Long read: How beer is dominating the no and low drinks category

Pete Brown

01 November 2020

The no- and low-alcohol movement continues to gather pace and beer is in the vanguard. But what is it that makes beer such a great no and low drink, asks Pete Brown

Having had countless flashes of interest over the years, strong growth in no- and low-alcohol drinks now dates back to 2015, outliving any previous blip of curiosity. In CGA’s 2019 survey of business leaders in the hospitality industry, ‘no and low’ ended craft beer’s five-year reign as the most influential trend across all drinks.

Dig into the different categories, and the winner is beer. According to CGA, in the year leading up to February 2019, sales of no and low beer (beers with 0.5% alcohol and below) were 74,000 hectolitres, with a value of £65m in the ontrade, both measures growing by over 40% on the previous year.

Distribution growth was a far more modest 8%, suggesting that rate of sale in existing outlets must have seen impressive increase.

This surge is the result of a perfect combination of factors affecting both supply and demand. The arguments behind the demand side of things have been well-documented, but arguably not well understood.

Whether it’s the first pint of the evening, or the occasion
when you have to drive, it’s a shame to miss the ritual
comforts of beer

Commentators routinely point to the fact that 19% of the UK population is now teetotal, with that number rising to about a quarter of the millennial cohort. But anecdotal research – and common sense – suggests that demand for no and low beer is coming from people who really like drinking beer rather than those who have abandoned it. Akin to the development of meat-like vegan burgers, the big opportunity is among people who want to cut down rather than those who have rejected alcohol outright. For example, a third of UK adults claim to be drinking less than they did a year ago (Mintel).

The desire to moderate alcohol intake is nothing new – Brits have been steadily reducing their alcohol consumption for over 15 years, now. But what is new is that no and low beers have seen a dramatic improvement in flavour delivery.

All change

Anyone who has been drinking beer for a while has likely experienced the horror of an old-school low-alcohol beer as a distress purchase. The experience was sufficient to put people off for life, and the biggest barrier to growth is trying to convince anyone who has suffered how much things have changed.

There are two basic approaches to making alcohol-free beer: brewing a full-strength beer and taking the alcohol out, or not doing a full, traditional fermentation in the first place. The former method requires the beer to be ‘cooked’, which makes it taste of stewed vegetables, while the latter can taste like unfermented wort rather than finished beer.

Now, not only have each of these methods been improved [see box at the bottom of this feature], brewers have begun experimenting with mixing them, playing them off against each other to minimise the flavour side effects. Understandably, they’re cagey about the exact details, but the result has been to vastly reduce the gap between the experience of drinking a no- and low-alcohol beer and that of drinking the real thing.

Taste test

Taste is absolutely the driving force in no and low beer. Becks Blue, the long-time market leader, is in sales decline while most other brands in the top 10 are in double-digit growth. Another top 10 brand in decline is Budweiser’s Prohibition Brew. So it’s no real surprise that owner Budweiser Brewing Group cancelled Prohibition Brew in April 2020, after only launching it in late 2017, and replaced it with a completely new product, Budweiser Zero.

Whereas Prohibition Brew led with a story about the brand’s past, the emphasis around Bud Zero is firmly on flavour.

‘Budweiser Zero was created using the latest developments in no-alcohol brewing and following years of taste testing,’ said Elise Dickinson, marketing manager for Budweiser, at the time of the launch.

The taste problem for no and low beer traditionally was that brewers only did it with lager, which happens to be the most difficult beer style to get right. If creating no and low beer produces unpleasant flavour notes, a clean, delicate lager has nowhere to hide them.

That’s why we can trace the no and low beer boom back to the launch of Nanny State by Scotland’s BrewDog.

There’s a trick some full-strength craft brewers know only too well – use enough hops in a contemporary craft pale ale and you can mask any off flavours. In applying that principle to no and low, Nanny State reset the bar for flavour expectations in the category.

Now, exclusively no and low craft brewers such as Big Drop and Coast are creating stouts and pale ales that even beat full-strength rivals in some competitions.

But there’s no getting away from the importance of big brand advertising, too – Heineken spent £6m on promoting Heineken 0.0 in 2018 and has continued to give it heavy support. Two years later and it seems certain to take the top spot from the much-maligned Becks Blue this year.

The success in beer makes a stark contrast to other drinks sectors. No- and low-alcohol beer may still be worth only 0.3% of the total beer category, but no and low wines and spirits are so tiny they don’t even register any market share at all, according to CGA.

Big Drop founder Rob Fink believes there are in fact two reasons why beer, and to a lesser extent cider, are performing so much better than wines or spirits.

‘Firstly, there’s always been alcohol-free beer − it just wasn’t as good. So, it’s easier for us to educate consumers,’ he says. ‘Secondly, the flavour gap created by the absence of alcohol isn’t as great. It’s very difficult to make a 40% abv spirit or even a 14% wine taste similar at 0%, whereas we’re bridging a smaller gap with beer.’

Bright future

The question now is how much bigger the sector can grow. Budweiser Brewing Group’s parent company AB-InBev has announced they expect no and low to account for a quarter of its beer business by 2025. Is that reasonable? Adam Uttley believes so.

Uttley has just launched Sober Sauce, a curated, mail-order selection of beers that are exclusively low and no alcohol. He did so after undertaking research among regular beer drinkers, asking that if no/low could promise the same taste as regular beer but with 50% of the calories, what percentage of regular beer consumption could it replace?

The response was 35% of beer consumption in the on-trade, rising to 49% in the home.

But crucially, cannibalising full-strength beer is not the only source of growth potential. Uttley also found that no and low beer could replace a whopping 51% of soft drinks consumption out-of-home, and a near-impressive 46% at home.

‘There will always be the crowd who say “What’s the point in drinking beer if you can’t get drunk on it?”’ says Uttley, ‘and I doubt we’ll ever get them. But there’s a much bigger group who are just sceptical about flavour based on their past experiences. I sent mixed cases of no and low beers to 64 people who expressed such scepticism. After trying the beers, 98% of them said they would buy them again or recommend them to a friend.’

The path to further growth for no and low is to continue to reduce the experience gap between drinking a no and low beer and a regular one.

Flavour-wise, the best brands are just about there, but there’s more to do, as there is in any brewing. ‘We have to work harder to get our pale beers right than we did with our darker ones,’ says Fink. ‘There’s always room for innovation, particularly in those feature categories like sour or gose.’

While flavour is by far the most important factor, there’s more to the perfect beer experience than that. Whether craft or mainstream, the next logical step in the on-trade is the implementation of draught dispense.

‘With draught beer responsible for the lion’s share of drinks in pubs, it was incredibly important to find that solution,’ says Rebecca Haigh, strategic planning and innovation director at Heineken, who launched Heineken 0.0 on its Blade system which allows draught beer to be dispensed without a traditional cellar or equipment. ‘The pour, the condensation on the glass, the liveliness of the bubbles, the bright white foamy head – it’s all these extra sensory elements that add to the enjoyment of a pint.’

Alcoholic intoxication is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and that side of its double-edged sword doesn’t get spoken about nearly enough. But beer endures because it is about so much more. Whether it’s the first pint of the evening, which you know you’re going to neck quickly, or the occasion when you have to drive. Whether you’re taking a break from booze for health reasons or due to pregnancy, it’s a shame to miss the sensory and ritual comforts of beer as well as the buzz.

Also, whatever the reason one person isn’t drinking, it’s rare to find an entire social group all abstaining. Pubs and bars that see the potential in no and low beer will surely see the benefit across their entire business? After so many false starts, it’s clear that no and low beer is finally here to stay.

HOW TO BREW A BEER OF 0.5% ABV OR BELOW

De-alcoholisation by vacuum distillation

Popular among larger brewers (the cost is prohibitive to smaller ones), an alcoholic beer is heated and the alcohol removed via distillation (the evaporation temperature of alcohol is lower than that of beer). This method can create flavours more commonly associated with oxidised or stale beer.

De-alcoholisation by membrane filtration 

A newer technique also known as reverse osmosis, in which an alcoholic beer is filtered through screens so fine that only water and alcohol pass. The water is then added back to the beer. This can remove some flavour as well, but doesn’t add any off -flavours.

Modifying the mash to brew at less than 0.5% abv

The beer is brewed, but steps are taken to reduce the amount of fermentable sugar in the wort. This can otherwise lead to a grainy, worty flavour.

Using a yeast that's a poor fermenter

A traditional saccharomyces yeast might be replaced by one that’s poor at converting maltose. Fermentation can still create positive flavour characteristics and a beer will be around 1% abv-1.5% abv. Used in conjunction with modest dealcoholisation techniques, this can produce decent beers below 0.5% abv.

This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.

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