Beer was first introduced to Japan in the 18th century by Dutch traders, who presented beer as a gift to the shogunate.
(A pretty great gift—in our humble opinion.)
It wasn't until the 19th century when foreign proprietors began to commercialize beer in Japan. William Copeland, a Norwegian-American brewer, established The Spring Valley Brewery (SVB) in 1869.¹ At the time, SVB brewed and sold beer to expats and Japanese elite in the Yokohama area.
The Japanese beer industry began to flourish as breweries of all sizes emerged across the country. However, this rapid growth was short-lived. The government introduced an alcohol tax, which consequently drove smaller breweries out of business. (R.I.P. to those early pioneers.) This tax also spurred consolidation within the beer industry in Japan. As a result, four big brewers emerge and dominate the domestic beer scene. These four brewers continue to dominate the Japanese beer industry to this day.
At the beginning of Meiji era, the Japanese government established various businesses in Hokkaido as part of a wider effort to colonize Hokkaido. One of these businesses was the Kaitakushi Brewery. This brewery leveraged Hokkaido's abundant natural resources to produce beer.
Established in 1876, Kaitakushi Brewery shipped their first batch of Sapporo beer to Tokyo in the following year. The ship making the trek down from Hokkaido bore the iconic star mark of Sapporo.
Once privatized in 1887, Kaitakushi Brewery was renamed Sapporo Bakushu.
Nihon Bakushu Brewery was established in 1887. Two years later, they built a brewery in Meguro-ku, Mita (currently the site of Ebisu Gardenplace) with financial support from Mitsui.
Like other brewers at the time, Nihon Bakushu enlisted a German brewer to brew and release Ebisu Beer in 1890. Ebisu Beer won the hearts of customers in Tokyo and eventually went on to win international acclaim.
In 1901, Nihon Bakushu decided to build a station to ship beer. Just five years later, this station would later be remodeled for passenger transport—Ebisu Station. The train station later adopted the Ebisu commercial jingle as its station song.
Osaka Bakushu was established in 1889 and built a modern brewery in Suita, Osaka in 1891. At the time, the leader of the brewing program at this brewery was Hiide Ikuta. Ikuta was the first Japanese to receive a brewmaster certification in Germany.
Asahi Beer was released in 1892 and quickly gained popularity.
SVB (mentioned above) eventually evolved into Kirin. A consortium of foreign investors purchased SVB in 1885, renaming it Japan Brewery and adding state-of-the-art brewing equipment and a head brewer from Germany.
In 1888, Japan Brewery released the eponymous “Kirin Beer,” which still maintains the German lager style and labeling.
Big Merger, then Deconsolidation
Three of these big brewers eventually merged to create Dai-Nippon Beer. As mentioned before, taxes—and well, competition—really affected the domestic brewery market in Japan. These circumstances contributed to the merge of Sapporo Bakushu, Nihon Bakushu, and Osaka Bakushu. At the time of the merger, Dai-Nippon Beer controlled almost 70% of market share.
Japan Brewery chose not to merge. The brewer was reestablished as a member of the Mitsubishi conglomerate and later renamed Kirin Beer.
As WWII came to a close and the U.S. occupation began, GHQ abolished monopolies in Japan. This of course affected Dai-Nippon, which was then separated into Nippon Beer and Asahi Beer.
While this rebalanced the industry to a certain extent, Nippon Beer, Asahi Beer and Kirin Beer would continue to dominate the industry to this day.
¹ Wikipedia, "William Copeland (brewer)"