Is there really sufficient demand for low-alcohol lager and can producers really deliver on taste?
Low-alcohol lager's seen refreshment recently in the form of two major launches. But even the companies bringing new brands on to the market seem relatively cautious about the chances for success.
Coors Brewers is testing C2, a 2% abv version of its market-leading Carling brand, but its on-trade sales managing director John Holberry admits it will probably be no more than a "niche" brand.
Cobra's alcohol-free variation has been the other high-profile launch of the last few months, but the UK-based company admits it has as much of an eye on the more temperate markets of the Middle East than the UK.
Although concern over drink-driving, binge drinking and personal health make at least some sort of consumer demand for low-alcohol lager a logical trend, the problem is that we've been there before and consumers tend to have pretty long memories.
As Holberry says: "When we had all those launches in the 1980s, consumer demand was huge, it was just that the delivery of a lager-tasting product was awful. Consumers lost confidence in the ability of the industry to deliver on that key promise. That's why they didn't like them."
The legacy of that mass consumer rejection has made most brewers steer well clear of the expense. Diageo-owned Kaliber a success through Billy Connolly ads and the fact that it didn't taste as bad as all the others kept a broad market presence but others fell away.
Scottish Courage sells Beck's Alcohol-Free in the off-trade but not the on, preferring to list the more widely-acccepted Kaliber. David Jones, the company's communications manager, feels the market is arguably even less ripe for low-alcohol lager than it was 15 years ago.
"We had Carlton LA many years ago, when everyone said it would be a huge market. At the time there was a degree of distress purchase to it because it was people who were driving who didn't want to be seen drinking cola or fruit juice. But I think attitudes have changed and there isn't the same sort of stigma with adults drinking soft drinks any more."
Cola shame's less prevalent
Holberry argues that C2 is a "product that could bring people into the beer market who don't have their needs satisfied by soft drinks", although he too acknowledges that cola shame is less prevalent than it used to be.
"I think that's true," he says, "but that doesn't mean to say that there isn't another group of people who want the taste of lager but want to stay in control. And with the weight of nonsense-PR about binge drinking there's a sense that we ought to be producing a beer that has less alcohol and that consumers ought to be drinking one."
Of course, Coors has been to the 2% abv stage before with a test for Carling Blue four years ago. The difference this time, says Holberry, is that a decade into its R&D and almost 800 recipes down the line, it's hit on a credible taste. Crucially it's brewed up to a strength of 2% as per a normal beer, rather than by putting a full-strength lager through a de-alcoholising process.
Holberry believes 2% is "about the right level" because "it allows people to stay in control but still drink actual lager".
Cobra has gone for a straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter alcohol-free product, largely because of its Middle Eastern focus. Marketing director Simon Edwards admits that sales in the UK market would be "a bonus".
He says: "There's been volume growth of 32% since 1998. If we can come up with a product that's better quality, there is a market there."
Provide it as a service item
But the future of low and no-alcohol brands still seems destined to be that of a stock in trade. Warsteiner supplies its low-alcohol Fresh brand to Thwaites in the north-west of England, but UK sales manager Tony Baumann concedes that it "provides a service". He says, "It has a low profile in the UK, but we historically provide it as a service item and use it wherever there's a need."
If anything, licensees seem more upbeat than the brand owners about the prospects for new lower alcohol products. Graham Rowson of the Plungington Tavern in Preston, says: "I think it should be compulsory for all pubs to stock low- and no-alcohol drinks.
"I used to stock Kaliber, but I switched to Bitburger Drive because it's cheaper and the people who drink it say it tastes nice. The packaging looks better too." He sees some potential in a brand like C2 but warns, "The problem might be educating people about how much alcohol they'd had if they drank a couple of pints."
Others are more sceptical. Kevin Armes, of the Rose Grower in Bramcote, Notts, says: "I wonder what the price will be. That's my biggest bugbear at the moment, that these are the only products that go up faster than the rate of inflation. I really don't know whether it would sell or not. We sell a very small amount of Kaliber probably about a case every six months."