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How East Anglia’s breweries are responding to drinkers’ growing thirst for low-alcohol options

PUBLISHED: 06:15 14 February 2018 | UPDATED: 13:06 14 February 2018

More companies are brewing alcohol free and low alcohol beer. What's behind the trend? Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

More companies are brewing alcohol free and low alcohol beer. What's behind the trend? Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

As public consciousness of health and wellbeing grows, more and more people are choosing to cut down on or shun alcohol. But what is driving this trend away from drink? Bethany Whymark reports.

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to drink less? Or perhaps you’re giving up booze for Lent?

Never fear – for those who want a tipple without the ABV, there is an ever-growing range of options to choose from.

The market for low alcohol and alcohol-free beers and wines in the UK is booming, with big brands and craft brewers alike choosing to tap into an increasingly health-conscious younger audience for whom drinking is not the social lynchpin it once was.

And East Anglia’s breweries have not been slow to pick up on the trend.

Figures from Nielsen reveal Brits consumed 18.2 million litres of low and non-alcoholic beer in the year to July 2017, with the value of sales up 20.5% to £34.7m and volume growth of 16.8%.

The UK’s first ‘mindful drinking’ event in London last summer attracted 2,500 people, sampling a range of alcohol-free beers, wines and lower-sugar soft drinks.

At St Peter’s Brewery in Bungay, alcohol-free beer now makes up around 15% of overall sales.

It brews three beers under its Without label, which are sold in Tesco, Morrisons and now Sainsbury’s as well as in JD Wetherspoon and Stonegate pubs.

Chief executive Steve Magnall said the confluence of factors including fewer young people drinking alcohol (one in five millennials are now teetotal), a growing “body consciousness” around what we consume, and government legislation to reduce alcohol consumption meant the conditions were right for an explosion in the low alcohol market.

“I believe low and no alcohol will be 10% of the market in 10 years’ time, where they are 1% now,” he said.

“Low and no alcohol is getting more popular. People have put a lot of innovation into it to come out with nice-tasting products.”

Adnams, meanwhile, is looking to launch further into the growing lower alcohol market this year, with a new beer to accompany its Sole Star – reduced from 2.7% to 0.9% ABV last year.

It too has perceived a downward shift in alcohol consumption among the younger generation and a growing health consciousness among consumers.

“We are hoping to tap into that market with our new product,” a spokesman said.

While their popularity is undoubtedly increasing, low alcohol products are still struggling to find their place in the market – are they a soft alternative to regular strength alcoholic drinks, or a grown-up alternative to soft drinks?

A study by BMC Public Health compared marketing techniques for lower alcohol and regular strength beers and wines on the websites of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

It found lower strength products were more likely to be marketed with images or messages relating to health – for example images of fruit or evidence of calorie content – and more likely to be associated with occasions “deemed suitable for their consumption” including lunchtimes and barbecues. This was particularly true of lower alcohol or de-alcoholised wines.

These explicit references to the health benefits “suggest the industry and retailers may be targeting the health conscious ‘millennials’ who now form a large portion of the drinks market”, it said.

The study also made a potentially troubling finding – that low-alcohol alternatives were not being marketed as substitutes for regular-strength alcohol but as ones “that can be consumed on additional occasions with an added implication of healthiness”.

Presenting them as suitable for a wider range of occasions that traditional alcohol suggests they are being marketed to replace soft drinks rather than their stronger counterparts, raising questions of how far low-alcohol drinks will reduce overall alcohol consumption, said the report.

It adds that none of the studied marketing messages for lower-alcohol products mentioned drinking less or reducing the health implications of excessive drinking –leading to the conclusion that the promotion was more for the good of the industry, than the good of the public’s health.

Mr Magnall said impending changes to drink-drive limits in England and Wales, as well as public health consciousness around alcohol, could encourage more pubs and restaurants to catch up with retailers in sales of lower alcohol products to keep punters coming in.

“All consumption in on-trade is effectively in decline so buyers have to alter their offering,” he said.

Low alcohol wine: a wine merchant’s view

Before believing the hype about low alcohol products, one East Anglian wine distributor decided to put it to the public vote.

Naked Wines, based in Norwich, asked its customers last year whether they would buy lower alcohol wines should the company start stocking them.

The results from more than 51,300 wine drinkers were conclusive. Almost three quarters of participants (63%) voted against the idea, but their responses did not show a blanket dislike for the products – many said they would buy a lower alcohol wine if the product was good, not just because of its alcohol content.

So that feedback – combined with the 19,000 people who voted in favour of Naked stocking lower alcohol varieties – means the EDP/EADT Top100 company may not pour cold water on the idea just yet.

Managing director Eamon FitzGerald said: “Rather than making decisions behind the scenes, we like to ask our customers which wines we should stock.”

A low alcohol brew

For years, Becks Blue and Bitburger Drive have been the go-to low alcohol beers – but now craft breweries are turning their hand to it.

Nirvana, the UK’s first brewery to focus exclusively on alcohol-free brewing, has traditional IPAs and stouts among its range, while Big Drop Brewing Co is also making a name for itself in the low alcohol market.

Meanwhile sales of craft brewing giant BrewDog’s Nanny State (0.5% ABV) rose from £1.3m to £2m in the 12 months to July 2017, according to grocery sales figures from Nielsen.

Bury St Edmunds brewer Greene King also makes a lower alcohol beer, the 2.8% Tolly English Ale, which was launched in 2011 and has won a World Beer Award for best low strength beer.

More big beer brands are also catching on to the trend, with Carlsberg and Heineken working on their own low alcohol products.

If you fancy a lighter pint without the low alcohol label, session ales and table beers tend to stick below the 4% ABV mark.

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