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The future of beer, soda and coffee is colourless – at least in Japan

Japanese beverage makers are increasingly producing products that look like water but taste like other drinks, betting that consumers want the taste of Coke or beer in a healthier-looking clear liquid.

The latest wave of water-like drinks hints at the contortions companies must go through to satisfy consumer demands for flavorful drinks that are also good for you and inoffensive-looking.

“The need for drinks that people can enjoy without any hesitation is one of the reasons behind growing demand for clear-colour beverages in Japan,” said Ryo Otsu, a creator of a clear non-alcoholic beer that Suntory Holdings began selling in June.

Flavoured, bottled water sales have more than doubled in both the US and Japan in the past five years. Americans now drink some 2.4 billion litres of flavoured water annually, according to Euromonitor.

Akari Utsunomiya, an analyst for the market-research firm, said these products are perceived as “modern, healthy, cool sort of beverages”.

Convenience stores in Japan are stocking more drinks like “All-Free All-Time” from Suntory’s beer-making unit. To make it, Suntory drained the colour from its non-alcoholic beer, added lime flavouring and increased the carbonation.

The label of its stubby clear-plastic bottle is decorated with a sheaf of barley and the slogan “beer taste”.

Suntory hoped the amber-coloured non-alcoholic beer it introduced in 2010 would catch on with office workers, who could drink it at their desks and in meetings. But the colour and the can deterred people who said their colleagues might think they were drinking on the job.

Drink makers face heavy pressure in Japan to generate sales in a mature and highly segmented market. Drink makers regularly introduce nearly 100 new drinks a year here.

Last year, Suntory started selling a clear beverage that is meant to taste like tea with milk. The drink, made with real tea leaves, sold well, so Suntory followed it up with a peach-tea-flavoured water this year.

Their success has caught the attention of competitors like Asahi Group Holding’s soft-drinks unit, which in May started selling a 60-calorie latte espresso-water called Clear Latte. The company also launched clear “matcha” green tea on Aug 7.

It took 170 prototypes of the zero-caffeine, zero-fat coffee to get the taste right, said Yuichi Abiru, assistant manager of the water division at Asahi Soft Drinks.

Asahi didn’t want the drink to taste too sweet — people might think it wasn’t healthy — and it wanted to keep the calorie count down, he said. The result, he said, tastes like a cup of watered-down, cold coffee.

Asahi sold 400,000 cases, with 24 bottles per case, in the three weeks after Clear Latte was introduced in May. That is already 30% of Asahi’s annual 1.5 million-cases target.

In the US, clear drinks became a fad in the early 1990s with brands such as Clearly Canadian soft drinks; Miller Clear, a transparent beer; and Crystal Pepsi, the colourless cola that was launched with fanfare before sales fizzled.

“Saturday Night Live’’ poked fun at the trend with a parody commercial for fictitious Crystal Gravy.

By 1994, the trend was largely over in the US, and many of the products disappeared from store shelves amid shrinking sales. PepsiCo, though, recently reintroduced Crystal Pepsi for a limited time.

Coca-Cola’s Japan unit launched “Coca-Cola Clear” in June, a zero-calorie version flavoured with lemon. Removing the signature caramel colour took more than a year of tweaking, said Khalil Younes, an executive vice president at Coca-Cola Japan.

“The caramel colour is part of the DNA of Coca-Cola. To remove that essential component of the formula required really a development from scratch,” he said.

In advertisements on national television, Coca-Cola portrays the clear drink as the perfect summer refresher.

Younes said some five million people in this nation of 126 million join the sparkling beverage market in the summertime, when the weather in most of Japan is extremely humid.

Will customers in the US and other countries get to try the drink that tastes but doesn’t look like Coke?

“It will have a huge trial in Japan,” Younes said, “and then we will have to see where it will eventually settle.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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