How low can you go?

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Low alcohol beers have been out of favour for around a decade. Ben McFarland investigates how the category is trying to revive its fortunes.It would...

Low alcohol beers have been out of favour for around a decade. Ben McFarland investigates how the category is trying to revive its fortunes.

It would not be a rash exaggeration to suggest that low/no alcohol beers (LAB/NAB) have not been doing particularly well of late.

Over the last decade or so, as the lager market has become increasingly dominated by brands occupying a premium strength bracket of around five per cent ABV, the category has dwindled, shrunk and nearly disappeared without trace.

The current predicament is a far cry from the 1980s when trade and consumer interest in the concept of low alcohol beers sparked brewers to launch a proliferation of products.

Following the inaugural introduction of Barbican, from Bass Brewers in 1980, nearly everyone with access to a mash tun was jumping on the NAB/LAB bandwagon and by 1986 more than 40 brewers had added a NAB/LAB to their portfolio, giving birth to products such as the wonderfully contradictory Stud Light and the highly conscientious Wheel Right from Frederick Robinson.

At the category's peak, there was a ludicrous state of affairs with between 80 and 90 brands scrapping it out for a slice of a miniscule one per cent share of the overall market.

Some even tried to convert to draught in an effort to gain a monopoly, but small volume sales and the considerable care and attention needed to maintain a product with the vulnerability of a very delicate cask conditioned ale and without the preservative qualities of alcohol rendered it a disastrous venture. Not even the most persuasive publican could consistently shift a 11 gallon keg every four days.

Predictably, the category collapsed due to the simple fact that the majority of the products on offer weren't up to much in the taste department, not to mention the recession of the early 1990s which merely precipitated its demise.

"It was a disaster," said Peter Karsten, marketing director at Clausthaler - an independent German lager with an ABV of 0.5 per cent. "There were far too many brands and the chances of finding a beer that tasted any good were very slim. The market then plummeted by around 85 per cent during the 1990s and the majority of brands disappeared."

Today, not more than half a dozen brands make-up a low alcohol category that commands a mere 0.2 per cent share of the entire market.

However, the category was recently given a much-needed vote of confidence by Guinness, when it announced a £2m investment in support of its market-leading Kaliber brand. In an attempt to convert its impressive distribution into increased volume sales and grow its market share of 68 per cent, Kaliber has changed the colour of its bottle from brown to green to give it a more premium look and redesigned its label to accentuate its big brewing credentials.

A new TV advertising campaign, the first since Billy Connolly promoted the brand in 1992, has also been unveiled as part of the relaunch using the strapline "Only the beer gets drunk."

"We've put a big injection of cash behind the brand, improving the product and the packaging in an attempt to invigorate the market, maximise our market share and get the product into the hands of the consumer," said Geoff Bond, Kaliber's brand manager.

However, the biggest change concerns the liquid inside. The brewing brains at Guinness have been busy concocting a reportedly better tasting beer using a newly designed technical process whereby the lager is brewed up to six per cent ABV before the alcohol is removed. "The taste has been really improved," added Geoff. "It's very complex and difficult process but the brewers at Guinness have developed a new refined technique leaving a cleaner, crisper and more refreshing lager."

If the category is to grow, it is imperative that it sheds its image of bland tasting lagers and move away from the "distress purchase" - made by drivers, non-drinkers and erm... operators of heavy machinery who buy on low alcohol content rather than taste.

"If the whole category is going to work then we must make a product that is good enough to dissociate it from distress purchasing and make sure it's a lifestyle decision and a regular part of the drinker's repertoire," added Peter.

Brewed at a low gravity, without the need to remove the alcohol, using the Reinheitsgebot German purity laws, Clausthaler is one brand that markets itself on exactly this point, using the strapline "its strength is its taste". Since its arrival on the low alcohol lager scene in 1983, the brand came up with a new recipe, re-designed labelling and a longer necked bottle in 1999 and a 100 per cent growth in sales has seen it establish itself as the number two brand in the UK.

It recently announced the launch of a new anagram competition, entitled Lust Rachael, which offers both the consumer and the licensee the chance to win a Vauxhall Corsa - ideal for driving down the pub for a few Clausthalers no doubt.

In its native Germany, the low alcohol beer category is positively thriving. According to GSK, a German data source, the market commands just over three per cent of the entire market and more than four million hectolitres of low alcohol beer were quaffed last year.

"It would be great to reach a three per cent share, but that's extremely ambitious," said Peter. "The realistic long-term goal is to achieve a one or two per cent stake and even that would represent a tenfold increase in volume terms."

The potential for growth on these shores has attracted the attention of a number of LAB brands from Germany including Scherdel, Bitburger Drive and Löwenbräu Alkoholfrei, launched at Christmas by Refresh UK in conjunction with of the rebirth of its parent Löwenbräu Original brand.

"We introduced it because we were surprised by how good it tasted and its success in Germany," said Rupert Thompson, chief executive at Refresh. "We also felt that people have become disinterested and wary of the tired LAB brands. The consumer has already formed a view of the brand and no matter how much money you throw at it, it's very difficult to discard the negative association.

"However, if a number of new brand owners come in, there's a better chance that the consumer will try something different and new, therefore improving the category. At the moment, it's frankly pathetic and a fraction of what it is in Europe - it's a challenging task but it can be done."

So what's in it for the publican? Well, in addition to appearing like a mature, responsible and upstanding pillar of the community at a time when publicans are being blamed for every possible social ill ranging from drunken disorder and forcing alcohol down the throats of innocent youngsters to global warming and murdering vulnerable dolphins, NAB/LABs add incremental sales, keep people in the pub longer and are ideally suited to the long suffering rural pub.

Furthermore, with summer fast approaching and the possible advent of 24-hour opening, the expectations of the likes of Kaliber, Clausthaler and Löwenbräu Alcoholfrei don't seem over-ambitious.

"As long as publicans are giving consumers the choice, then they are doing their bit," said Peter. "We're talking moderation rather than absolute abstinence - we don't expect everyone to drink low-alcohol beer all the time as that would be ridiculous, but there's no reason why LABs can't be included in the pub-goers repertoire."

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