It was the drinks category that the phrase “distress purchase” was invented for. When brands like Kaliber, Barbican and Swan Light first laid the foundations for low-alcohol and alcohol-free beer in the late 1970s, the audience was almost exclusively those avoiding drinking and driving – with the beers routinely lacking flavour and body there was little other reason to buy them.
But somewhere along the way, things started to go right. Advances in production techniques and a wider trend to pack more hops into ales have seen flavour improve and consumers become more ready to embrace the category as a positive choice, not a negative one.
This new generation of products is also a response to the changing times, with more people being picky about what they put into their bodies for a variety of reasons.
“The push comes from a general awareness that drinking sensibly is better for both your physical and mental health,” says Andy Hepworth, managing director of Sussex’s Hepworth Brewery, which makes the 0.5% abv, low-calorie, gluten-free, vegan friendly and organic Aztec lager.
“Low/no alcohol enables people to still have a drink but with less alcohol – or maybe drink a low percentage beer during the week and full strength at the weekends.
“The quality of drinks is much improved and there is much more variety so there is something to suit a wider range of tastes.”
Peter Gowans, UK manager for German brewer Erdinger and its Alkoholfrei wheat beer, adds: “Attitudes have changed significantly over the last few years and it has become more socially acceptable to choose a low- or no- alcohol drink.
“Consumers are increasingly mindful of their overall wellbeing, including the role that exercise, food and drink plays in their lifestyle – and innovation in all these areas is contributing to greater quality, choice and experimentation.”
Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing has launched its alcohol-free Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn in the UK, supported by consumer sampling at events and co-founder Bill Shufelt says there’s another reason why the category is gaining more traction.
“Both product R&D and marketing have finally emerged in the category,” he says, “a category long-neglected on both, which has definitely helped overcome some of the old prejudices against low- and no-alcohol beers and ciders.”
He adds: “Trial gets customers past any lingering stigmas they may have on taste.
“Awareness is also key. Many consumers have a lack of knowledge about the availability of premium, craft products.
“It’s an ongoing job to bring these products to the attention of consumers.
“Consumers love different taste profiles and the range of non-alcoholic offerings is starting to reflect that better,” he adds. “While beer is something consumers have been drinking for years, not everyone is a beer drinker – some prefer wine or spirits.
“We believe that trial gets customers past any lingering stigmas there may be on taste.”
Shufelt says its own ecommerce data has given it insight into who those consumers are, revealing a straight 50/50 male-female split. “Seventy-nine per cent of Athletic Brewing’s customers are under 44, and almost half are under 35,” he adds.
“There are generational tailwinds of better-for-you consumption, mindfulness, and high performance at play,” Shufelt says. “Consumers want more than beverages to be delicious. They want beverages that make you feel great both during and after consumption.”
Erdinger – which has added a pink-coloured Grapefruit flavour that is listed by Asda – has promoted its Alkoholfrei through a sampling presence at the finishing lines of numerous running, cycling and triathlon events in the UK.
Its 2022 Dry January promotion is encouraging people to complete a 5k a week, in whichever exercise pursuit they prefer, and make a donation to the cancer charity MOVE.
“Erdinger Alkoholfrei is brewed according to the Bavarian purity law and its isotonic properties help replace lost fluids and quench thirst quickly after exercise giving it a USP in the active lifestyle arena,” claims Gowans, who adds that it contains folic acid and B12 which help reduce tiredness.
Kent brewer Shepherd Neame produced its first low-alcohol beer last year. Noughty Bear is a 0.5% addition to its Bear Island beer range.
It’s made with Challenger hops from the UK, and Amarillo, Cascade and Citra from the US.
“We are confident that we have delivered a low-alcohol alternative that still tastes like a quality beer,” says head brewer Mike Unsworth.
Adnams is another brewer that’s been working hard to extend and refine its low-alcohol offering.
It launched a 0.5% abv version of its Wild Wave cider in 2020 and reduced the strength of its Sole Star beer from 0.9% abv to 0.5% last year.
The developments follow the 2018 launch of Ghost Ship 0.5% which the Suffolk brewer says is already the third best selling beer in its portfolio.
Production director Fergus Fitzgerald says: “A lot of our consumers for Ghost 0.5% are people who still love the taste of beer but are choosing to cut down for whatever reason, so taste and quality are key.
“That’s what led us to invest in a system that allows us to brew and ferment the beer as normal and then remove the alcohol as gently as possible.”
Head brewer Dan Gooderham explains how Ghost Ship 0.5% is made: “We first brew a version of Ghost Ship 4.5% using locally-grown Rye Crystal and Cara malts.
“We dry-hop with Citra, Chinook and Cascade to create bright, citrus aromas and flavours, and ferment as we would normally.
“The beer is then sent across to our reverse osmosis plant where, under pressure, water and ethanol travel across membranes; the driver for the process is the concentration gradient of ethanol across the membranes.
“We add lots of water to carry the ethanol away leaving concentrated Ghost Ship, minus the alcohol.
“We then blend back some fresh water and carbon dioxide to create Ghost Ship 0.5%.”
While many brewers are packing their low-alcohol beers with hops or investing in tech to cover up any shortcomings, Hepworth Brewery has explored other ways to come up with more flavour and body.
“To replicate the flavour of a full-strength beers requires the missing flavours of alcohol and body to be replaced with a number of layers of other contributing factors,” says boss Andy Hepworth.
“Of course, you can throw a lot of strongly flavoured hops in an ale style beer to cover that, but in lighter styles that will not work.
“We looked to other alcoholic drinks for suitable ingredients to create those characters and came up with agave, which tequila is made from.”
Agave provides some backbone for Aztec and is used in Hepworth’s Spartan low-alcohol ale.
Brewers have been getting ever more creative in their responses to demand for less alcohol, but the development path has not always been a smooth one.
Diageo was forced to recall Guinness 0.0 in November 2020, just weeks after launch because of what it called a “microbiological contamination”. The product finally made it back on to shelves in August 2021.
The presence of big brands could lead the low/no beer category to reach even higher levels of acceptance in the years ahead, according to Hannah Dawson, head of off-trade category development at Diageo GB.
“Stocking best-sellers in the category is key to driving no- and low-alcohol sales,” she says.
“Recognisable brands such as Guinness 0.0% are key in helping consumers navigate no and low choices with confidence in both quality and taste assurances.”
It’s not just brewers who’ve been successfully ramping up the presence of low- and no-alcohol beers on the market. Cider producers have taken big strides forward too.
Thatchers spent two years on developing the recipe a special fermentation process for Thatchers Zero, before unleashing it in early 2020.
“If they are to contribute to category growth, low- and no-alcohol products have to deliver on taste,” says Chris Milton, Thatchers sales director. “Poor quality drinks in the category have undoubtedly been an historic barrier to entry. People would rather choose a soft drink over a tasteless alcohol-free alternative.”
Aston Manor has a 0.5% abv version of its premium Friels cider brand. Marketing controller Calli O’Brien says retailers should cater for low-alcohol consumption occasions which mirror those of full-strength cider.
“Cider is the impulse drink of choice, so having a 100% chilled range is ideal,” she says. “If a store has limited chiller space then it’s worth at least ensuring there are some no and low-cider alternatives available chilled, alongside top selling ciders.”
Normandy Cider brand Sassy is launching a 0.0% abv version during January.
“We believe consumers want to consume less but better, for them and for the planet,” says Xavier d’Audiffret Pasquier, co-founder of Sassy, which makes its additive-free ciders from locally-sourced fruit.
He adds that there are still hurdles to overcome for the category.
“There are still lots of people who believe non-alcoholic ciders are not tasty and that you can’t have the same pleasure drinking one as you can with a classic cider,” he says. “Things are evolving but we still have this quality image problem.”