When overworked news editors have a gaping hole in their papers, they can always rely on the anti-alcohol lobby to supply a scare story about the nation’s drink problem.

The Alcohol Health Alliance’s Ian Gilmore seems to gain more column inches than Kim Kardashian or the weather these days, vilifying the drinks industry. And when they need a picture to illustrate the point, they typically go to Bench Girl. She lies draped over a metal bench in Bristol city centre, arms akimbo, with Smirnoff Ice and Budweiser bottles beneath her, a symbol of a generation lost to the demon drinks industry. 

The image libraries need refreshing, as the Bench Girl photo is now 12 years old, and the UK has spent that time moderating its alcohol intake. Drinking rates in Britain are now at their lowest since records began, and this represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the industry. First, it can only be positive, because it shows the trade has taken responsibility seriously and arms it with demonstrable results to bat away the vitriol of the anti-alcohol lobby. But it also means sales are bound to dwindle, unless retailers start to champion alcohol-free BWS, local alcohol alternatives and quality adult soft drinks in a much bigger way. 

According to various reports and surveys, it is the millennials driving Britain towards a healthier and more sober future in which city centre benches are more likely to be used for press-ups and dips than drunken escapades. 

Event organiser Eventbrite surveyed 1,023 men and women aged 21-37 and found that they consume on average five units a week, less than half the recommended drinking guidelines. Just one in 10 viewed getting drunk as “cool”, while most saw it as “pathetic”, “embarrassing” and “belonging to an older generation”. Seventy per cent said they are more likely to brag about how long it was since they last drank alcohol, rather than discuss their drunken shenanigans. Bench Girl would be turning on her bench: Britain has seemingly swapped sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll for Tinder, Instagram, student debt management schemes and Nutribullets. Sober day raves are a thing, rather than an oxymoron. Bar crawls feature juices and sodas, rather than beer and shots. 

Shunning alcohol

A fifth of British adults under 25 are teetotal, according to the ONS, and 5 million adults are actively seeking to moderate their drinking. More than one in three adults say they fear social media shaming and shun alcohol accordingly, another survey of 5,000 millennials revealed. Of course, you have to take these studies with a pinch of salt. The type of young adults taking time out of their evenings to respond to these surveys are unlikely to be the same people pouring shots into their eyeballs and stuffing themselves with MDMA on a night out. But the trend for moderation is becoming well established. Tesco reported that demand for low-alcohol BWS grew 100% in January 2018 compared to the previous year. 

Several producers are already making a great success of the burgeoning category. Kopparberg’s alcohol-free offering outsold Beck’s Blue, Heineken 0%, Budweiser Prohibition and all the other 0% abv beers on the market in December 2017. Its range of alcohol-free fruit ciders – encompassing Strawberry & Lime, Mixed Fruit and Pear variants – captured an 18.4% share of the alcohol-free category (IRI, four weeks to December 31). That saw it command 7% higher sales than Beck’s Blue, and it was 79% ahead of the newly-launched Budweiser Prohibition brew. Sales were also 49% greater than Heineken 0%. Value sales of the range were up 14.7% on the previous year (IRI).

Senior marketing manager Rob Salvesen says: “We are thrilled with the performance of Kopparberg Alcohol-Free and expect the proposition to go from strength to strength. As a result of this performance, we have just added our Blueberry & Lime variant to the range. Kopparberg Blueberry & Lime is currently our fastest growing variant within our core range. Kopparberg will also be investing £6 million in an integrated marketing campaign that will be activated via outdoor, digital, PR, social media, experiential and in-store channels. The multi-channel activity will focus on our core range of Kopparberg cider and, for the first time ever, we will have dedicated spend allocated to our alcohol-free range.” He added that Budweiser commands the higher price per litre of all alcohol-free beers, and that Kopparberg sells for 30p more per litre.

Get on board

Budweiser supplier AB-Inbev, the world’s largest alcohol producer, is also bullish about this category and it is urging retailers to get on board or risk losing out. “Alcohol consumption is now 18% lower than a decade ago and one in five British adults is now teetotal, according to the latest official figures,” says head of trade marketing Sharon Palmer. “What’s more, this trend for moderation is increasingly being driven by younger, millennial drinkers. The proportion of teetotal 16 to 24-year-olds increased by more than 40% between 2005 and 2013, the same report tells us. You wouldn’t necessarily think moderation would be something the beer industry, or the world’s biggest brewer, celebrates, but we do. 

“In fact, we have committed to ensuring 20% of our global beer volumes are made up of no-alcohol or low-alcohol beer by 2025. This is part of AB-Inbev’s Global Smart Drinking Goals, a commitment to a long-term and sustainable reduction in harmful drinking across the world. The low and no-alcohol beer category has grown 19.5% in the UK over the past year, according to IRI data. Our own research shows that nearly a third of Brits have now tried alcohol-free beer, and millennials are enjoying it at least once a week. 

“An additional study shows that 39% of those over 20 are happy to try no-alcohol or low-alcohol products, which rises to nearly half of 18 to 19-year-olds. Since hitting UK shores, Bud Light has tapped into the growing trend of alcohol moderation among health-conscious consumers. In the off-trade, beer and cider under 3.5% abv has grown 37.2% in volume and 46.4% in value over the past year. 

“The quality of alcohol-free beer is on a par with their alcoholic counterparts. Budweiser Prohibition, for example, is brewed in accordance with the original Budweiser recipe with the alcohol removed through a de-alcoholisation process. To ensure the same quality, we conducted taste tests with consumers.”

Low and no-alcohol beer and wine have been around for a while, but alcohol-free spirits seem to be capturing the imagination in a big way. Seedlip is here to stay and rivals are racing to market. Borough Wines & Beers has just launched a non-alcoholic spirit that “mimics the aromatic profile and complexity” of gin. Borrago non-alcoholic gin is another new entrant. “Non-alcoholic drinks choices have previously been seen as childish, sugar-laden and downmarket,” says founder Tom Tuke-Hastings. “I set out to create something sophisticated that you can celebrate and even show off
with. I decided to start Borrago because I have a love of food, drink and entertaining. With alcohol being a declining part of this, I struggled to find exciting grown-up non-alcoholic options.”

When leading suppliers present category insight to retailers, low and no-alcohol are starting to take centre stage. Marston’s has made it the focus of its latest category report and insights executive James Hodgkinson says: “Low and no-alcohol beers are increasingly becoming the drink of choice for many people. Drinkers encouraged by moderation now have a greater selection of low and no beers to choose from. This year some of the bigger breweries have released 0% abv lagers in the low and non-alcoholic beer sector, which is predicted to be worth £300 million a year within the next 10 years, when it will account for 5% of the overall beer market.”

Some breweries, such as Big Drop, are specifically set up to cater to this trend. “For the low and no-alcohol category, there’s a real opportunity to differentiate from the rest of the beer aisle,” says founder Rob Fink. “The best retailers are separating all lower-strength drinks – wine and spirits, not just beer – into one section, ensuring that those who’re looking can easily find them. Where they’re placed alongside other beers from the same brewery they’re likely to be difficult to find.”

As Dry January’s tentacles creep more insidiously into February, March and so on, the only way to thrive could be to create a vibrant low and no-alcohol fixture teeming with innovation, choice and intrigue. Then maybe the next generation will view Nutribullets and juice bar crawls as pathetic, embarrassing and something belonging to an older age bracket.

Demand for clearer labelling

MPs from all parties met in Westminster in March to call for new and clearer regulations on the labelling of low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks.

Nielsen data for 2017 shows sales of low-alcohol BWS grew 17% in 2017 and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm wants the rules tightened.

Chair Fiona Bruce MP says: In the UK we’re waking up to the harm alcohol can cause, and many are choosing to cut down as a result. An increasing number of us are choosing to drink low-alcohol and alcohol-free alternatives. But labelling is lagging behind consumer demand. The Department of Health must give us common-sense regulations around the labelling of alcohol alternative drinks, so we can make informed choices about our health.”

Alcohol Research UK, the successor to Alcohol Concern, teamed up with mindful drinking movement Club Soda to survey 500 consumers, and found that many were confused by labels.  

Alcohol Research UK chief executive Richard Piper says: For us to reap the benefits of increasing choice in adult drinks, we need new regulations that are clear, consistent and comprehensible. These regulations must be strongly influenced by what consumers say they want and need.”

Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby adds: Consumers find the current labelling of alcohol-free drinks bonkers and next to useless in guiding them to make the right decisions about what to drink when they are not drinking alcohol – for example when they are driving or pregnant. Now the government is dragging its feet over what the replacement regulations will be – which is also discriminatory to the new wave of UK alcohol-free drinks producers. Non-UK producers are allowed to use terms that UK producers can’t use for the same drink. There are foods on the supermarket shelf with more alcohol than a 0.5% abv beer. Club Soda and our members are clear: 0.5% and below should be called alcohol-free.”