Premium bottled ale is performing ahead of expectations after growing £90 million in the past year – and it stands to become a £1 billion category by 2020, according to a leading brewer.

The category is now worth £420 million (IRI, year to March 2014) and Marston’s – which has published its 2014 PBA market report – believes it will continue to grow.

Senior category manager Paul Warren said: “In last year’s report we set out a five-year mission to double the size of the PBA category to £660 million by 2018. Over the past year the value of the category has increased £90 million to £420 million and is tracking ahead of our original projection. If this performance is maintained, the category has the potential to be worth £1 billion by 2020.”

Warren urged retailers to do three things to ensure the growth continues to rocket: improve shopper engagement, enhance the retail environment and drive innovation.

He said engaging and recruiting shoppers will add £210 million to the category by 2020 if retailers merchandise PBAs by style, use brands to fuel recruitment and define a clear role for own-label.

A further £280 million will come if they increase shelf space, champion brands and develop online and convenience offerings.

A final £90 million will be added to the category if retailers make the most of innovations in styles such as golden ale, use key events to drive sales and make the most of food matching.

“It’s not by chance that the PBA category is attracting 7% more shoppers each year,” said Warren. “Consumer trends and behaviours are being satisfied by innovation in beer styles, packs, NPD and communications that make the category more accessible to more people.”

The off-trade is gaining a stranglehold on the UK’s total beer market and has returned it to growth for the first time in years, according to the report.

The overall market grew 0.2% in the year to February 2014 (IRI and CGA), but the pub trade suffered plummeting sales while take-home channels surged.

Towards the end of 2013 the off-trade overtook the on-trade in terms of volume sales, according to CGA.

The report said: “The total beer market in the UK, which has been consistently declining in total volume since 2006, returned to growth in 2014, driven by a year of strong sales in the off-trade.

“The long-term volume trend in the on-trade coupled with a return to growth in the off-trade means that in the next year the majority of beer in the UK will be bought from shops.

 “This trend has largely been driven by consumer lifestyles and behaviour — entertaining and socialising more at home, coupled with a switch from drinking to food- led occasions in the on-trade.

“Shrinking disposable incomes are another factor driving this trend, and not only is beer much cheaper in shops, but choice and quality have also improved significantly to allow consumers to better recreate the on- trade drinking experience at home.”

Lager is finally showing some growth too, but the resounding performance in the take-home beer market is being driven by bottled ale.

Warren said: “The PBA category continues to be the star performer of the off-trade beer market, delivering 12% growth in both volume and value versus a beer market growing at 3.2% value (IRI, year to March 2014).

“It is attracting younger drinkers and benefiting from consumer trends towards more premium, crafted formats of beer — the future of the PBA category has never looked better.

“Brewer innovation is broadening the diversity of beer styles and experiences and over 500,000 new consumers have been recruited

to the category in the past year. Ensuring that this new generation of shoppers is nurtured and developed is crucial to the future prospects of the category and we believe there is an opportunity to make the category worth £1 billion by 2020.”

There were more than 140 new SKUs launched within bottled ale in the past year (IRI, year to March 2014), compared with around 80 for bottled lager, 25 for canned lager, 18 for canned ale, 75 for bottled cider and 50 for canned cider.

Retailers have responded by giving the category more shelf space and the report suggests that this has added £29 million to the category in the past year alone.

Within the multiples Tesco has a quarter of the market, Sainsbury’s has 18%, Asda has 14% and Morrisons has 13%. But, as in the rest of BWS, the discounters are nipping at their heels.

Lidl now accounts for 8.3% of PBA sales among multiples and has increased its market share by 23.7% in the past year. Aldi has 4.9% of the market, and its share rose 19.1% in the past year (Kantar, year to February 2).

Half a million new shoppers have been attracted to PBAs in the past year alone but the majority of this has come from own-label, which has brought 350,000 people into the category by helping them trial new styles in confidence (RBD).

“Own-label offers a low-risk trial into bottled ale, which converts into a long-term category shopper,” said the report. “Additionally own label allows retailers to differentiate their PBA category from their competitors.”

Recruitment is being driven by a younger generation of drinkers being drawn to the category looking for brews that deliver more flavour, craft and provenance than other forms of beer, according to the report.

It said: “The biggest current growth trend is craft beer and consumers directly associate PBA as craft, citing authentic British provenance and heritage.

“The two other significant category trends are a continuing growth in golden beer styles, and the very significant role of mixed packs in recruiting new and younger consumers to the PBA category.”

Golden ale now represents 19% of the category, having upped its sales by 31% over the past year (IRI). Old Golden Hen grew sales by 105% in the past year and is now the 11th most popular bottled ale. The only top 20 ale to outperform it was Sharp’s Doom Bar, which grew sales by 106%.

Mixed packs such as Greene King’s golden ales collection accounted for just £13 million of sales in the past year but they were up 73% on the previous one.