FREE as in Beer-Free

Real or Fake Beer?

In Japan, what is the most popular method of transferring alcohol from a libation into the bloodstream? Saké perhaps? Suntory Whiskey? Shōchū – a spirit distilled from rice, sweet potato, sugar or other core ingredient? Nope… the residents of Japan like to drink good traditional German-style beer, of course. But what exactly is the Japanese definition of beer? Let’s compare the two drinks above.

We’ll start with the obvious things. The size: one is 500ml, the other only 350. They both appear to contain beer; the words “smooth” and “refreshing” appear in English on both cans. They both have an alcohol content of 5%, as is standard for Japanese beers. The one on the left was made in Korea, the one on the right is from Japan. The large one cost about 280yen, the smaller one, just 88 yen! (If we adjust for volume, those figures work out at 196 yen and 88 yen.) The important difference between these two products is that only one of them is actually beer.

The answer is found in the fine print at the bottom of the can. The cheap one is classified as “Fizzy Liquor” (リキュール発泡性). The expensive one is “Draft Beer” (生ビール) . The difference in price is largely down to how the two drinks are taxed.

Bizarrely, Japanese beer is taxed on its malt content. The “Fizzy Liquor” drink is an artificially carbonated unmalted “beer” crossed with barley spirits. It is in essence a beer-flavoured cocktail, but in a blind taste test most people wouldn’t be able to tell that it isn’t beer. As the economy continues to decline, low-malt and no-malt “beers” continue to gain in popularity.

What I like about this particular farce is its demonstration of Japan’s affinity with laws that only have  face value. Another classic example of this is gambling. Gambling is illegal under Chapter 23 of the Penal Code. But pachinko (a pinball-like game with potential winnings) is a $300 billion industry and there are pachinko parlours in every corner of this country. Pachinko skirts the law by officially only offering players the chance to win, say, a cheap plastic pen, which is then exchanged at an “unrelated” exchange booth off-site for, say, $10,000! The outcome: Japan can take the moral high ground on gambling. Pachinko operators can rake in their profits. Individuals can do whatever they want. It’s win-win all around…. except for the addicted.


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