Zero alcohol beer is, according to the latest consumer data, booming in Japan.

Judging by the shelves of the fridges in the convenience stores, and a lot of the flashy LCD screen adverts on Tokyo’s trains, there is burgeoning interest in the brews. And as the big four beverage companies – Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin and Suntory – tempt us with ever-improving recipes and multiple re-launches, they seem keen to bring in not only casual drinkers, but, so much as they exist, connoisseurs of “zero” style beer.

The traditional market for non-alcohol beer was drivers and pregnant women but, with recent sales surge, the brewers are seeing a wider demographic sipping their products. The health conscious, calorie counters and those hoping to save a bit of money – the price is usually around two-thirds that of true beer – are just some of the new sets of fans. Not kids, though – the companies are keen, as are the convenience stores that sell it, that the product is restricted to the over-20s.

Japanese businessmen are known to enjoy a drink after work, but many people are not able to drink heavily and with packaging more and more aimed at “drinkers”, the companies hope their product is a true alternative, not just a compromise. Developing 100% alcohol-free beer has been a big boost to profits.

This is a major growing trend in Japan, the brews are described as “soda with a beer like taste“, but marketing seems directly towards beer-drinkers, not soft-drink fans.

The market-leader in Japan is Suntory’s “All Free”, which has had its sales target for 2012 increased by 30% – about a million more cases. Pleasing stuff for the company.

Asahi has been so encouraged by sales of its “Dry Zero” that it too has increased sales targets and production levels. Four million more cases than anticipated are expected to be sold in 2012. One case is equivalent to 20 633ml bottles, so we will see 50,640,000,000 litres more non-alcoholic beer hitting the shops. Restaurants, too, are getting in on the act – 200,000 of them are stocking Dry Zero, up 150% year-on year. The company will cater to the super-thirsty, too, with a 500ml can expected from June.

Kirin Free changed its recipe in January 2012 and is 10% up on 2011 sales so far and Sapporo will launch Premium Alcohol Free Black on May 23. Hoping to capitalise on the new fashion, it too has upped targets, by 20%.

Non-alcohol beer is booming in Japan but it remains to be seen whether this is a passing fad or real movement of drinking style. Whether or not younger people, who might have been “ashamed” to drink it can be encouraged by packaging and marketing angle is another concern for the major brewers.

It is hoped that the stigma attached to non-alcoholic beer will disappear and those who cannot drink alcohol easily will enjoy the brews without feeling left out. They will also, even though precise health benefits are not clear, feel better the next day.