Photo/Illutration The major third-category beverages provided by the four major breweries are, from the left, Asahi’s “Asahi The Rich,” Kirin’s “Honkirin,” Suntory’s “Kin-Mugi” and Sapporo’s “Gold Star” (The Asahi Shimbun)

The novel coronavirus pandemic has seen beer-like beverages rising to the top in sales while regular beer sales were fizzling out. 

With many bars and restaurants shut down for extensive periods due to the state of emergency issued during the pandemic, breweries in Japan lost a major sales outlet for their beer products.

At the same time, as more consumers drank at home, the cheaper third-category beverages that do not use malt surged in sales volume.

The four major breweries announced on July 10 their sales figures for beer and near-beer beverages for the first six months of the year. A number of industry sources said that it appeared that the sales volume of third-category beverages likely exceeded that of beer for the first time during that period.

The sales figures released covered beer, low-malt “happoshu” and malt-free third-category beverages.

Overall sales decreased by about 10 percent over the first half of 2019.
Kirin Holdings Co. reported a 4-percent decrease in sales, while Suntory Holdings Ltd. had an 11-percent decrease and Sapporo Breweries Ltd. experienced a 7-percent decrease in sales. Asahi Breweries Ltd., which only released monetary figures for its sales, saw a 17-percent decrease.

A major reason for the decreases among the companies is the large drop in beer sales due to the closures of bars and restaurants during the pandemic.

Kirin’s beer sales decreased by 24 percent, while Asahi’s mainstay Super Dry brand recorded a 26-percent decrease.

But sales of third-category beverages increased. The beverages sold in 350-milliliter cans are on average about 80 yen ($0.75) cheaper than beer. The more economically minded consumer likely chose such beverages to drink at home because they could no longer visit their favorite watering hole.

Kirin introduced its Honkirin beverage in 2018, but in the first six months of 2020, the sales volume increased by 39 percent. The robust sales likely reflects the company’s efforts to make the taste of the beverage as close to beer as possible.

The three other companies have also introduced new third-category beverages they claim are “authentic” or “luxurious.”

Asahi introduced its “Asahi The Rich” brand in March and sales have exceeded initial expectations.

Sapporo lagged behind in the introduction of third-category beverages, but sales plans for its Gold Star brand released in February have been revised upward.

Suntory’s Kin-Mugi brand that has 75-percent less sugar content increased sales by 20 percent over the same period in 2019.

But third-category beverages will not likely maintain their advantageous sales position in the future.

Beer sales have picked up since May when more bars and restaurants resumed operations.

What will hurt third-category beverages from October is when a revision of liquor tax laws that will reduce the price difference between beer and third-category beverages takes effect. That is part of a gradual change in liquor taxes for the different types of beverages, with plans to apply the same tax rate by October 2026.

A source at a major brewery predicted that beer sales will undoubtedly rebound and that third-category beverages would not continue to sell as they have for the first half of this year.

But Takayuki Fuse, president of Kirin Brewery Co., said at a news conference on July 9 that his company would continue with efforts to establish popular brands among third-category beverages given the continued differences in prices with beer at retail outlets.