their operating hours or shuttered outlets. This led the annual sales volume of third-category beer to exceed that of regular beer for the first time in 2020.

In the consolidated accounts for the term ending in December last year, all of the four leading beer companies posted year-on-year declines in revenue. Sapporo Holdings Ltd. posted its first net loss in 22 years.

New emphasis on health

According to a survey conducted by a leading cosmetics company, about 20% of respondents said that “opportunities for drinking alcoholic beverages at home have increased.” There were also voices of concern, citing a tendency to drink too much because there are no time limits at home. Thus, considerations about health are coming to the fore.

Last October, Kirin Brewery responded to this by releasing Kirin Ichiban Shibori Zero Sugar, which proved to be a big hit. Sales of the new sugarless beer reached 100 million cans within half a year up to the end of March.

Unlike the low-malt beers known as happoshu, the brewing process for regular beer uses an abundance of malt, which contains a high percentage of sugar, making it technically difficult to hold down the sugar content. Having spent upward of five years in the development of the sugar-free beer, repeatedly experimenting with different combinations of malt and yeasts, Kirin Brewery has broken new ground.

Suntory Beer Ltd. also started selling a zero-sugar offering, Perfect Suntory Beer, on April 13. Suntory also spent five years on its development.

Suntory Beer President Eiichiro Nishida said enthusiastically, “Amid the coronavirus crisis, people’s health consciousness has been growing.”

Asahi Breweries, meanwhile, started sales of Beery, a beer containing only 0.5% alcohol, in late March. The product is not a nonalcoholic beverage, but a “light beer,” the fruit of Asahi Breweries’ pursuit of a beverage with a taste close to that of regular beer. The company has tried to reach consumers with a low physical tolerance for alcohol who want to enjoy dining together with their family and friends.

Naoko Kuga, a senior researcher at NLI Research Institute who is knowledgeable about consumer behavior, said: “To catch demand amid the coronavirus crisis is important, but [such demand] is only temporary. Manufacturers need to approach product development by grasping how consumers’ consciousness will change after the crisis is brought under control.”