TOKYO -- Flaming barbecue grills aren't alone in whipping up a thirst for cold brew at Shiodome Garden, a rooftop beer restaurant. Also whetting the appetite is Japan's rekindled economy.
``I love beer," declared Akihiro Seki, 39, an insurance accountant, downing his fifth icy glass. ``We know the economy's getting better so we feel more confident spending a little extra."
Japanese beer shipments are on the rise for the first time in a decade, as the world's second-largest economy toasts a brisk recovery from years of doldrums. But the future of Japan's $24.8 billion beer industry is anything but bubbly.
Changing tastes, healthier lifestyles, and Japan's shrinking population are all looming buzz kills for an industry that has already undergone painful restructuring during a recently ended decade of economic stagnation.
Struggling to keep the profits coming, Japan's big brewers -- Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory -- are trying everything from diversifying into baby food to expanding into China and introducing soybean beer.
``Until now, the beer market has been shrinking because people wanted cheaper drinks," said Shuji Takimoto, spokesman for the Brewers Association of Japan. ``But just judging by the changing population, the future of beer also looks tough."
The good news is that in the first half of 2006, domestic shipments of beer rose 0.3 percent, the first increase in a decade, as rising wages and consumer optimism encouraged people to dine out. Shipments of all beer products, climbed 1.1 percent to 230.66 million cases, its first increase in five years.