By Scott T. Hards
The heat of summer is upon us, and that means beer. At least for me, anyway. During the colder months, I prefer a nice single malt scotch whisky, but during the hot summer season, my consumption of beer skyrockets. A cold one after my bath, just before bedtime, is wonderful.
But these days, what many beer drinkers are drinking is not even beer at all. Have a look on the label and you'll find that, officially, it's "other miscellaneous alcoholic beverages (2)." (sonota no zasshu (2), a.k.a. "the third beer"). Or perhaps it's "carbonated alcoholic beverages" (happoshu).
In order to exploit the lower tax rates on categories of alcoholic beverages other than normal beer, Japan's breweries have worked for years to produce beer-like beverages in the above two categories that can be sold cheaper to the consumer. The problem is that without exception, these beer wannabes simply don't taste as good as the real thing, despite what their commercials are telling you.
"Hey! I like these cheap brews. They taste like beer to me," you might say. Well, I challenge you to compare them side by side. Splurge, and buy yourself a bottle of Yebisu beer (Japan's finest brew, in my humble opinion) or some other real beer, and do a taste comparison. After an hour of yard work on a hot summer day, anything cold refreshes, but I think you'll be able to detect a huge difference in the taste and aroma of a real beer and these fakes.
After happoshu took off, government tax revenues on beer dropped, so they eventually raised taxes on the happoshu category of beverage. This spurred the breweries to look to yet another category to create a new fake beer, and this gave birth to the current "third beer." And wouldn't you know it: Reports now tell us the government is thinking about raising taxes on "third beer" , too.
I'm completely comfortable with this.Instead of having Japan's breweries spend billions of yen developing mediocre ersatz beers, why not have them put that money into making a better-tasting real beer? Simplify the tax system for alcoholic beverages and eliminate the government's over-segmentation of the beverage market. The government could just come up with a simple formula for taxing beverages based on their alcohol content. For example, every beverage that's 5-percent alcohol, no matter how or what it's made from, should be taxed at the same rate.
And on top of that, why not lower the overall rate, too? It could spur an increase in beverage consumption that would make up for the lower tax rate and actually raise government revenues. That way, everybody, both consumers and the government, would be happy.
But for now, I'm happy to pay a little extra and stay with my full-bodied and pleasantly bitter "first beer."
Shukan ST: July 1, 2005
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