Japan's Kirin pushes into craft beer to halt market share slide

TOKYO, July 16 (Reuters) - Kirin Holdings Co plans to be the first of Japan’s biggest brewers to embark on a major push into craft beer, in the company’s latest effort to stem a long-term decline in market share.

The country’s No.2 beer maker will open microbreweries in Tokyo and nearby Yokohama in March, with on-site pubs each year offering nearly 20 types of beer made with traditional ingredients and methods.

The aim is for craft beer to account for 3 percent of total domestic beer sales volume by 2020, yielding over 15 billion yen ($148 million) in annual revenue.

“We think it’s time for a change in Japan’s beer market,” Kirin Brewery President Yoshinori Isozaki said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Kirin, once Japan’s leading brewer, has seen its market share slide in recent years largely because it lacked a major offering in the premium beer segment, which grew by nearly a fifth in January-June.

Kirin’s beer sales in that period declined 6.6 percent on year, the steepest first-half fall in four years. At the same time, the market share gap with leader Asahi Group Holdings widened to 5 percentage points.

“We take this market share decline seriously,” Isozaki said. “People say we are laps behind in the premium segment, but we will be doing something totally different. This is our answer.”

Beers in Japan are almost exclusively German-style pilsners, whereas in the United States, for instance, craft beers account for 14 percent of beer sales, Isozaki said.

“We want to go back to the basics of beer-making and become pioneers in this field.”

Craft beers are predominantly ales and have seen a growing fan base in Japan with many specialist pubs opening in recent years.

They are already big business globally. Kirin subsidiary Lion bought craft beer brewer Little World Beverages in 2012, and sales partner Anheuser-Busch InBev is expanding its craft beer business, Isozaki said.

Kirin plans to set up a wholly owned company in January called Spring Valley Brewery to run the microbreweries and pubs, because a dedicated subsidiary will be able to adapt quickly to changing consumer tastes, Isozaki said.

Before the pubs open, Kirin will sell a prototype product - an pilsner and ale hybrid - through its online store from September, tweaking the taste according to customer feedback. A case of six 330ml bottles will cost 3,000 yen ($29.50) including tax and shipping.

$1 = 101.6600 Japanese Yen Editing by Christopher Cushing