By Andy Hoskins

Sales of low and non-alcoholic beer are skyrocketing, writes Andy Hoskins, but will the trend take-off onboard?

I distinctly recall the pub landlord’s comment: “The trouble with these non-alcoholic beers is they taste terrible,” he said as he sloshed my beverage from bottle to glass. I was the designated driver that night, of course, why else would I be asking for non-alcoholic beer? I wasn’t pregnant, for sure, nor am I a recovering alcoholic! Ten years ago, that was about as far as a conversation about low and non-alcoholic beers – the ‘low/no’ or ‘near-beer’ market – would extend. And that particular landlord’s evaluation was shared by many.

Taste, or lack of it, has been something of a stumbling block for this niche market until relatively recently. Non-alcoholic beers were largely bland, gassy and insipid – and many still are. At the turn of the millennium, the UK market was dominated by Kaliber – from the mighty Guinness company – which in 2001 had a reported 68% share of the low/no market (beers of 0.5% ABV or lower). How times have changed. Today, every major global beer brand has its low/no offshoot: there’s Beck’s Blue, Budweiser Prohibition Brew, Carlsberg Zero and Heineken 0.0, for example, while Guinness has recently launched Open Gate Pure Brew after two years of trials. It’s a ‘full-flavoured’ lager with ‘fruity aromas, a hint of citrus flavour and a smooth, malty finish’.

Smaller German and Czech breweries have been doing it well for a while, and the craft beer movement is also tapping into the trend. Nanny State, first brewed in 2009, is Brewdog’s evidence that ‘alcohol-free doesn’t have to mean taste-free’. It has ‘huge hoppy aromas and flavours… and almost no alcohol to speak of’, says the Scottish brewery. It is its fourth highest-selling beer with 2017 sales at £3.3million – a 134% increase from 2016. Big Drop Brewing Co., meanwhile, is among a handful of breweries focused just on alcohol-free beers. Co-founder Rob Fink, formerly a city lawyer, says: “I realised there was a serious shortage of alcohol-free beers.

“Pubs would carry just one mass-produced lager that wasn’t very nice. Even in craft beer pubs there was a lack of choice for alcohol-free.” Founded in 2016, Big Drop eschewed the traditional lager offerings and took the bold decision to launch with a stout. “It was received insanely well,” says Fink, who produces “alcohol-free beers that people actually want to drink” – rather than because of the circumstances, he explains.

Big Drop now offers six alcohol-free beers: a stout, a pale ale and a lager, plus a sour, a red ale and a spiced winter ale. “Our sales increased by 1000s of percent from the first to our second year,” says Fink. Its beers are already widely distributed in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and it is set to boost its UK reach this autumn with a deal to appear on the shelves of one of the UK’s ‘big four’ supermarkets.

Tapping into trends

At a time when global alcohol consumption is declining – with beer sales slumping more than wine, cider or spirits – sales of low and alcohol-free beers are heading in the opposite direction. According to figures from the BBPA (British Beer & Pub Association), there’s been a 150% rise in the sales of low and no-alcohol beers in the past four years.

One reason behind its success, says Big Drop’s Rob Fink, it that “a lot of people are becoming more conscious about their health, but they still want a good tasting drink” he says. “’Mindful drinking’ is a term bandied around a lot, and companies are reacting to the fall in alcohol consumption.”

Indeed, this year’s Mindful Drinking Festival in London was sponsored by Heineken 0.0 and featured a line-up of ten alcohol-free beers from the likes of Big Drop, Nirvana, FitBeer, St Peter’s Brewery and Braxzz.
“Alcohol-free beer is the Craft Beer Revolution – the Sequel,” says beer sommelier Jane Peyton. “For the first time people who want the taste of beer but not the alcohol have a choice of brands from brewers who are brewing satisfying, flavoursome beers.”

Netherlands-based Braxzz had a busy summer in London as it also became the first brewery to offer a range of non-alcoholic beers at the 41-year-old Great British Beer Festival. “Alcohol-free beer has become increasingly important in recent years and thankfully brewers have been keeping pace with consumer demands,” says Catherine Tonry, the event’s organiser. “There are now some fantastic innovations in the sector and a much wider range of styles and flavours than ever before.”

Taking it onboard

Consumer trends often take longer to filter through to the travel and transport sector, and so it is proving with alcohol-free beers – despite their obvious benefits in the onboard environment. Not only do alcohol-free beers contain far fewer calories than their regular counterparts, but they also have less of a dehydrating effect by virtue of their low alcohol content. On the flip side, the sensitivity of tastebuds are dulled in compressed airline cabins, so the issue of taste and bold flavours once again becomes fundamental. And from a practical standpoint, airlines prefer canned beer – rather than bottles – due to safety, weight and stacking considerations.

Nevertheless, there are a few examples out there. SAS Scandinavian Airlines’ ongoing collaboration with Denmark’s Mikkeller brewery has seen the introduction of a non-alcoholic beer, Drink’in the Sun, on all SAS routes this summer. It has a “light yet fruity taste, where the hops, Belgian yeast and spices offer a complex and very drinkable beer”, notes the airline.“We believe we lead the market with our offering,” says SAS head chef Peter Lawrence. “Since launching our new onboard dining concept a year ago, we have introduced several different beers, including exclusive brews from Danish brewery Mikkeller, but felt we were missing a non-alcoholic beer”.

SAS and Mikkeller have so far worked together to develop 18 different and exclusive beers, one cocktail and one vodka, with a further six beers currently in development – a prolific collaboration. Meanwhile, Heineken 0.0 is now available to purchase on Ryanair’s vast European network, alongside Heineken and Bulmers cider. Heineken says the beer – it’s first zero-alcohol beer in its 150-year history – is a response to the “global cultural trend of living a balanced, healthy lifestyle”.

Could Big Drop’s Rob Fink be tempted to target the aviation sector too? “We’re thinking very seriously about it [canning its beer], but there needs to be the demand. Of course, we’d be very happy to talk to airlines about it.”

He adds: “The alcohol-free market is absolutely not a flash in the pan, but the sea-change will only come when a pub group has the guts to put one on keg front and centre of the bar.” •