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Business trends

Beer-guzzling Vietnam acquires taste for nonalcoholic brews

World's ninth-largest beer market turns health-conscious

Vietnam consumes the most beer in Southeast Asia, but new restrictions on alcohol are in the works.   © Reuters

HANOI -- Vietnam imbibes more beer than any other country in Southeast Asia, but increased health awareness is creating a market for alternative brews with little or no alcohol content.

Saigon Binh Tay Beer, a Ho Chi Minh City brewery known as Sabibeco, intends to quintuple production of its Sagota brand of low-alcohol beer in the coming years.

The beer has an alcohol content of less than 0.5% and goes for 15,000 dong (65 cents) per 330-milliliter can. It did not sell well when it was released in 2014, but it has picked up a following, especially among women and younger drinkers. So the affiliate of Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corp., or Sabeco, is aiming for annual output of 1 billion liters by 2025.

Imports of nonalcoholic beer from Germany and Japan are also increasing. At a Fivimart supermarket in central Hanoi, German brand Oettinger's alcohol-free beer has prime placement. A 500 ml can costs 33,000 dong, around 10% more than typical imported brews.

Other nonalcoholic beers, such as Asahi Breweries' Dry Zero and Baltika from Russia, are available at Vietnamese supermarkets and online stores.

Vietnam consumed 4.1 billion liters of beer in 2016, the ninth-most worldwide, according to a survey by Japan's Kirin Brewery. That volume was up 7.4% from the previous year, marking the third-biggest increase after Mexico and India. Throughout Vietnam, tens of thousands of bia hoi joints serve mugs of beer for about 90 cents.

As incomes rise, however, citizens are pursuing healthier lifestyles and more Vietnamese are eschewing alcohol altogether. The beverage industry is eager to cater to these customers, too.

Hanoi cafe Always sells a yeast drink modeled after the Butterbeer from the "Harry Potter" series.

Vietnamese dairy producer TH Group in May released a malt drink made with wheat germ called TH true Malt. The beverage has less than 0.7% alcohol, and the company touts the health benefits of its rich iron and mineral content. It tastes like the sweeter beer found during fermentation.

A cafe in Hanoi called Always has been selling beer with only a tiny amount of alcohol since 2016. The 50,000 dong beverage -- a yeast drink topped with whipped cream -- is modeled on the Butterbeer described in the "Harry Potter" series of fantasy novels. The concoction is drinkable for children.

"Many young women visit our cafe," said Ngo Thi Khanh Ha, a 25-year-old staff member. "I feel the domestic nonalcoholic beer market will grow significantly."

A looming government clampdown on excessive drinking could further expand the nonalcoholic market.

The authorities are considering a range of restrictions to prevent binge drinking, spearheaded by Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien. The hottest topic is a possible ban on alcohol sales at karaoke bars -- popular after-party venues -- which could dramatically alter the country's nighttime economy.

The ban is included in a draft bill designed to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol. This has been a government priority for some time: Back in August 2016, fines for drunk driving were hiked, a move that has sharply reduced the number of offenses.

The new bill also suggests banning sales of alcoholic drinks after 10 p.m. and prohibiting advertising for beverages with an alcohol content of 15% or higher. The ministry aims to pass the bill through parliament in 2019.

The looming after-10 p.m. ban, Sabibeco Chairman Van Thanh Liem said, means "nonalcoholic beers will win over more customers."

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