As they gaze into their crystal balls and divine the foggy threads of the future, market analysts have long called for a substantial expansion of the non-alcoholic beer category. It’s one of those headlines that seems to be evergreen in alcohol writing: “This will be a big year for N/A beer!” The assumption makes sense, given that millennial and Gen Z consumers by and large drink less beer (and consume less alcohol in general) than the generations that preceded them, having more of a health concern than Boomers or Gen X’ers on the average. But the N/A beer category hasn’t exactly exploded in the last decade—it’s been more like a steady march forward, although that march has continued to accelerate even during the extenuating circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, when one might rationalize that people would be turning to the comfort of booze.
Case in point: In the last 52 weeks ending on Nov. 1, 2020, market research firm IRI found that N/A beer sales rose 38% in the U.S., to $181 million compared with the same period a year earlier. Much of that surging growth has been on the back of market leader Heineken, whose Heineken 0.0 brand accounted for 29% of those sales, followed by AB-InBev stalwarts O’Douls (25%) and Busch NA (17%). Overall, those sales account for a teensy slice of the overall beer market, still just .5% of all beer sales, but the current rate of growth would bring the N/A beer market to a more robust 1.5 or 2% of total beer sales within another four years. It’s hard not to be reminded of the early days of the American craft beer scene, which grew from almost nothing to making up 14% of the beer market by volume and 25% of the market by dollar sales in 2020.
It’s safe to say that I’ve done my part as a beer writer as well—the rise in availability (not to mention quality) in newer N/A beer brands from a variety of companies coincided nicely with my own desire to reduce alcohol consumption, and I began to work them into my typical consumption. For a long time, N/A brands were associated with poor quality and bad taste, but newer releases from companies like Heineken, Brooklyn Brewery or The Athletic Brewing Co. have challenged those conceptions, while also making the idea of non-alcoholic “craft” styles more palatable. In other words, it took some time, but I eventually found N/A brands that I genuinely enjoy drinking, and I drink them pretty often.
The growth of the category, though, continues to result in the introduction of brands that are pushing the boundaries of what N/A beer can really be. And the latest of these brands you’ll be seeing on U.S. store shelves is Suntory All-Free, a product that is likely to challenge your most basic conception of what can be described as “beer.”
All-Free is obviously a product of Japan, where it has actually existed as part of mega-company Suntory’s stable for a decade at this point. It’s one of the Japanese market’s leading N/A brands, and is now poised for its first widespread launch in the U.S. But one thing it can’t quite call itself is “beer.” Rather, All-Free is a “beer-like beverage” that markets itself as not only 0% alcohol, but 0 calories and 0 sugar. It truly is a “beer” in the mold of flavored seltzer.
Suntory describes All-Free as follows:
“Using select ingredients and zero artificial flavors or sweeteners, this exceptional, guilt-free beverage delivers on taste without shortcomings. Just like traditional beer, Suntory uses only the two-row barley malt which contributes to the rich flavor of ALL-FREE, while the aroma hops give it its bitterness and signature sophisticated bouquet. ALL-FREE is also made with 100% Tennensui water—Quality, natural mineral water blessed from the Japanese forests—bringing to life ALL-FREE’s unparalleled flavor. In addition to these ingredients, carefully selected natural flavors allow ALL-FREE to mirror the taste of real beer. This original recipe enables the removal of the fermentation process entirely and delivers a specialty beer-like beverage with zero calories and 0.00% alcohol.”
So what we have here is a malt and hops beverage that never undergoes fermentation, but does feature some “natural flavors” to give it that beer-like quality. I can’t say that description set my expectations very high, but as a genuine N/A beer consumer I thought it would be worth a try. Interesting to note is the fact that All-Free is now available to buy directly from online retailers such as Amazon — because it genuinely has never contained alcohol, it’s really no different than buying a bottle of Gatorade online. It’s also available now from major retailers such as Total Wine and BevMo.
With all that said, let’s finally get to tasting and see if Suntory can deliver a satisfying result. Spoilers: The answer is “Unfortunately, not quite.”
On the nose, I’m immediately getting some uncanny valley qualities here, and I’m struggling to reconcile my experience in beer with the actual experience of consuming an All-Free. The nose is notably fruity, and quite sweet despite the lack of added sugars—it evokes green apple in particular, along with some floral notes. “Apple juice” is one of my first thoughts, although there’s also a slight graininess that at least hints at what kind of product this is meant to be emulating. Overall, though, if I was blindfolded and this glass was set in front of me, I don’t think “beer” would be my first thought. I suspect that I would peg it as some kind of apple-scented sports drink.
On the palate, the first thing one notices is the extremely light and watery texture of All-Free. The mouthfeel is nonexistent, even in comparison to the likes of Heineken 0.0, which does a much better job of emulating the basic texture of your standard light lager. Flavor wise, I’m initially getting hints of crisp grain, with a character that first reminds one of say, Rice Krispies cereal before segueing into a darker and more toasty dimension that instead invokes Grape-Nuts. It’s a tad on the musty side, and is met by some of the same artificial feeling fruitiness felt on the nose, with notes like apple and slightly sweet banana or plantain. Nothing on the palate reminds me of hop flavors, although it does possess a hop-like bitterness on the back end. All in all, though, there’s some element of soul that just seems inherently lacking from All-Free. Whereas the likes of Heineken 0.0 or Brooklyn Brewery Special Effects genuinely put one in mind of real beer, Suntory All-Free never even gets close to that territory. Perhaps its conception and production are simply too far removed from beer for this to be a reasonable expectation—but at the same time, a “beer-like” sports drink holds little appeal for me.
With that said, All-Free will be around and available this year as we head into Dry January, when many Americans will no doubt be interested in trying new N/A options. Does that mean it will find a foothold in the American market? If you ask me, that depends on how beer-like we really want our N/A beverages to be.
City: Osaka, Japan
ABV: 0% (non-alcoholic)
Availability: 12 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.