By Hiroyuki Kachi

Japan’s long-stagnant beer market may have finally started picking up in the wake of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pro-growth economic policies, known as “Abenomics.” But it’s hard to be sure just yet, given that shipments actually fell in the first half of 2013.
The first true test of whether Abenomics is putting a head of foam on the beer industry will be when figures for the peak beer-drinking month of July come out Aug. 12.

From January to June, overall beer shipments for Japan’s five top brewers declined 0.9% from a year earlier. Shipments have languished more than 20% off their 1994 peak as the population ages and consumer demand has diversified.

Still, the country’s two biggest brewers, Asahi Group Holdings 2502.TO -0.94% and Kirin Holdings Co. 2503.TO +0.59%, last week reported solid operating profit gains for the first six months of the year. But most of the gains were attributable to the weaker yen, which lifted the value of their overseas operations. Weak beer sales at home failed to put any extra fizz in their bottom lines.

The companies hope Abenomics will spur domestic demand ahead, however, pointing to subtle hints that consumption may be picking up.

“There are signs of a slight recovery in terms of people having beer as their first drink” on a night out, Kirin President Senji Miyake said at a recent news conference on the company’s earnings.

Over the past few years, price-conscious consumers have favored cheaper, beer-like beverages with lower malt content that brewers developed to take advantage of a tax loopholes–and that doesn’t look like it will change any time soon.

“If you consider the household market, the trend of buying cheaper beers to drink at home still prevails,” Mr. Miyake said.

On weekends and special occasions, however, demand for more expensive products has been rising, suggesting consumers are starting to drink higher-end stuff at home too.

Asahi director Yoshihide Okuda said demand has been hardy for more expensive products like premium beer gifts sets.

As a result, Asahi has more than doubled its annual sales target of Super Dry Premium gift boxes to 2.8 million. The beverage is priced about 15% higher per can than the company’s flagship brew, Super Dry.

But it is the upcoming figures for July that will give a truer picture of whether Abenomics really is a cure for the industry’s long hangover.