Kirin Tries Sober Pitch

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After unexpected success at home, one of Japan’s biggest brewers is bringing its zero-alcohol beverage to the U.S. in a test of American drinkers’ indifference to weak beer.
Many suds lovers recoil at the idea, saying low-alcohol “near beer” tastes nothing like the real deal. But Kirin Holdings Co. has seen stronger-than-forecast sales of its Kirin Free no-alcohol malt beverage in Japan despite a broader drop in beer sales, in part reflecting the nation’s rapidly aging population.
“Old people who take a lot of drugs still like the taste of beer,” says Namiko Kajiwara, a 29-year-old employee in Kirin’s marketing department who the company says thought up the idea for Kirin Free. “It’s been very popular with housewives, too, and pregnant women.”
Kirin is bringing Kirin Free to about 1,000 locations, including Japanese restaurants and stores, in health-conscious California this spring. “It’s too early to bring this product to China, as the beer market there is still developing,” said Ms. Kajiwara. “The beer market in America is mature, and low-alcohol beer already exists.”
Kirin touts Kirin Free as the first completely alcohol-free beer-like malt beverage—0.00% alcohol, to be exact. Several products labeled nonalcoholic—such as O’Doul’s, brewed by beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, and Sharp’s, made by MillerCoors LLC—contain a small amount of alcohol. In the U.S., drinks labeled “nonalcoholic” can include up to 0.5% alcohol by volume, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Unit sales of low-alcohol beer accounted for just 0.4% of the U.S. beer market in 2010, down from 0.5% a year earlier, according to the Beverage Information Group, a market-research firm in Norwalk, Conn. Sales of such brews fell 4% last year to 12.7 million cases. The last time near beer had a big market share in the U.S. was during Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s.
The graying of Japan has given rise to novel products—from non-alcohol beer to colorful shoes—that have not necessarily been marketed at the senior citizen demographic, but embraced by them nonetheless.
When it launched Kirin Free in 2009, the Japanese brewer forecast first-year sales of 630,000 cases. Instead, it sold four million cases. Kirin expects sales this year to total 5.9 million cases, a 48% increase.
By contrast, real beer sales in Japan have slumped for six straight years, with the size of the market about 20% below its peak in 1994. To diversify out of its sluggish home market, Kirin has ramped up its acquisitions and partnerships overseas, particularly in Asia, after a planned merger with rival Suntory Holdings Ltd. collapsed last year.
Ms. Kajiwara says it took nearly 200 trials to perfect the recipe. In a normal beer-brewing process, malted barley, hops, water and yeast are used to make the alcoholic beverage. But for 0.00%-alcohol beer, fermentation isn’t allowed, and Kirin faced the technical challenge of adding a beer-like taste without using the crucial ingredients needed for beer.
“It doesn’t taste exactly like beer,” says Ms. Kajiwara. “But when people drink it, they are satisfied as if they had had a bottle of beer.”
Not all consumers are wild about the product. “I couldn’t stand it. Its taste reminded me of the sound of an electric organ with fake pipes in some of those Japanese wedding chapels,” said Toshihiko Amano, a 36-year-old a musician in Tokyo.
Others were slightly more forgiving. “When I have to drive, I drink two or three cans [of non-alcoholic beer] after playing golf,” said Yusuke Sato, a 31-year-old store manager of a beer restaurant in downtown Tokyo. “These products taste like something is missing because of the absence of the process of fermentation, but I think they are decent beer substitutes.”