Japan's Kirin Brewery Co. has launched its first "premium beer" brand in 14 years.

The company said yesterday (10 July) that its new premium beer, Nippon Premium, uses domestically grown hops and more locally produced malt than other brands. The high-end beer is expected to retail at JPY249 (US$2.05) per 350ml can.

Kirin Holdings deputy manager of investor relations Hiroki Umezawa said: "The retail price is slightly higher than Brau Meister due to more usage of locally-produced ingredients."

Umezawa also inferred that escalating price margins of corn syrup and rising import costs from the US were a growing concern. Kirin added that it predicted raw material costs in the alcoholic beverage business would rise again this year by JPY7bn ($58m) compared to the previous year.

The brewer estimated that, this year, premium beer would take a 10.8% share of Japan's regular beer market, having grown from just 5% in 2004.

Last week, Kirin confirmed it was in talks with San Miguel about a potential acquisition of the company's Australian dairy and fruit juice business.

Kirin Holdings, the umbrella company to Kirin brewery, recently upgraded its forecasts for the first half of this year.

The company said net profits for the six months to the end of June should come in at JPY15bn (US$121.6m), up from the JPY10bn previously forecast. The upgrade is still below the JPY18.97 net profit posted in the first half of 2006.

Sales for the half, however, are expected to come in below the earlier estimate of JPY859bn, to JPY837bn. In the first six months of 2006, sales reached JPY782.72.