For many years, alcohol-free beer was little more than a box-ticking exercise for those in the on-trade. A solitary offering was deemed sufficient, and often left neglected at the back of the fridge.
Now, with sales of low and no alcohol up a huge 381% since 2017 (according to the latest figures from beer retailer EeBria Trade), operators can ill afford to ignore what is being described by many as the biggest beer trend since the rise of craft.
One indication of the growing popularity of low and no-alcohol beer has been the launch of several dedicated low-alcohol craft breweries in the UK.
Nirvana, Big Drop and Infinite Session are just three that solely produce beers with lower alcohol content to have launched in the past few years.
These breweries, along with others like BrewDog are pushing the category and making bold, flavourful and consistent beers across a range of styles.
“We’ve seen the category continue to grow since we first launched Nanny State, so it’s a really important category for us,” explains Ben Lockwood, on-trade marketing manager at BrewDog.
“That beer is now available in bottle, can and on draught and is set to grow over 1,500 distribution points this year in the on-trade. It’s also the sixth biggest craft beer in the off-trade, growing at 38% and bigger than Brooklyn Lager, Goose Island IPA and Blue Moon.”
The rise in demand for alcohol-free beer is a result of several factors, including consumers’ desire to drink less, but maintaining the quality and taste is also vital, says Infinite Session co-founder Chris Hannaway.
“There is definitely now a wider societal openness to new things, particularly in food and drink – whether that be a slight decline in ‘lad culture’, the ABV spectrum being opened up and the rise of stronger beers served in smaller servings. A ‘beer’ isn’t just seen as a 4-5% ‘lager or bitter’ anymore,” he adds.
In fact, BrewDog’s ethos around alcohol-free beer is to bring in the same taste and flavour experiences found in its other brews.
“Saying no to alcohol shouldn’t mean saying no to flavour,” adds Lockwood. “Nanny State has a big, fruity, in-your-face aroma matched with a long, refreshing quinine bitter finish. Drinkers don’t need to settle for inferior alcohol-free mainstream beers.”
This way of thinking is expanding within the craft beer category especially, as existing players within the market continue to add more low-alcohol options to their line-ups in order to capitalise on the demand.
In the past 12 months, BrewDog, Thornbridge and Adnams have launched 0.5% ABV beers. With the growth in interest in the category that has been seen in recent years, it has been worth these breweries spending the time, energy and resources to ensure the taste of their low and no beers taste as close as possible to their full-strength counterparts.
To achieve this, many breweries have shifted from heating or filtering full strength beer to remove alcohol, towards brewing with specific yeasts and grains designed to produce less fermentable sugars, so the beer comes out at around 0.5% ABV and nothing needs to be removed from the product.
Thornbridge’s 0.5% offering, Big Easy, was one of the hardest beers the brewery has ever had to develop, according to CEO Simon Webster. “The journey to developing Big Easy was definitely not easy,” he says.
“The process is to actually brew the beer at 0.5% straight away as opposed to brewing at a higher alcohol percentage and stripping it back or de-alcoholising. Being something we’d never done before; the process saw us pour the equivalent of 60,000 bottles away to get it perfect.”
All of this positive talk isn’t just sentiment and hearsay, though. Hard data proves that the category is experiencing a steep uptick, with the category growing at 37.1% driven by a mix of adults shunning alcohol, BrewDog off-trade data by Mintel showed. Some one in five adults are now teetotal, a trend led by the younger generation, with one in three adults saying they are doing so through a fear of being shamed on social media.
Almost a quarter of beer drinkers say they now buy more low and no-alcohol beer, contributing to 18.2m litres being guzzled back by Brits in the past year.
Low and no beer, as a category, is also worth £51.8m, Nielsen Scantrack data shows, and is growing at 37.1%, taking 1.2% of beer value share.
Some 24 new low and no-alcohol beers have been launched into the market in the past three years, CGA OPMS data to 19 May 2018 shows.
While these new products are tapping into a demand, they may all not whet the consumers’ appetite, with quality still being a high priority among teetotal drinkers.
More than half (55%) of those polled in CGA’s Brand Track July 2017 report said they would pay more for a better quality low/no drink, which is where craft can truly shine.
“We’re on a mission to make people as passionate about craft beer as we are and that doesn’t stop when you remove or lower the alcohol,” continues Lockwood. “Craft beer can take your drinking experience to levels mainstream beer can’t and excite a new generation.
“We’re launching Punk AF this month – alcohol-free Punk IPA. It’s full of flavour, hopped to oblivion with American and New World hops, and is tasting fantastic. With Punk IPA being the number one craft beer in the UK, we’ve punked up a no-alcohol version with all the attitude and all of the flavour, but none of the alcohol.”
Growth of specific BrewDog low and no-alcohol beers are in good health too, with Nanny State showing particularly strong buy up in the off-trade.
According to Nielsen Scantrack, the brew is the sixth most popular craft beer, with value sales of £5m and year-on-year growth of 40.1%, taking 8.6% share of off-trade low and no beer sales.
Indeed, the rise of low and no-alcohol craft beers has been so significant that (almost inevitably) the bigger breweries are also starting to take notice.
Earlier this year, Asahi became the latest player to enter the marketplace, launching its new 0.0% Peroni Libera in the UK.
Libera, meaning ‘free’ in Italian, is aimed at giving consumers choice within their busy lifestyles, to opt for a no-alcohol beer. The beer has been brewed using what Asahi describes as a ‘special decoction’ process and a custom fermentation to allow the liquid to remain at 0.0%.
Pubs need to be smart about how they approach the low and no-alcohol market, and how they market their offering.
Hannaway recommends choosing options that reflect the popular full-strength styles and promoting them alongside healthy food options.
“Have a range of options that suit your pub and replicate your main range,” he says. “If you sell a lot of pale ale/IPA, stock that.
If you don’t have an alcoholic wheat beer, why would you have a non-alcoholic wheat beer? Then it is about finding ways of promoting it – Mondays/January are great times for this.
Make sure you have good glassware, and if you can, offer it alongside lunch, healthy and vegetarian menus.”
He continues: “See it as an investment, where you’ll get out what you put in. The demand isn’t going to go away, it’s a societal shift happening over a number of years.
“How many soft drinks is someone going to drink in one sitting? With low and no beer, someone can stay out for a whole night with their friends and not have to go home early, or order a soda and lime. There’s a lot of unexplored potential.”
The key to ensuring strong sales of low and no-alcohol beers, is also as much about how you sell, rather than what you sell. Low and no-alcohol consumers need to be spoken to in a way that is no different to regular drinkers, and offering a unique and attractive drinking experience is the best way to ensure those who aren’t drinking feel welcome.
Alongside the rise of low and no beers, there has also been a trend towards more ‘session-strength’ or small beers of between 0.5-3% ABV in the marketplace.
One such product is Camden Town Brewery’s new Week Nite Lager – a 3% ABV dry-hopped lager brewed with US hops and German malt and yeast.
“Brewing a lower-ABV beer is quite a challenge, both in recipe design and the tech details on the brewkit,” explains Camden Town senior brewer Chris Wheeler.
One of the biggest debates surrounding low and no-alcohol beer in recent years has been around the legislation governing how products of between 0.05-0.5% alcohol can be labelled.
Under the current rules in the UK, only beers of 0.05% or under can legally be referred to as alcohol-free, despite the fact that the amount of alcohol in beers of under 0.5% strength is widely considered to be harmless.
Hannaway has spoken out against the legislation, claiming that it risks confusing both drinkers and bar staff. In an interview last year, the Infinite Session co-founder called for legislation to be moved in line with that in Europe, where anything under 0.5% ABV can be referred to as alcohol-free.
“In the EU and the US, the descriptor for the 0.5% drinks is alcohol-free or non-alcoholic,” he says.
“When we are speaking to bar staff it is clear that they are confused too, especially when they see something like an Erdinger that is labelled as alcohol-free.
“It is hard for them to know what they can and can’t say about our product. We’re hoping to get the Government to move things in line with producers in other nations.
In Germany, they have done a lot of extensive research for the likes of pregnant people and designated drivers and they have approved it as safe in both scenarios. A strength of 0.5% will not impact on your blood alcohol level in any significant way; it’s negligible.”
A consultation on low-alcohol descriptors has been launched by the Government, but – at the time of publication – no conclusion has been reached that would enable a changing of the law.
So what does the future look like for low and no alcohol beer? “The products will continue to get closer in flavour and experience to great alcoholic beers,” Hannaway says.
“Hopefully we will also see some of the more outdated attitudes continue to soften, and people will see low and no beers as no different to someone ordering a cola, for example.”
“Draught could also be a really exciting development and help to increase the exposure, acceptance and volume of the category. It will take a bit of time and investment to get there but we can see the likes of Heineken and Adnams are starting to really push for this.”
“I don’t think we want to carve a strong divide between low and no beer and pub culture or alcoholic beers. A great beer is a great beer – where beer is bigger than booze.”
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