Alcohol-free World #6: Interview with Sake Brewery Gekkeikan

Gekkeikan launched Japan's first non-alcoholic sake brand in 2013.

Hello, Market Shakers! 

On the menu today, an awesome interview with historic sake manufacturer Gekkeikan, behind Japan’s unique non-alcoholic rice wine Gekkeikan Special Free. 

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Gekkeikan is a centuries-old sake brewery committed to lead the market, bridging health, refreshment, and R&D

Going back to 1637, Gekkeikan is an emblematic historical sake brewery based in Kyoto. Always forward-thinking, the brewery became the first sake manufacturer to establish a research institute dedicated to science and technology in sake brewing. 

Today, the company is also a wine and beer importer and wholesaler, caring about bringing quality and innovation to consumers’ tables. In line with their aspiration to bridge health and development, the sake brewer launched Gekkeikan Free, a sake-tasting product with 0.00% of alcohol, in 2014. 

Gekkeikan invested over a decade of research to develop and improve the taste and quality of non-alcoholic sake. 

In June 2002, Japan revised its Road Traffic Law, with harsher penalties for drunk driving. This stimulated the development of non-alcoholic beverages. At the time, non-alcoholic products available on the market were all under 1% ABV. In 2003, Gekkeikan was internally working on a sake-flavored beverage with less than 1% ABV. 

We looked into removing alcohol from the sake. However, our prototype faced major issues in taste and shelf-life. We couldn’t find a good alcohol subtraction technique and suspended the project.

In 2009, the first 0.00% ABV beer came out to the market, and the category picked up some steam in Japan. Seeing how the market responded well to the non-alcoholic trends, Gekkeikan came up with a new project to commercialize a sake-tasting beverage at 0.00% in 2011. But developing a satisfactory non-alcoholic sake was not an easy road for Gekkeikan. It was crucial for the R&D team to drastically change how they conceive the sake-making process, from subtracting the alcohol content (three times that of a beer) to adding bitter, pungent, and astringent flavors. The success factor to their recipe is the aroma, close to Daiginjo sake. 

While the malt, hops, and carbonic acid used in beer carry the beer flavor, the rice used in sake doesn’t directly evoke the flavor of sake in its aroma. We had to clarify how alcohol plays a role in sake flavor through analysis of sake and alcohol-free sake with taste sensors. The experience led us to understand that when alcohol is removed from the rice wine, the variety of flavors is lost. We realized how difficult it is to reproduce the taste of sake with only 0.00% alcohol.

However, between 2003 and 2011, Gekkeikan accumulated solid technical know-how through research. Instead of subtracting the alcohol, they turned the idea around. They looked at adding flavor to a 0.00% product.

We designed a sake flavored beverage from scratch by combining various ingredients of the sake composition. Market research on our prototype was not great, with consumers comparing our product to a sports drink. The flavor of sake is a complex combination of sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, astringent flavors, and umami and aroma. We really need to work on what makes the essence of sake flavor.

The R&D team came up with two hypotheses. The first was the stimulating sensation of alcohol, the second, the aroma. 

For the stimulating sensation caused by alcohol, we focused on bitter, pungent, and astringent ingredients that are not used in juices. As a result, we could reproduce the bitter taste that lingers in the mouth with certain ingredients. We also went through a trial and error process for aroma. In juices and liqueurs, flavors are added to reproduce fruitiness, so naturally, a sake flavoring agent is needed in this case. Traditional sake has a natural aroma, but when we tried to replicate it, it smelled like apple juice and sports drinks, which is unsatisfactory. The aroma of sake consists of a complex of ingredients that include a good aroma and other flavors. As a result of trial and error, we were able to find a flavoring agent that could reproduce the typical aroma of sake, and the development site became a space with a banquet-like aroma. By optimizing the stimulating sensation from the alcohol and the aroma, we were able to create an authentic sake flavored beverage.

Gekkeikan launched their non-alcoholic sake Geikkeikan Free  (245 ml bottle) on the market in September 2014. The reception was positive. But they received requests for a product with a lower calorie and sugar content. To remove the sugar was a new challenge, but the excellent R&D team came through with a new product Geikkeikan NEW Free launched one year later, in September 2015. 

Sugar contributed to the fullness and thickness of the taste, and we were concerned that this would jeopardize the delicate balance we had achieved. We tried using artificial sweeteners as a substitute for the sugars, but the taste became sharper, and we lost the fullness and sweetness of the sugars. Through repeated trial and error, we finally found a suitable natural sweetener. In this way, we succeeded in developing the sake industry's first three-zero (0.00% alcohol, zero calories, and zero sugar) sake flavored beverage.

The two earlier products, Gekkeikan Free and Gekkeikan NEW Free were ordinary sake types. However, the brewing company felt they needed to develop a more delicious sake flavored beverage. So, in 2019, they launched Special Free, a Daiginjo sake type, one of the most popular types of sake.

Special Free recreates the flavor reminiscent of Daiginjo sake, a popular type of Japanese sake, and sales volume has doubled compared to the previous non-alcoholic product. Special Free has a full-bodied flavor with a hint of sweetness. We found out, though, that our customers would like to try a refreshing dry-type as well. So in September 2021, we expanded our lineup of sake flavored beverages with our Special Free Dry, which recreates the dry taste while retaining the aroma typical of Daiginjo sake.

Gekkeikan Special Free caters to a wide range of consumers and fits well in an expanding market

Gekkeikan’s lineup mainly meets the needs of consumers enjoying sake but looking to reduce their alcohol intake. However, their 2019 and 2021 products are also garnering attention from consumers that are not initially sake connoisseurs. 

Our Daiginjo type is a new and innovative product in the non-alcoholic beverage industry, and it caught the attention of people who are not familiar with sake. In addition, our product allows people who cannot drink alcoholic beverages to experience the Japanese drinking culture. We received feedback from an unexpectedly diverse range of customers, including nursing homes and expectant mothers. Last year, on New Year’s Day, a breastfeeding mother created a buzz on Twitter with our brand, sparking conversations.

Recently, the rise of health awareness led the non-alcoholic beverage market to expand, especially in the beer, wine, spirits, chuhai, cocktails, plum wine, and sake categories.

The term mocktail, a combination of the words ‘mock’ and ‘cocktail,’ recently popped up in Japan to describe non-alcoholic beverages. We feel enjoying alcohol-free drinks is becoming trendy here, and we believe that this trend is likely to continue.

Gekkeikan believes that the need for their product will increase due to the rising global demand for health and lower-alcohol and non-alcohol consumption trends. The pandemic opened opportunities for new products to make their way through the market. 

The restriction of alcohol consumption at restaurants during the pandemic pushed people to try our products. We believe our product enriches the way people enjoy their meals, and we hope that we can cater to the needs of those who can’t drink alcohol. We believe we have presented an easy-to-understand option to consumers with the launch of both our sweet and dry flavored beverages. We aim to further expand our customer base by proposing new ways to drink sake, such as mocktails, as well as seasonal events like New Year and the cherry blossom season.

That’s all, folks!

This interview caps off our Alcohol-free World cycle and Market Shake for 2021. We hope you enjoyed the ride as much as we did.

We’ll be back on January 11th to kick off the year with an exciting cycle on products that are guaranteed to generate plenty of buzz in 2022. Stay tuned until next month to find out more and, in the meantime, we wish all our readers a warm and wonderful winter break!  

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