Long read: What the no- and low-abv category's rise during lockdown means for the on-trade

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

29 June 2020

Retail sales of no- and low-alcohol drinks has risen exponentially during the coronavirus pandemic. What does this mean for the UK pubs, bars and restaurants?

As lockdown was first announced back in March, there were predictions of prodigious levels of boozing by Brits stuck at home. Pictures of cleared-out supermarket alcohol aisles went viral, and everyone laughed when off-licences were added to the list of 'essential' retailers.

Three months in, however, and reports are telling a very different picture: a YouGov survey conducted for the Portman Group at the end of May found that two-thirds of people (65%) who drank before lockdown began are drinking either the same amount, less, or have stopped altogether (38%, 22% and 5% respectively).

0.5% abv beer, Lucky Saint
0.5% abv beer, Lucky Saint

Direct-to-consumer sales of no- and low-alcohol brands have also exploded, with 0.5% abv lager Lucky Saint reporting that online sales had increased by 300% in the four weeks leading up to 17 May compared to the same period last year. Tropical ‘spirit’ brand Caleño’s online and retail sales have grown by 150%, while boozeless aperitif Everleaf’s have exploded by 4,000%.

So why is this happening, and what does this mean for the future of UK drinking, especially in the on-trade? 

In good health

‘The UK is increasingly a nation of moderate drinkers, albeit with a stubborn and small minority that continue to drink too much,’ John Timothy, chief executive of the Portman Group, tells Imbibe. ‘That pattern has continued through lockdown, with most consumers spending less on alcohol and more on low and no products – in some cases by as much as a third more.’

Club Soda founder Laura Willoughby thinks that the threat of Covid has encouraged people’s healthy living.

‘People’s health behaviours appear to be polarising at this time, some people appear to be eating really unhealthily and drinking more, while others have been dieting and focusing on their health,’ she says. ‘People are very aware that Covid isn’t going away, so they’re staying healthy. It’s a good defence, and the sales of fitness equipment has gone up. I think some of these new behaviours will spin out post-lockdown. It’s hard to socially distance when you’re pissed, so I think that will have an impact.’

Crises tend to accelerate trends, and the trend to moderation in drinking appears to be no different

Luke Boase

Luke Boase, founder of Lucky Saint, believes that these new drinking behaviours should have crystalised for some. ‘Crises tend to accelerate trends, and the trend to moderation in drinking appears to be no different,’ he opines. ‘It takes 13 weeks to form a habit, so many habits are being formed during lockdown and I think those non-alcoholic drinking habits are sure to be carried on after lockdown.’

As on-trade businesses prepare to reopen, it appears that the question of no and low drinks is playing on a lot of minds.

Lee Jones, business development manager of Sandinista Group, has spent a lot of lockdown developing menus for the business’ venues. ‘Low and no has definitely been on the table in terms of trying to incorporate them into the menus’, he says. ‘We’ve tried to make them more like cocktails and less like this separate entity, focusing on using our own ingredients rather than brands.’

This practice of not separating ‘boozeless’ drinks from alcoholic ones is something that Ryan Chetiyawardana’s venues have been following since the first Dandelyan menus. ‘This evolved as we took on the thinking into Lyaness in that as long as [a particular cocktail] wasn't a straight booze drink, we'd make it available without alcohol. We were fortunate that guests picked up on this early, and that our guests have shared what we've been excited about.’

Golden South Sea Pearl Diver cocktail from Lyaness. The no-abv version mixes Seedlip Grove 42, Seedlip Garden 108, golden levain, beurre noisette & strawberry.
Golden South Sea Pearl Diver cocktail from Lyaness. The no-abv version mixes Seedlip Grove 42, Seedlip Garden 108, golden levain, beurre noisette & strawberry.

Despite the enthusiasm the Lyaness customers have displayed with the boozeless drinks, Chetiyawardana doesn’t think they will be increasing the volume of their offerings any time soon. ‘But it will certainly encourage us to keep pushing the inventiveness we can apply to the category,’ he says. 

Back to business

Surprisingly, some think that social distancing is likely to have a positive impact on the no and low category in the on-trade. ‘In the short term, with capacity likely limited by distancing measures, I think bars and restaurants will want to be attracting people in for more hours of the day,’ explains Paul Matthew, founder of Everleaf and owner of London venues The Hide, The Arbitrager and Demon, Wise & Partners. ‘I know we’re looking at no and low menus for our venues that we can serve at lunchtime and through the afternoon.’

Bars and restaurants will want to be attracting people in for more hours of the day

Paul Matthew

Jones confirms that similar plans are likely to be put in place for Sandinista. ‘It’s about changing the face of it. In places like Sandinista where we have a food element, it’ll make a bit more sense to have more low- and no-abv options. We’ve revamped the food to have more of a brunchtime feel, so there’ll be lots of spritzes, sangria, just a bit more food-friendly.’

While it’s clear that many businesses are considering how they capitalise on this ever-growing drinks trend in our new post-lockdown world, John Timothy believes that there are others that haven’t given it a second thought.

‘While it’s great news that two-thirds of British drinkers have tried a low-alcohol alternative, there is a lot more to do to embed the category,’ he says. ‘We know availability is increasing, but there are plenty of bars and restaurants that are missing out on this important shift.’

If no and low isn’t something that your business has explored properly yet, now is the time to put the planning and research in.

As Matthew says, ‘I’m sure the growth of no and low will continue. We were seeing the on-trade demand growing hugely pre-lockdown, and I don’t think that trend is going to be reversed.’

Keep your eyes peeled for the results of our inaugural No & Low Taste Awards – coming soon!

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