Japan’s craft brewers have suddenly found their cups are running over, and exporting beer in aluminum cans may be the answer to their problem.
Since April 1, breweries seeking a new license in Japan have been required to produce at least 60,000 kiloliters/year of beer, up from a minimum of just 2,000 kl/year earlier.
Along with the surge in volume, the country’s definition of what constitutes beer has also been rewritten.
Beverages that contain 50% malt can now be called beer, with breweries free to choose the remaining 50% content. Previously, beer had to be 67% malt and the balance 33% strictly water, hop yeast, corn, rice or more malt.
This change has enabled craft beer breweries to develop new flavor combinations. Along with that, their interest in new packaging options — notably aluminum cans and PET bottles — has surged.
The 60,000 kl/year volume requirement cannot be met selling beer to regulars at a single bar. The founder of one popular microbrewery in Tokyo told me that even on her best day, she serves 400 liters of beer.
This means Japan’s new breweries need to tap into a mass consumer base many miles away to sell, in effect, 5,000 kl/month of beer.
However, securing packaging is proving a challenge, with several small craft breweries saying they have been turned away by the major packaging providers because their requirements are still too small.
“Craft beer accounts for only 0.8% of Japan’s total beer production currently and could possibly grow to 3% share in 2021,” according to a spokesman for Kirin Brewery.
This equates to an aluminum ingot requirement of less than 500 mt/month, rising to 2,000 mt/month in 2021.
“I am using PET bottles for takeaways because that is handy. We get PET bottles from the brewery machine maker,” said a source at one Tokyo brewery.
Far from being discouraged, the packaging dilemma is prompting some Japanese craft brewers to think big, and target consumers beyond national and even cultural borders.
A few are even aiming to break into the Middle East alcohol-free beverage market, to avoid competition with established brands in the West.
Tokyo-based brewery Nippon Beer earned certification from Saudi Arabia’s halal authorities in 2017 for its Ninja brand of alcohol-free malt beverage.
Ninja for export is packaged in aluminum cans, while for sales within Japan — via Amazon — it comes in glass bottles.
Some Japanese trading houses have seized the opportunity to launch projects providing aluminum ingot and can storage to craft breweries that simply do not have the space.
On March 31, the last day of fiscal 2016-17, I went to a craft beer bar and ordered a pint. I could not finish my drink, and asked the bartender if he had a bottle, possibly an aluminum one, I could pour it into to take home.
The bartender stared at me hard and said: “I have had people asking for second or third drinks, but never who could not finish one.”
He went on to educate me about beer’s short life: malt beer matures in two weeks and loses flavor once it is out of the barrel.
The craft beer boom has already resulted in the development of compact brewery machines for microbreweries, which are just a little bigger than a grand piano — and could be made lighter if stainless steel components were replaced by aluminum ones.
However, it seems likely that the next major developments in the booming microbrewery sector will be in packaging — which bodes well for the aluminum, PET, steel and glass sectors, as well as for designers.