Low alcohol beers: Back for good?

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Kernel's Table Beer: A 3.3% ABV product
Kernel's Table Beer: A 3.3% ABV product

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Many have turned their noses up at the idea of low-alcohol beers in the past. Pete Brown takes a look at how such tipples may be back to stay this time.

We all know the story with low alcohol beer, right?

It's a nice idea in theory, but people don’t want it. In fact it’s a bit of a joke — specifically, the old joke about making love in a canoe. Yes, we may want to drink less, when we’re driving, or having a quick break at lunchtime.

But if we want to do that, we’ll have a coffee or proper soft drink rather than a fake beer that offers as little in the way of flavour as it does alcohol buzz. That’s what I used to think anyway, as did most drinkers I know.

But now, the whole attitude around low-alcohol beer seems to be changing. A recent survey commissioned by The Grocer​ magazine shows that half of all adults are trying to lower their alcohol intake.

And while drinking alcohol less often or having fewer drinks on a night out may be the most common ways of achieving this, another survey this summer, commissioned by AB Inbev UK, revealed that almost half of adults think it is more socially acceptable to drink a nonalcoholic beer now than it was five years ago.

Low ABV beers and ciders are up 22% during the past year, with Heineken, producers of Foster’s Radler, predicting that low and noalcohol variants will account for 5% of the total beer and cider market within the next decade.

We’ve been here before of course, and each time, interest in low-alcohol variants has quickly gone flat. Will it be any different this time?

Healthier lifestyles

The team at Molson Coors seem to think so. Having had unsuccessful attempts at low-alcohol beer in the recent past, they’ve struck big with Carling Zest, the most successful new beer launch of 2012, and now one of the company’s key growth priorities.

“There’s a new generation of drinkers who want to lead a healthier lifestyle and aren’t as bothered by ABV,” says Matthew Deane, head of category leadership and market insight at Molson Coors.

“Over 35, people have been trained to look at the category in terms of ABV — the stronger something is, the more premium it is. This was never really right, and it’s a perception that doesn’t really exist any more. There’s no reason now why a low ABV brand can’t be seen as premium.”

Focussing on the positive

So did Molson Coors learn any valuable lessons from previous forays into this area, such as C2 lager? “Absolutely,” says Deane. “When people moderate their alcohol consumption, they don’t want to be constantly reminded that that’s what they’re doing. They want to focus on the positive.”

This means that if you’re taking something out of low-alcohol beer, you need to put something else back in.

Low alcohol lagers always suffered from the perception that the flavour would be weak and watery.

So while packaged lager and lime and fruit-flavoured shandy may look like scrapings from the bottom of the ideas barrel to older beer purists, what they are actually doing to a younger generation is presenting a premium branded drink with low alcohol and the reassurance that flavour — while it may be unorthodox for beer — will be present.

This is the key insight that has turned Foster’s Radler, Carlsberg Citrus and Carling Zest into dynamic, powerful sub-brands.

Movement in craft beer

And if you’re now shaking your head, thinking such abominations have no place in ‘proper’ beer, you may be surprised to learn that similar thinking has taken root in the heart of craft beer.

One of the most impressive beers I’ve tried in 2014 is a cucumber and mint saison (3.2% ABV) from the Tempest Brewery, on the Scottish borders. It may not sound like a great idea, but it tastes utterly wonderful.

In a hot summer like the one we’ve just had, if it were widely available, I’d drink little else.

“Saisons were originally summer quenchers for farm workers,” says Tempest brewer Gavin Meiklejohn.

“A saison yeast works much better than an ale yeast with a fruit-driven beer — the spice of the yeast pulls the flavours together and adds complexity.”

The beers are made using local, fresh, seasonal ingredients. While there’s a similarity to the likes of Zest and Radler, they are craft beers in every way.

Other craft brewers have had success with more mainstream beer styles. Kernel’s Table Beer and Redemption’s Trinity Ale (both 3% ABV) counter low strength by skilfully using high hop rates to boost flavour.

Lower alcohol generally means less malt, meaning such beers could easily be thin and one-dimensional.

But these beers show that a good enough brewer can overcome such problems.

The pricing conundrum

But while drinkers seem to love them, low alcohol beers — both mainstream and craft — still suffer from a negative perception in the trade.

“There’s an expectation that you’ll have to charge less for them, but that simply isn’t true,” says Matthew Deane.

“How many pubs charge less for a lager shandy than they do for a straight beer? In other food and drink categories, you pay more for a diet variant. Low-alcohol beers offer the potential of bigger margins for the licensee.”

Low-alcohol beers are never going to take over from their fuller strength counterparts but, finally, they have a role to play.

Their failure wasn’t the absence of alcohol, but the absence of flavour.

This won’t come as news at all to fans of mild — which has long combined punchy flavours with ABV rates around 3% — but this problem has now been solved.

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