“For those of you who have received cans and glasses in the mail, let’s make sure they are well chilled and ready to go in about ten minutes!” Matt Arrowsmith shouted happily about Zoom.
Arrowsmith’s background screen during the virtual tasting mimicked the label of a new beer called All-free, made by a Japanese whiskey and beer maker Suntory. But All-Free is no ordinary beer. It is a “beer-like drink” that contains no alcohol, sugar or calories, the latest entry into the alcoholic alternatives market.
Suntory representatives hosted the virtual tastings last week, sending influencers and test tasters across the United States two cans of samples and a glass with instructions for refrigeration.
Takeharu Nakai, director of marketing and sales in the United States of Suntory, and Yuichi Kato, head of product development for the company, 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 which was very successful, although Torii became much more famous for whiskey.
One of the first two Japanese whiskey makers – the other being Masataka Taketsuru, who worked for Torii before founding his own business – Torii built Japan’s first whiskey distillery, Yamazaki Distillery, in 1923. The Distillery still works in Osaka.
Today, Suntory makes beer, whiskey and other beverages, including Kin-Mugi, the company’s malt beer, described as having a strong “umami malt” flavor.
According to Nakai, Suntory launched All-Free in Japan in 2010 and has since sold seven million cases.
Calling sober and curious Americans
Ten years later, the time seemed right to launch All-Free in the United States, Nakai explained during the tasting. “Even though the US non-alcoholic beer market is still small,” he added, “there has been increasingly health-conscious consumerism contributing to the growth of the market.”
Nakai pointed to the rise of dry January and sober september as proof of the increasingly sober-curious trend in the United States despite (or perhaps in tandem with) the many consumers by increasing their alcohol consumption these days, the sober-curious trend at least seems to be continuing in the midst of the pandemic.
How to make a beer-like drink, hold the alcohol
“All-free is made from the same ingredients as our premium beer,” Kato explained. The beer is based on spring water, hops and malted barley, made using the same process the company uses to make its traditional beers. The difference is that beer makers stop right before the fermentation stage, which is why All-Free does not contain alcohol.
Kato has spent years studying the American Palace. “I have visited the United States several times since 2015 and have tried over 300 craft and non-alcoholic beers,” he said. His visits have taken him to breweries in New York, San Francisco, Portland, Boston and Denver, where he has learned that Americans prefer “stronger aromas” and “refreshing flavors”.
Americans prefer sugar-free and natural
The company began tinkering with the recipe to appeal to American tastes, but it also replaced the artificial sweetener used in Japan with a natural flavor, seeking to satisfy the strong American preference for “natural” ingredients.
The US market for alcohol alternatives has also grown rapidly. Artisanal alcohol-free cocktails were the first alcoholic alternative to hit the market, but the demand for non-alcoholic beer is a bit different. Consumers want to drink All-Free with lunch or even after a workout, Suntory researchers found.
Hoppy taste without bitterness
Still, All-Free has some competition. According to Brian Yaeger, who has covered the emergence of some of these alcohol-free options for Takeaway meals, Lagunitas Brewing launched the Hoppy refreshment, a “sparkling drink” made from water, yeast and hops but not malted barley, which “deprives the yeast of any fermentable sugar” to be transformed into alcohol.
Yaeger described the taste as “citrus hop water”. The Hoppy Refresher has a lot of hops, obviously, but no bitter taste. Well, sort of. There is a “perceived bitterness,” as Yaeger reports, but not as much as a typical IPA since they don’t boil the hops when they do.
Unlike Hoppy Refresher, All-Free is made with both hops and malted barley. The taste is remarkably light, crunchy and refreshing, much like the classic pilsner-style beers the company is known for although, according to beer critic Mark McDermott, “no one would mistake it for a beer.”
Still, McDermott seemed to enjoy the taste. “Enjoyed cold, even on ice, this could be a good ‘recovery’ drink without the ‘diet’ stigma,” he writes.
“Cheers,” Arrowsmith called out, as he encouraged everyone at the virtual tasting to keep sipping.
All-Free is now available for sale in the United States at select supermarkets and restaurants, and will be available for delivery through Amazon
This story has been updated.