“For those of you who received cans and glasses in the mail, let’s make sure that they are chilled down and ready to go in about ten minutes time!” Matt Arrowsmith called out cheerfully over Zoom at the virtual tasting.
Arrowsmith’s background screen mimicked the label of a new beer called All-Free, made by Japanese whiskey and beer maker Suntory. But All-Free isn’t a regular beer. It’s a “beer-like beverage” that contains no alcohol, sugar or calories, the latest entry to the alcohol alternatives market.
Representatives for Suntory set up the virtual tastings last week, sending influencers and test tasters across the U.S. two sample cans and a glass with directions for chilling.
Takeharu Nakai, Suntory’s director of U.S. marketing and sales, and Yuichi Kato, the company’s head of of product development, were also on the call.
Historic distillery now makes alcohol-free beer
Suntory was founded in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii, a Japanese businessman who wanted to introduce “western-style spirits” to Japanese consumers. His first offering was a sweet wine called Akadama that was apparently wildly successful, though Torii is more famous for bringing whiskey to the country.
One of two early makers of Japanese whiskey—the other being Masataka Taketsuru, who worked for Torii before founding his own company—Torii built Japan’s first whiskey distillery, the Yamazaki Distillery, in 1923. The distillery still operates in Osaka.
Today, Suntory makes beer, whiskey and other beverages, including Kin-Muji, the company’s first beer-like beverage. Launched in Japan in 2010, it’s described as having a strong “umami malt” flavor.
Kin-Muji did well in the Japanese market. According to Nakai, Suntory has sold seven million cases.
Appealing to sober-curious Americans
Ten years later, the timing seemed right to launch All-Free in the United States, explained Nakai at the tasting. “Even though the U.S. non-alcohol beer market is still small,” he added, “there has been increasing health conscious consumerism contributing to market growth.”
Nakai pointed to the rise of dry January and sober September as evidence of the growing sober-curious trend in the U.S. Despite (or perhaps in tandem with) the many consumers cranking up their booze drinking these days, the sober-curious trend seems to be at least holding steady amid the pandemic.
How to make a beer-like beverage, hold the booze
“All-free is produced using the same ingredients as our premium beer,” explained Kato. The beer relies on spring water, hops and malted barley, crafted according to the same process the company uses to make its traditional beers. The difference is the beer makers stop right before the fermentation step, which is why All-Free contains no alcohol.
Kato spent years studying the American palate. “I visited the U.S. several times since 2015, and have tried over 300 craft beers and non-alcoholic beers,” he said. His visits took him to breweries in New York, San Francisco, Portland, Boston and Denver, where he came to learn that Americans prefer “stronger aromas” and “refreshing flavors.”
Americans prefer sugar-free and natural
The company began tinkering with the recipe to satisfy the American plate, but it also replaced the artificial sweetener used in Japan with a natural flavor, looking to satisfy the strong American preference for “natural” ingredients.
The U.S. market for alcohol alternatives has also been rapidly expanding. Booze-free craft cocktails were the first alcohol alternative to hit the market but the demand for alcohol-free beer is a little different. Consumers want to drink All-Free with lunch or even after a workout, Suntory researchers found.
Hoppy taste without bitterness
All-Free has plenty of competition. According to Brian Yaeger, who covered the emergence of some of these booze-free options for The Takeout, Lagunitas Brewing has launched the Hoppy Refresher, a beer made with water, yeast and hops but no malted barley, which “deprives the yeast of any fermentable sugars” to be turned into alcohol.
Yaeger describes the taste as “citrusy-hop water.” The Hoppy Refresher has lots of hops, obviously, and no bitter taste. Well, sort of. There is “perceived bitterness,” as Yaeger reports, but not as much as a typical IPA since Lagunitas beer makers don’t boil the hops.
Unlike the Hoppy Refresher, All-Free is made with malted barley, in addition to hops. The taste is remarkably light, crisp and refreshing, much like the regular pilsner-style beers the company is known for, although beer reviewer Mark McDermott writes that “no one would mistake it for a beer.”
Still, McDermott seems to appreciate the taste. “Enjoyed cold, even on ice, it could be a nice ‘recovery’ drink with no ‘diet’ stigma,” he writes.
“Cheers,” called Arrowsmith, as he encouraged everyone at the virtual tasting to keep sipping away.
All-Free is available for sale now in the U.S. at some supermarkets and restaurants, and will be available for delivery through Amazon
over the next few weeks.