E-Malt.com News article: Japan: Kirin surprised itself by the success of its new truly no alcohol beer
For decades, low-alcohol beer has taken a back seat in the Japanese brewing industry, the victim of complaints about taste and fears that drinkers were still prone to the risks of drunken driving, Kyodo communicated on July, 14.
But a new product by Japan's second-biggest brewer, Kirin Brewery Co., appear to be beating the odds with the rollout of what it claims is the world's first truly alcohol-free beer — Kirin Free.
The 0.00 percent alcohol beverage became an instant hit with truck drivers, pregnant women, beer lovers on long-distance golfing trips and even with hospital patients.
Since its debut in April, sales have continued to gain strength as the scorching summer heat stokes demand for beer.
In mid-May, Kirin revised upward its annual sales target for the new product from 630,000 cases to 1.6 million cases. The target is already within range with around 1.1 million cases sold as of the end of June.
A 350-ml can costs around ¥148, cheaper than regular beer.
"We never realized this drink would have such huge potential," said Namiko Kajiwara, in charge of Kirin Free development and marketing. "I think we aroused a latent need that was lying dormant."
Sales volume for low-alcohol beer shrank more than 30 percent in 2007 from its peak in 2003, when major brewers flooded the market with low-alcohol suds on the back of more stringent traffic laws, according to a report by market research firm Fuji Keizai Co.
Shigeru Yoshino, a researcher at Fuji Keizai, said the initial buzz over beerlike drinks in the early 2000s began to wear off, while consumers remained dissatisfied with the dull taste that fell short of real beer.
"It is possible that Kirin Free won fans in the area of taste because that would be a major factor to ensure demand for a substitute (to beer) over the long term," Yoshino said.
Kirin's Kajiwara admits it was a long process to achieve an authentic beer taste while suppressing alcohol content.
"People in the industry said it would be impossible to develop a drink with zero percent alcohol that tasted like beer," she said.
But the product was developed by skipping the usual yeast fermentation process, which normally creates alcohol, and instead employing multiple technologies for which Kirin is soon likely to win patents.
Despite being labeled as nonalcoholic beer, similar previous products — such as Suntory Ltd.'s Fine Brew and Asahi Breweries Ltd.'s Point One — had an alcohol content between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent due to the fermentation process.
Japan's liquor law defines alcoholic beverages as drinks in which alcohol accounts for 1 percent or more of the ingredients.
Fans of the new product say Kirin has managed to reproduce the full-bodied malt presence, the hops flavor and the caramel color with enough white foam to throw off even real beer lovers.
"For a beer lover like me, it's great to have something that is infinitely close to regular beer," Kazuo Koda, a 59-year-old resident of Yokohama, said. "It's strange but I even feel a bit tipsy."
Koda spoke as he gulped down Kirin Free during a lunch break at Umihotaru, a service area along the Tokyo Bay Aqualine expressway that links Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures.
And Kirin envisioned exactly a setting like this when it held a launch event at a rare venue, an expressway rest stop, following a series of driving tests to ensure the safety of drinking Kirin Free.
The release of the product also coincided with the revision of the traffic law, which imposed harsher penalties on drunken driving.
"There was a strong impression that we would get caught if there is even a small amount of alcohol involved," said Takayuki Suzuki, a 37-year-old resident from Shiga Prefecture. "But with 0.00 percent, I'm not worried."
Kirin estimates that the entire market for low-alcohol beer will expand nearly 7 percent in 2009 to 2.7 million cases, more than half of which it expects to dominate with Kirin Free.
It still remains uncertain whether the alcohol-free beer can win over finicky and fickle consumers on a more permanent basis at a time when the overall beer industry is struggling to galvanize new demand.
15 July, 2009