April 23, 2009 / 7:08 AM / 11 years ago

Alcohol-free brew surprise hit in beer-loving Japan

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japanese thirsting for a beer, but not the buzz, are quaffing an alcohol-free brew that is a first in a country with a strong drinking tradition.

The headquarters of Kirin Brewery Co. is seen in Tokyo November 29, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

There are many beers on the market from all over the world that are labeled as non-alcoholic, but brewer Kirin Holdings, which makes “Kirin Free,” claims its brew is the only one with 0.00 percent alcohol.

In Japan, alcoholic drinks are defined as those that are 1 percent or more proof.

“Those drinks, albeit in very small amounts, contain alcohol,” said Kirin spokesman Kuniaki Tamai, referring to the drink’s competitors.

“Restaurants and shops had not been able to loudly tout them as non-alcoholic drinks either.”

Non-alcoholic beer is a niche product in Japan, home to several brewers such as Asahi and Sapporo whose drinks are as popular at home as abroad.

Japanese businessmen and executives regularly go out for drinks after work, and beer has long been one of the country’s most popular alcoholic drinks.

But Kirin, one of Japan’s biggest brewers, said demand for its drink, which it advertises as a soda with a beer-like taste, has been overwhelming.

Earlier this week, it ran adverts in newspaper apologizing for the shortage of “Kirin Free” due to stouter-than-expected demand.

Kirin said demand was especially strong among drivers and pregnant women who did not want to take in alcohol. A few years ago, the government introduced stiffer penalties for drunk driving.

“We are hearing from pregnant customers who say they like it because it has no alcohol content,” said Kirin’s Tamai.

A 350ml can of Kirin Free costs around 150 yen ($1.5), while regular beer is priced at about 220 yen ($2.2).

The popularity of the new product is a rare bright spot for Japan’s beer industry, which faces sober reality at its main market. The country’s beer market shrank by 15 percent in volume in the past decade amid aging demography and diversifying taste. ($1=98.30 Yen)

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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