The lower the better

08 June, 2017

The low-alcohol drinks market has had more false starts than the average running of the Grand National. The first false dawn in the 1980s foundered on the triple whammy of poor product quality, a sceptical public and the absence of any social pressure other than not getting caught out by a breathalyser test.

And, in a world where the view on what tasted better out of Barbican, Kaliber, Swan Light and Coca-Cola from a gun proved a close run thing – the relative cheapness of the soft drink usually won out.

A lot has changed in the past 30 years. Even many of those who recognise the scaremongering in media binge-drinking stories accept that consuming alcohol in moderation is genuinely a good thing; advances in technology and flavour trends means that low-alcohol drinks aren’t as distressing to consume as they used to be; and price per percentage of abv has stopped being the primary calculation for at least a substantial minority at the point of purchase.

Indeed, low-alcohol options have even made their way into the expensive, er, craft, er, space.

Yorkshire-based Temperance Spirit Co has recently dispatched its premixed Teetotal GnT into the world.

East London’s burgeoning craft brewery scene now includes Big Drop Brewing, dedicated to producing nothing over 0.5% abv and whose first brew was a chocolate milk stout, a statement that the way to consumers’ hearts in the modern age should be by giving them more flavour, not less.

Seedlip is another bold arrival, billed as the first non-alcoholic spirit, made in a copper pot still in two varieties, with all spice, cardamom, oak, lemon & grapefruit, or peas, hay, spearmint, rosemary & thyme. It’s served with tonic and a 70cl bottle sells for anything up to £28.

Its launch by young entrepreneur Ben Branson was seen as potentially game- changing enough for Diageo to invest in it under its spirits innovation support project Distill Ventures.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more big producers getting involved in this part of the market,” says Laura Willoughby, a keen observer of developments in low- alcohol drinks and founder of Club Soda, a movement to promote “mindful drinking”.

Heineken is another multinational to hitch its horses to the low-alcohol and alcohol-free bandwagon with its recent launch of Heineken 0.0, a brand that’s looking to tap into modern social micro- trends around health and wellbeing by flagging up its 69 calories per bottle as well as its lack of alcohol.

“There is a lot of concern about diet,” says premium beer brand director David Lette. “People also want to be fit for work the next morning if they’re out socialising in the week.”

Heineken estimates that the market for alcohol-free will double by 2020 but recognises that more quality will need to come into the market, with an IPSOS poll showing that only 47% of people are satisfied with what’s on offer in the no and low-alcohol long drinks market.

“It’s taken a long time to do it because we had to make sure we got it right,” says Lette.

While Heineken’s timing no doubt has something to do with which way the weather vane is currently pointing for alcohol-free, it can’t be accused of not putting its money where its mouth is, with £2.5 million going into taste- focused advertising and sampling at Champions League matches, the British Grand Prix and music festivals.

MODERATION IS THE WATCHWORD

Westons Cider also threw its hat into the low-alcohol ring this spring with the launch of Stowford Press LA, a more than passable version of its flagship premium cider, fermented to full strength and diluted back with apple juice to retain a proper cider character.

“If you go into any retailer at the moment the conversations are all around moderation, moderation, moderation,” says head of brands Sally McKinnon.

Just as the big stories around ultra-premium and craft brands in categories such as gin and beer are driven by millennials, so they are in low-alcohol. “Twenty-five per

cent of under-25s are teetotal and 37% of millennials are likely to take part in Dry January,” McKinnon notes.

Such statistics are driving on Willoughby at Club Soda, an independent start-up, largely self-funded with co-founder ussi Tolvi. It’s on the campaign trail to provide people with the tools to help them either give up or cut down, coaching them to choose soft drinks and low-alcohol alternatives while still going into places that serve alcohol.

“We’re not anti-alcohol,” insists Willoughby, and Club Soda’s bag of tricks includes a guide to pubs that offer high quality alcohol-free options and online interactive courses to help people navigate the minefield of peer pressure and the habitually quick decision-making processes connected to drinking occasions. The thrust is to drink better without ditching your favourite drinking haunts or drinking friends.

Its website talks up off-trade developments including Tesco’s commitment to supersize its low-alcohol drinks sections while, in August, it will host the UK’s first Mindful Drinking Festival, a free-to-attend consumer showcase that hopes to round up the Seedlips and Big Drops of this world in one place so people are equipped with brand preferences the next time they go into a busy bar or supermarket.

“People will buy a low-alcohol wine if they know they like it, but there’s nowhere people can go to taste these things,” says Willoughby.

“People email us and say ‘is [Brewdog’s] Nanny State a nice low-alcohol beer?’ and the answer really is that it depends on what your taste in beer was before. Our vision is to be the place you can get everything you need to help you change your drinking.”

The barriers of stigma and taste are largely being broken down but the one around price may take some work yet, admits Willoughby. Some consumers still feel they shouldn’t have to pay more for what they perceive to be less.

“Price is an issue,” she says. “They can churn out thousands of pints of Heineken at a small unit cost whereas a bottle of Nanny State is done in smaller quantities so it’s priced quite differently. But it is changing – and people who are going out or having people round do want to have something that tastes good without having to sit and drink tap water or herbal tea all night.”




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