Designated Driver

The rise of alcohol-free beer

By Nikkie Sutton and Jane Peyton

- Last updated on GMT

Best of the booze-free beers
Best of the booze-free beers

Related tags Beer

They may have endured snide remarks and sidelong glances in the past, but low and no-ABV beers are enjoying a renaissance on the back of the current trend towards healthier living Nikkie Sutton and Jane Peyton report

Low and non-alcoholic beer may sound about as exciting as watching paint dry to hard core drinkers, but as a category it has consistently outperformed expectations.

Roughly a third of Brits have tried alcohol-free beer, with one in 10 women consuming it weekly and almost a fifth (18%) of Londoners drinking it when they are out, according to an opinion survey of 2,000 adults by brewing giant AB InBev (ABI).

The consumer thinking behind this rise is all about authenticity. ABI legal and corporate affairs director Anna Tolley suggests that while consumers may be making healthier choices and avoiding drinking, they still want the taste and experience of beer when they go out with less-abstaining friends.

As evidence, she points to the fact that ABI saw sales of Beck’s Blue, its flagship non-alcoholic beer (which, coincidentally, makes up in excess of half of total sales within the category) grow by more than 5% in the past year.

“With consumers increasingly motivated by moderation and a healthy, balanced lifestyle, alcohol-free beer is a great opportunity for the on-trade,” she says.

In fact, ABI is so convinced of the potential for drinks like Beck’s Blue that it has committed to getting low and alcohol-free beer sales up to 20% of its total beer volume by 2025.

Not just teetotallers

But it’s not just teetotallers and designated drivers boosting sales of these alternative beers. ABI reports consumers are erring more towards moderation in drinking than ever before and choosing fewer alcoholic drinks more frequently.

“Previously, going out, getting drunk and making a fool of yourself would be fine and no one would really know about it,” explains CGA Strategy’s Graeme Loudon.

“Now, consumers are aware photos of them can be posted on social media in seconds, making it visible to friends and family and that has checked people’s behaviour.”

Tolley, however, points out that there is still a certain stigma when it comes to low and non-alcoholic drinks – the perception still among many is that customers are making a “boring” choice, or that non-alcoholic beer is substandard in taste.

Consumers have a habit of defining these drinks by what it is not rather than what it is, she adds.

CGA’s Loudon agrees: “Previously, if consumers said they weren’t drinking or were drinking a low-alcohol offering, it was met with a bit of disdain, but now, it’s OK.”

“People accept it in social groups and there’s not the same stereotype or prejudice as before, it has become ‘normalised’.”

Statistics from CGA Strategy show that, despite its minimal market share, low and non-alcoholic beers are growing faster than their alcoholic counterparts, which can be attributed to more outlets stocking them rather than more people drinking them.

Changes in legislation could soon make stocking these booze-free beers a more lucrative endeavour for hospitality businesses – if England and Wales follow Scotland’s example and impose harsher limits on drink driving amounts, for instance (although that’s not being discussed at the moment).

“Operators have to be brave because it is a massive market and they are not addressing it yet,” says Steve Magnall, managing director of Suffolk brewery St Peter’s. “The same was said about craft beer and look at that now – everyone wants craft!”

The brewery recently unveiled its own alcohol-free beer called ‘Without’, which Magnall pitches as the “saviour of the country pub”.

St Peter’s came up with the idea of producing ‘Without’ following its founder being diagnosed with cancer and being unable to drink alcohol.

Proper beer

Magnall says: “We came up with a beer that didn’t contain alcohol, but tasted like a proper beer. It also fits in with our lifestyle range of beers, which includes gluten-free and organic options.”

Is there a key to hitting this market? CGA’s Loudon points to a few ways licensees can make their low or no-alcohol products more appealing to the less-alcoholically inclined.

He advises: “To make the breakthrough, the beers need to move from the fridge to the front bar in order to really drive that growth and to start acting more like one of the world lager brands that does really well.

“It needs to have some good branding including glassware with a really eye-catching font and be positioned on the front bar.”

For London-based group Draft House, founder Charlie McVeigh says good cask ale is the key to hitting the low and non-alcoholic market.

He adds: “The unique genius of cask ale is you can produce it at 3.5% ABV, which though not technically a ‘low-ABV beer’, it is pretty low, and it tastes amazing – cask ale at its best.

“That mouth feel and flavour delivery is really challenging whereas there’s something in the liveliness of cask ale that makes a low-ABV beer taste amazing so it’s a real winner.”

The best of the [virtually] booze-free beers:

  • Chocolate Milk Stout by Big Drop
    Brewing Co
    0.5% ABV
    Style: equivalent to a milk stout

This is the inaugural brand from a new London brewery specialising in low-alcohol beers. The addition of cocoa nibs in this brew ramps up the chocolate character and coffee and vanilla flavours, with a lingering roasted bitterness – making this beer deliciously moreish. This beer hides its low-alcohol status well.

  • Nanny State by BrewDog
    0.5% ABV
    Style: equivalent to a hoppy pale ale

Hops and more hops (six USA varietals including superstars Amarillo and Cascade) give this beer the flavour profile of an IPA. It smells and tastes like a jaunt through a citrus plantation that ends up in a pine forest. Eight different types of pale and dark malts including wheat and rye give this beer a malty stage for the hops to shine upon. With a measurement of 45 IBUs (international bittering units), this is the choice for people who savour dry and bitter beers.

  • B-Free by Budvar
    0.5% ABV
    Style: equivalent to a Pilsner lager

Pilsner lager is one of the most difficult styles of beer to brew and get right. Budvar of the Czech Republic is one of the leading brewers of Pilsner. B-Free is its low-alcohol brand. This beer should be drunk chilled because that, along with the carbonation, adds to the texture and mouth feel. Like its alcoholic equivalent, the beer is brewed with Moravian malt, and Saaz hops so the sweet malt flavour is balanced with lingering bitterness.

  • Without by St Peter’s Brewery
    0.05% ABV
    Style: equivalent to a traditional English bitter

This beer contains mere traces of alcohol and so it can be classified as alcohol-free. For people who like malty bitters, this is their beer. It has a sweet caramel maltiness leading in to hop bitterness. The moussey carbonation and addition of rye in the recipe bestows some body to the beer. St Peter’s Brewery worked on the development of Without for three years and developed a proprietary process to produce it.

  • Mein Alkoholfreies Tap 3 Schneider Weisse by G Schneider & Sohn
    0.5% ABV
    Style: equivalent to German wheat beer

Wheat beers are characterized by banana and clove aromas derived from the speciality yeast used to ferment the brew. This beer has those characteristics and the typical lemony tartness expected of the style.  Wheat contains proteins that add body to beer and, along with a mouth-filling creamy moussey carbonation, this is a satisfying and highly refreshing drink.

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