Low in strength, big on flavour: How craft beer is leading the low and no ABV revolution

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Flavoursome: Big Drop’s big secret is the use of milk proteins in its award-winning 0.5% ABV stout
Flavoursome: Big Drop’s big secret is the use of milk proteins in its award-winning 0.5% ABV stout

Related tags Alcoholic beverage Soft drink

The days of offering customers who are not drinking just a fizzy pop are long gone, and it is the craft beer revolution that has had a hand in the changing of the old guard

We all know the feeling. You wake up on New Year’s Day, head throbbing and mouth feeling like something has crawled inside and died. You roll over, shielding your eyes from the light of a new year drilling into your skull and hit the snooze button.

“I’m never drinking again,” you exclaim to your partner, resolving to spend the first day of the year in bed feeling sorry for yourself. Later, when you have recovered slightly, your resolve is weaker. “Maybe I’ll just have January off,” you say, already eyeing up what is left of your post-Christmas booze stash.

In years gone by, cutting down on your alcohol intake usually meant cutting down on visits to the pub. The prospect of paying over the odds for a sugary soft drink through a straw is not often an appealing one, particularly when everyone else is boozing and seemingly having the time of their life. 

However, there is now a huge range of low-alcohol and alcohol-free options available to consumers and with pubs struggling to navigate challenging market conditions, they can no longer afford to neglect teetotal customers during quieter periods of the year. What are the factors driving the trend toward lower alcohol options and what should pubs do to maximise potential revenue when customers aren’t drinking?

Smaller brewers lead the way


The percentage increase of sales of low-alcohol beer in the past five years, according to data analyst Nielsen

It is indisputable that young people are drinking less than ever before. According to latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics, 20.9% of adults say they do not drink alcohol at all, while young people aged between 16 and 24 in Britain are less likely to drink than any other age group. This has major implications for the pub and bar sector, according to Rob Fink, founder of low-alcohol beer brand Big Drop Brewing Co.

“The pubs surviving now are the ones that are moving and recognising there are demands over and above ‘I’d like a pint please’,” he says. “The on-trade needs to recognise there is an increasing demand, especially from young people, for alcohol-free drinks that aren’t diet cola, orange juice or lemonade.”

Drinks companies are rapidly catching on to the low-alcohol trend, with a raft of new products, from lower alcohol wines such as B by Black Tower (5.5%), to non-alcoholic spirits like Seedlip. However, it is the beer market leading the way, with sales of low-alcohol beer up by 50% in the past five years, and 17% in the past year alone, according to data analyst Nielsen. The rise of craft beer, and the associated rise in the number of breweries in the UK, has meant a far greater variety of low-alcohol beers are now available to consumers.

“The demand for low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers has certainly been there for a while, it’s just that low-alcohol options were so limited nobody really bothered,” says Big Drop’s head brewer Johnny Clayton. “It took the craft beer revolution and the expansion of skills and demand that came with that to get people looking into it.”

Big Drop’s big secret is the use of milk proteins in its award-winning 0.5% ABV stout, which help to add body and mouthfeel, ensuring that a lack of alcohol does not correlate with a lack of flavour.

Bigger beer brands are also jumping on the low-alcohol bandwagon. This year, Heineken, Budweiser and Carlsberg have released 0% ABV lagers in the low and non-alcoholic beer sector, which is predicted to be worth £300m a year within the next 10 years when it will account for 5% of the UK beer market.

“There’s been a definite shift in the past few years as consumers place more focus on health and wellbeing, which for beer and cider drinkers means moderation and making positive low-calorie drink choices, without compromising on taste,” says Heineken’s on-trade category & trade marketing director Jerry Shedden. “With a clear consumer need, it’s important that you’re stocking alcohol-free alternatives that appeal, and that you’re stocking low and no-alcohol products from well-known brands.”

In the past, low-alcohol options in the pub have always been seen as something of an afterthought, left to gather dust on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Now, operators are beginning to wake up to the opportunities presented by stocking a range of low-alcohol products

Just the tonic: Franklin & Sons top tips for keeping up with low ABV trends

1) Stock innovative and interesting brands - ​It is crucial operators stock brands which are innovative and match with the latest trends. Franklin & Sons recognise this, and have capitalised on the growing trends with a range of premium soft drinks and tonics in order to cater to all tastes and bring out the flavours of a range of spirits. The seven soft drink flavours provide opportunities for new and interesting mocktails, while the tonic water provides a versatile base for a range of low ABV spirits.

2) Look for interesting flavours - ​The hand crafted range of the Franklin & Sons premium soft drink range taps into consumer demands new and interesting flavour combinations. Each boasting a tertiary food element – such as Cloudy Apple & Yorkshire Rhubarb with Cinnamon, and Wild Strawberry & Scottish Raspberry with Cracked Black Pepper – they offer options for a whole range of consumers.

3) Educate bar staff - ​As consumers demand more premium experiences, training has become one of the most imperative parts of the drinking journey. It’s down to the on-trade to ensure their staff are trained and knowledgeable on the build of the product, complementary flavours for cocktails and mocktails, and of course food pairings. This training and education is priceless to bar managers and owners, providing the experience consumers are looking for, and helping to drive footfall and increasing spend per head.

Club Soda launches mindful drinking guide

In November, on-trade operators and suppliers gathered at Spitalfields in London to discuss how they can better serve teetotal customers and boost profits. The event was organised by Club Soda, an organisation dedicated to what is known as ‘mindful’ drinking. Laura Willoughby, the movement’s founder​, believes pubs still need to do more to accommodate non-drinkers, and this has to start with the education of bar staff.

“Bar staff need to know more about the low and no-alcohol drinks they are selling because people will ask questions,” she says. “They’ll ask about calories and ingredients, things that no one really asks about alcohol. So knowing these things is important, as is knowing what 0.5% or 2% means.

“One of the biggest hurdles for customers and venues is that no one really knows what 0.5% means. It’s as much alcohol as is in a banana. It is a trace of alcohol, so tell customers, ‘It’s not going to break your Dry January pledge’.”


The percentage of adults who say they do not drink alcohol at all, according to the Office of National Statistics

“It feels a bit like being a vegetarian in the 1980s, when all you got was a cheese salad if you went anywhere,” she continues. “Now people are not willing to accept that the only option is a Coke or a lime soda. They don’t feel like they’re being treated as well as every other customer in a bar.

“We need to switch the perception that pubs are somewhere people can’t go if they’re not drinking.”

This month, Club Soda launches its Mindful Drinking online course, aimed at helping pubs think more carefully about having a range of lower or no-alcohol products. The guide uses a deliberately positive tone, and avoids the negativity often associated with terms such as ‘teetotal’.

Willoughby warns that pubs need to ensure they are catering for non-drinkers all year round, rather than just during Dry January. “People don’t want to leave out friends who are not drinking as much as them, so they’ll go somewhere that has got something for them.” 

Whether it is consumers looking to cut down after a festive period of excess, or part of a greater trend towards a less boozy culture, pubs need to cater for non-drinkers in a more extensive way than ever before. Luckily, the range of product choices has never been better.

Additional reporting by Claire Churchard 

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