Back in 2016, I was met with a mixture of ridicule, astonishment, disdain and – sometimes, but less often – admiration when I started talking about how I thought there was a gap in the market for alcohol-free craft beer.
Fast forward to today and I suspect no one in the drinks industry thinks low/no is anything other than a fast-growing trend and a category that deserves serious attention.
And therein lies an issue. The plucky, ambitious start-ups who have led the way in the years since 2016 by innovating the hell out of low/no across beer, wine and spirits are now being squeezed by the big players.
Exhibit A: Heineken showed an ad during the 2023 Super Bowl featuring Paul Rudd enjoying a Heineken 0.0. Six years ago I struggled to convince independent pub operators to sell bottles of alcohol-free IPA. Now, Ant-Man is drinking no-alcohol lager in the world’s most expensive TV advertising slot, bar none.
There is of course the argument that a rising tide floats all boats. Ant-Man’s love of alcohol-free beer will drive more consumers to explore the category and discover the more flavourful and interesting styles produced by Big Drop and other great low/no craft brewers. But that will only work if consumers can get to them. People only drink what they can buy – and that’s a challenge.
The big players are leveraging existing brand equity built up over 100 years or more, along with established commercial relationships and exponentially bigger financial muscle to take up more shelf and tap space in supermarkets and pubs. But hey: that’s capitalism. You won’t find me complaining about it.
The question worth asking though is: does their colonisation of such a fast-growing and innovative sector best serve the interests of the consumer? Unsurprisingly, I think the answer is no.
Should the low/no shelves and taps of retailers and pubs be filled only with big brands? Or should they also reflect the vast array of small-batch, hand-crafted, flavoursome alcoholic beers, wines and spirits? You probably know where I land on that one too.
So, in circumstances where retailers and pub operators are still – even after seven years, a ton of data and lots of evidence to the contrary – approaching the category very cautiously, but with welcoming arms to big player pounds and margins, how can small, entrepreneurial and innovative operators like ourselves grab share of mind?
The first thing is trading on credibility. We will often be more credible and have a better story to tell than a global drinks brand, so we should tell it well.
The second is to find our audience. The big brands want to sell to everyone, but we should work out who our audience is and make them our friends. They’ll become friends back and make the effort to seek us out.
The next is to shout about what we do from the rooftops. It simply isn’t good enough for any outlet to stock only one big brand and think it has the sector covered. That’s what was happening pre-2016 and why this whole sector has exploded. Lots of retailers are now realising this but many aren’t. It’s OK to sell a mainstream alcohol-free lager, by all means, but we need to convince them also to stock a no-alcohol craft beer, an alcohol-free spirit and a decent kombucha. And other stuff.
Finally, remember that there is power in numbers. We have just entered into a licence agreement with In Good Company, brand owner of Fourpure and Magic Rock. We’re all stronger together.
An extension of this model could be for a company to develop a great portfolio of alcohol-free brands across all drink styles. Buyers typically want fewer accounts and fewer people to deal with. I’m going to bet that the first company to pull together a portfolio of great independent alcohol-free brands across all categories, and present it in a credible and profitable way to retailers and hospitality operators, will be on to a winner.