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Some of the nation’s major breweries have started producing nonalcoholic beer in the hope of boosting a fledgling market helped by heightened health consciousness and steeper penalties for drunken driving.

Currently, the market for nonalcoholic beer constitutes only a little over one-thousandth of the market for beer and “happoshu,” its low-malt cousin, combined. And until recently, nonalcoholic beer in Japan was mostly limited to imports.

Under the Liquor Tax Law, nonalcoholic drinks are those containing less than 1 percent alcohol. The law requires beverages containing 1 percent or more to be labeled as liquor.

In early November, Suntory Ltd. released Fine Brew, becoming the first major domestic brewery to produce its own nonalcoholic beer. The beverage has less than 0.5 percent alcohol and costs 150 yen for a 350 ml can.

The firm said it hopes to snatch 50 percent of the market in the first year by shipping 1.5 million cases, noting it already shipped 160,000 cases within the first two months of its release. One box contains two dozen 350-ml cans.

“Actually, we wanted to release it in the summer, when the consumption of beer peaks,” said Tatsuo Wada, Suntory’s beer division chief. “But looking back, we had a good start thanks to the yearend party season.”

Within a couple of weeks after Suntory’s release, Sapporo Breweries Ltd. brought out Super Clear, with an initial annual shipment target of 200,000 cases. A month later, the target was more than doubled due to brisk sales.

While not ready to use their own facilities for such forays, rivals are also turning an eye to the market, with Asahi Breweries Ltd. scheduled to begin selling German-imported Lowenbrau in February.

Kirin Brewery Co., which has marketed Heineken’s Buckler since 1990, said shipments of Buckler in 2002 came to 222,570 cases, or 22.5 times the number shipped in 2001.

While nonalcoholic beer has been around for years, the beverage only entered the spotlight a few years ago.

According to food industry journal Nikkan Keizai Tsushinsha, total sales of nonalcoholic beer came to around 870,000 cases in 2001. Some industry officials project volume to grow to around 3 million this year.

Steeper penalties for drunk driving have given nonalcoholic beer a helpful boost, according to Yuriyo Nara, spokeswoman at Takara Shuzo Co.

Takara Shuzo, while not a brewery, has produced Barbican nonalcoholic beer for years.

Under the revised Road Traffic Law, which came into force June 1, the penalty for driving under the influence of alcohol was raised from up to three months in prison or 50,000 yen in fines to one year in prison or 300,000 yen in fines.

Other industry officials, meanwhile, attribute the recent boom in nonalcoholic beer to growing health consciousness among beer lovers.

“I think a growing number of people choose nonalcoholic beer out of health concerns, promoting a ‘liver holiday’ between drinking occasions,” said Wada of Suntory, adding its low calorie content should appeal to those worried about developing beer bellies.

With alternative reasons to go for a nonalcoholic brew, Takara Shuzo’s Nara said the drink’s traditional negative image — like it being the default choice of people ordered to stop drinking by a doctor — may be a thing of the past.

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