Key takeaways from the first-ever Lo & No Beverage Summit

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

13 November 2019

We pulled up a chair at the very first Lo & No Beverage Summit, held at the Millennium Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge. The conference brought together non-alcoholic brands, distillers, retailers and on-trade operators to discuss some of the most pressing topics in the realm of no- and low-abv drinks.

What did we gather from the day’s conversations? Here are our top five learnings for success in the sector.

Drinks must deliver on the first sip

Shilen Patel, co-founder and non-alcoholic lead of the Diageo-backed drinks accelerator Distill Ventures, encouraged attendees to consider the psychology of the drinker abstaining from alcohol.

‘This change [of giving up alcohol] is scary for consumers,’ he explained. ‘It’s a big deal to say to your friends and family that you’re not drinking.’

With this in mind, he highlighted just how powerful a consumer’s first time having a ‘grown-up’ non-alcoholic drink can be.

‘If you don’t deliver on the first experience they’ll discount the category,’ he said. The first experience of your product is the one that defines not just your success, but that of the entire category.’ No pressure, then.

Go your own way… and avoid mimicry

In a recent interview with Imbibe, Ben Branson, founder of the non-alcoholic spirit brand Seedlip, discussed how the non-alcoholic industry should position itself moving forward.

‘If you take out the thing that makes it the thing, it cannot be the thing,’ he said. ‘[A non-alcoholic spirit] can’t be a rum or whisky, it just can’t. So why try? Use the opportunity and freedom to expand.’

Non-drinking data

  • Shoppers spent 29% more on coffee at Wetherspoon than they did at Pret a Manger last year. Could your venue benefit from an improved coffee offering to make the most of daytime occasions?
  • Females aged 50 years and older account for one-third of non-drinkers in Great Britain – something to keep in mind when envisioning your potential customer base for no-abv drinks.
  • Two-thirds of pink gin is served with lemonade and spritz-style serves continue to gain traction. Consider lengthening your drinks with a soft to bring down the abv.

This idea was echoed throughout the summit, with Patel calling for non-alcoholic products that act as ‘analogues’ rather than ‘mimics’. However, the Summit’s bar was stocked with the non-alcoholic RTD range Mocktails, with flavours including the ‘Mockarita’ and the ‘Mockscow Mule’. The irony was not lost on us.

No abv is not the enemy of the on-trade

Though many bars, pubs and restaurants have adopted no- and low-abv serves on their menus, several speakers highlighted a tension or lack of understanding between non-alcoholic brands and the on-trade. This, in part, is rooted in criticism of events like Dry January and Sober October, which can hinder business for alcohol-led venues.

‘The non-alc industry needs to be recast in a positive light so it’s not an enemy of the on-trade. We haven’t yet found the [right] message,’ said Bill Gemelli, founder of Mocktails.

Patel offered a solution, saying: ‘The way we will convince the mass on-trade is by working with a small number of accounts and [by showing other venues the] case studies of what does and doesn’t work.’

The gateway to no abv is kombucha shaped

Though still a relatively niche category in the UK, kombucha’s growing popularity means that consumers are becoming familiar with the concept of drinks that claim to have health benefits. This has opened the door for a new generation of ‘functional’ beverages.

Among this new generation is Botanic Lab, a range of juices, milks and teas ‘enhanced’ with botanical ingredients. Its most popular product is Dutch Courage, a tea drink with cannabidiol (CBD), sour cherry and hibiscus.

‘It’s quite challenging [placing these products] in the on-trade,’ commented Botanic Lab founder Rebekah Hall. ‘The question I’m asked the most is “where does it go?” [on a menu]. The growth of kombucha has been helpful, [but] where it ends up sitting has yet to be decided.’

This is just the beginning

Yes, there are some pretty big roadblocks the non-alcoholic industry needs to overcome before it can experience major success in the on-trade.

Common critiques of non-alcoholic products (from both consumers and the on-trade) include their high price points and the quality of liquid in the bottle – issues that many of the speakers recognised in their talks. ‘No consumer has said, “You’ve absolutely cracked this”,’ said Patel.

But the category has only just begun to gain momentum, and the general outlook is positive. ‘It’s five minutes past midnight for non-alc,’ Patel continued. ‘Keep innovating.’

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