A responsibility too far?

Strange but true – packs of the UK’s best-selling alcohol-free beer bear the words: “Please enjoy Beck’s Blue responsibly”. But why?

It’s hard to see how anyone could enjoy Beck’s Blue irresponsibly, unless they’re going to use the empty bottles for their home brew or simply chuck them at somebody.

Beck’s Blue is 0.05% abv. It’s far weaker than orange juice which, as a result of natural fermentation, is typically 0.1% abv. It also contains less alcohol than an average loaf of bread which, thanks to that mischievous yeast, can be anything from 0.04% to a whopping 1.9% abv. (Although the most recent research into that seems to have been done in 1926. Quality controls may be better these days.)

And that’s not all. It seems that some major retailers, at least, have a policy of treating Beck’s Blue as they would an alcoholic beer by not selling it outside of licensed hours and insisting that sales through self-scan tills are supervised.

Such spurious warnings and restrictions are surely at odds with responsible retailing, which should be making it easy for people to choose not to drink alcohol.

It also causes additional confusion about what’s alcohol-free, what’s low-alcohol (that is, under 2% abv) and what’s merely lower in alcohol – those beers that are taking advantage of the 2.8% duty band and the 5% abv wines that have been popping up.

So what’s going on?

Beck’s Blue has been at the forefront of the latest resurgence of the alcohol-free category and, according to brewer AB-Inbev, has 50% of the market. Director of corporate affairs Emma Reynolds suggests that sales could be even higher if current restrictions are removed.

“It’s encouraging to see the growth of alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer, driven by consumer demand and new entrants to the market,” she says. “We are committed to working with government and retailers to see this growth continue and, in particular, to remove barriers that restrict the marketing and sales of these products.”

Yet there is no legal reason for these barriers to exist. They have been voluntarily imposed by industry.

AB-Inbev could not come up with a definitive explanation for the “enjoy responsibly” request, although it’s likely that it has something to do with the branding of Beck’s Blue and its deliberate association with an alcoholic beer – something that has no doubt played a large part in its success and cred bility as a “proper beer”.

Certainly, Diageo doesn’t feel the need to ask drinkers of Kaliber, the doyen of alcohol-free beers, to take it easy.

The clue to the mystery lies, perhaps, in the guidance notes issued with the Portman Group Code. The industry watchdog’s advice is quite clear: “While the code does not seek to prevent the promotion of alcohol-free drinks and drinks below 0.5%, if they share similar branding with an alcoholic version, they should be promoted within the spirit of the code.”

The Portman Group explains that the reason for this is “surrogate marketing”.

“We recently changed the strength rule in the code so producers can promote lower- strength alternatives to consumers,” says Kay Perry, head of regulatory affairs. “However, even when marketing non-alcoholic versions of alcohol brands, the spirit of the code still applies. This prevents alcohol being marketed inappropriately through the promotion of an associated non-alcoholic product.”

The fear is that Beck’s Blue could be used as a vehicle to market alcoholic versions of Beck’s, dodging the rules on marketing to under-18s, and so on. So the code is extended to the non-alcoholic product.

The “enjoy responsibly” tag on the packaging seems to take this precaution to a ridiculous extreme, though. And it doesn’t quite explain why certain retailers would treat an alcohol-free beer as though it were alcoholic.

Leading supermarkets were reticent on the question, but Jon Wallsgrove, partner at licensing solicitor Blake Lapthorn, and a specialist in the sector, was able to offer some interesting insight based on his dealings with major retailers.

“I’ve been advised by one of my clients that it continues to treat Beck’s Blue the same way as an alcohol product but is in the process of changing this. Another client said it changed its processes earlier this year.”

So a welcome shift in approach seems to be coming through. The reason, according to Wallsgrove, is that supermarkets have been forced to respond to rising demand for alcohol-free – along with more complaints.

It’s becoming worthwhile to do the extra work – and incur the extra cost – involved in distinguishing alcohol-free from regular beers at the till.

“It means ensuring staff are aware of the non-alcohol range and barcodes do not bring up the till prompt as an alcohol product,” says Wallsgrove.

As to why supermarkets should have restricted sales of alcohol-free at all, his view is that “retailers do so to protect their own staff ”.

He adds: “Treating them the same as alcohol products removes the risk of making a mistake with an alcoholic drink they think is non-alcoholic. Before the introduction of till prompts there were frequent mistakes over soft drinks and alcopops.

“It sounds like an over-cautious approach – a bit like those cases where you hear of 80-year-olds being asked for ID – but the premises licence is essential to a supermarket and it’s better to have the odd disgruntled customer than risk losing it.”

Now it looks like the ranks of the disgruntled are swelling and sanity is, hopefully, going to prevail. That should remove some of the confusion and make it easier for those who choose alcohol-free to actually buy the stuff without feeling guilty about it.

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