30 Oct 2018 by Jennifer Sutcliffe

You Drink Low ABV (Yeah You Know Me)

Who drinks low ABV (Every last homie)…Fans of 90s hip hop as well as low or no-alcohol drinks will get what we’re saying here. But just in case you’re more about the hops than the hip and more likely to have died than be caught with a non-alcoholic beverage in your hand, we’ll spell it out.

Drinks with no or low ABV are becoming significantly more popular

Yes, that’s right. People are drinking drinks that have the complex taste of alcohol, but contain little to no alcohol. As unfathomable as it sounds to many people on this fair boozing isle, it is, in fact, the truth. You only have to witness the stats below and notice the dwindling number of friends propping up bars with you until 4am on a Tuesday night, for corroboration. And by the way, we’re not talking about an increase in softs or traditionally non-alcoholic drinks. We’re talking about beers, wines and so-called spirits that are alcohol free or low ABV, as well as some interesting alternatives. We’ll get to those later.

No ABV Beers

According to figures from Kantar Worldpanel, the sale of non-alcoholic beers is up 58% compared to this time last year. ‘An impressive rise’ you may be thinking, ‘but what are these non-alcoholic beers you speak of?’ Well, here in the U.K. there is quite a range and they come from micro-breweries and big dogs alike.

Budweiser, for instance, brought out their beautifully branded Prohibition Brew earlier this year. It turns the stereotype of Prohibition party pooper on its head by not only looking cool, but also hitting the authenticity spot. This is because the beer pays homage to Budweiser in the 1930s, when it legally continued production by switching to an alcohol free version. For the millennial generation they are targeting, this is great marketing.

AB InBev may have been pushing the global launch of Prohibition Brew recently, but they have been the biggest provider of alcohol beer for some time now via another of their brands: Becks Blue. It’s not everyone’s favourite alcohol free beer, but seeing as it accounted for 45% of that category’s supermarket sales last year, it is not to be sniffed at. “It’s almost unnatural for one brand to have that level of share” or so says Liam Newton, marketing VP at Carlsberg Group. He thinks the no-ABV market “will become as competitive in a way as the beer market is.” He’s certainly helping contribute to that prediction through the spend he’s putting behind Carlsberg’s 0.0% beer and through the already well distributed San Miguel 0.0%. We especially like the copy for the no ABV San Miguel…

AB InBev may be the world’s largest brewer with the biggest share of the no ABV beer market in the U.K., but Heineken International are investing heavily. They have stated that they will spend 25% of Heineken’s marketing budget on 0.0 in the brand’s launch year in every market. Rather than trying to be funny or focussing on taste, they are choosing to feature the calorie count in their marketing.

By including this information, of 69 calories, up front, Heineken are attracting the health-conscious consumer; health being one of the main reasons people are opting for no and low ABV drinks. But they are also clever enough to bring some light-hearted fun into the mix through their TV ads. The Now You Can campaign shows three different scenarios that demonstrate very neatly the benefits: you can drive/ be a good partner, you can get healthy/ go to the gym and you can celebrate / nail your work-life balance. The launch of the ad could not have been better timed either. Taking place during the World Cup semi-final between England and Croatia, it received a record TV audience of 26.5 million people and that’s not counting the millions more watching in pubs and outdoor screenings around the U.K.. With quality campaigns like this, it’s not hard to see why Heineken 0.0 has quickly become the fastest growing brand in the alcohol-free segment, growing 187% in the last year.

BrewDog has been steadily becoming a bigger and bigger player in the brewing industry, and its success also extends to the low ABV category. Although it launched nearly ten years ago to much taunting, Nanny State was declared the third biggest no or low ABV brand last year. From its positioning as a protest beer and its punchy original flavour, it’s easy to see why it stands out from the pack.

But there are other in the no and low ABV category that we also have our eye on. Namely Big Drop Stout, Mikkeller Energibajer and, if you want a sour-tasting beer, then we highly recommend Shrb. Brewed in Walthamstow it has the craft beer stamp all over it, but its mainly its sophisticated flavour that we love. Its recipe also came from the Prohibition era, where preserving fruits and herbs created a fragrant vinegar infusion. It certainly perks you up like a good stiff drink should! For all the lager lager lager not-shouting-because-they’re-enjoying-a-low ABV-drink-if-you-don’t-mind heads out there, we also heartily recommend the Erdinger or Fitbeer. Apart from being tasty, they are also nutritious and isotonic, i.e. they have had vitamins and electrolytes added. This makes them an ideal post-exercise beer.

Before we move onto wine and alternatives to beer…

What’s the difference between low ABV and no ABV drinks?

We’re glad you asked…so in the U.K., for a drink to be considered “low alcohol”, it has to be below 1.2%. For a drink to be considered non-alcoholic they should be less than 0.5% ABV. And to be completely alcohol-free, like the beers from the aforementioned big brewers, they have to contain less than 0.05% ABV. To de-alcoholise a drink takes a few extra steps, which is why it’s a more feasible product for the bigger brewing companies. Whether completely alcohol free or low ABV, the prevalence of these kinds of drinks are seeping out beyond just beer.

Move over Shloer…

It’s time for Eisberg to shine. Especially as the value of the non-alcoholic wine market rose by 66% last year according to Kantar. The country’s leading dry drinks brand, Eisberg, has been making alcohol free wines in the UK since the mid-1980s. Their range includes white, rosé and sparkling. Each of these is available in various selected supermarkets, from Asda to Ocado, but the one your best off sampling is the Sparkling Blanc. It is a refreshing non-alcoholic fizz alternative that is pocket friendly, at £3.99. For occasions where something a little more special is required however, we would recommend The Bees Knees. Its salmon pink hue is beautifully set off by the classy branding and sleek bottle. Made from fermented grape juice and green tea, this fizz has a tannic dryness which gives it its excellent taste. Also, at £3.50 it’s healthy for your bank balance, as well as your body!

Will the Real Kombucha please stand up?

For those who crave a non-alcoholic drink that genuinely competes with alcoholic drinks for sheer delight and depth of flavour, and which you can drink on repeat for a night out or nicely pair with food, then Real Kombucha is the one. There are many kombuchas out there, but Real Kombucha does what it says, delivering a sophisticated, refreshing drink that has no added flavours or sugars. It’s a very natural product that gains its variety (available in the three individual brews in stock) via the carefully chosen teas and brewing process, akin to those used for fine wines and craft beers.

It really is the answer to many non-drinking foodies’ prayers and it is great to see how the restaurant industry has supported the product. Real Kombucha can now be found in all the best places. From Clove Club to The Pig, from Hakkasan to L’Enclume and from Hai Cenato to Nathan Outlaw, it has truly been embraced as fine dining’s favourite. With the likes of Mark Hix saying, “I love drinking it as an alternative to booze with dinner, so I’ve put it in all the restaurants” you couldn’t get a more ringing endorsement. Being a pioneering company, Borough Wines & Beers  exclusively retail the product also. To find out more about this fascinating product and to read our interview with the founder, David, check out our follow up blog here.

Spirited Away

If wine, beer or the magical kombucha (sometimes known as ‘stomach treasure’) isn’t your thing, then we recommend some of the brilliant spirit/ mixer alternatives now becoming more and more available due to the no and low ABV trend. Monte Russo is an Italian spritzer/ aperitif that gets its name from the rowan-berries and cranberries that are harvested at high altitude to make this elegant sparkling drink. Due to its zesty finish and handpicked botanicals, which are pre-blended with soda water, it achieves the flavour of a crisp and complex Venetian style bitters within a fruity, refreshing cocktail.

Soda water certainly seems to be making a comeback with the news that PepsiCo has bought SodaStream for £2.5 billion. Surely a sign that the fizzy drinks giant is shifting focus to engage with health conscious consumers who are moving away from sugary drinks and alcohol.

There certainly seems to be a small revolution going on in the Premix/RTD category with new kids on the block and new clients for this PR agency, HappyDown, going from idea to Tesco shelves in two short years. At 4% ABV they are at the lower end of ABV for a premix drink, while also containing no artificial flavours. This move away from sugary, synthetic tasting drinks towards a more natural, good-for-you craft product is being supported in the no and low ABV category. Via global companies like Diageo, who have recently managed to secure a Waitrose listing for Seedlip.

Billed as the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, it’s complex botanical flavour and high end branding (with high end pricing to match) means it can be found in some of the world’s best cocktail bars, Michelin starred restaurants and luxury hotels. There are also cheaper premix alternatives, such as the Teetotal brand, or hybrid alternatives, like Thomas Evans, which can be served straight or mixed to make a cocktail.

The newest “so-called spirit” launched in the U.K. comes from Pernod Ricard. Called Ceder’s it describes itself as a ‘non-alcoholic alt-gin’. We like it, even if it sounds a little like a political party/ computer command. Also launched this summer, but in Ireland, is Silk Tree, which bills itself as “a distilled non-alcoholic Irish spirit with difference”. So many low ABV gin alternatives, such little time!

Probably the most hipster drink we’ve encountered for a while is Outsider. This small independent brand isn’t trying to be a spirit, but, as the name suggests, it is trying to provide a different kind of alternative. It does so by sourcing genuinely rare and hard to find ingredients (sometimes pleading distributors to use their untapped waste produce), reviving lost brewing techniques and mixing up unusual flavours…

A real range of ingredients and brewing processes go into each of its current brews and, as the product names suggest (Trial 1, Trial 2, Trial 3), they are in the throes of changing seasons and suppliers so are open to modification and discovery. On sampling the drinks, our group was wildly split between those which we loved and hated due to the very strong flavours. They certainly live up to their hype and we like their turn of phrase:

“Our beverages prove that craft and innovation do not have to be unique to alcohol. That provenance in drinks is not limited to wines and beers. And that people no longer have to sacrifice inspiration for sobriety.”

Positioning themselves for the #boldandcurious is a smart way to appeal to this new generation of non-drinkers.

1 in 5 adults are now teetotal

The figures get even more interesting when you look at the demographic breakdown from the Office of National Statistics (see graph below). Basically those between 16-24 have the highest number of teetotallers at around 23% while the 25-44 age range are not far behind with 21% of their group purporting to not drink at all. These numbers are from 2017 so in all likelihood the numbers have increased by now; if one is happy to speculate based on some of the 2018 figures for no and low ABV drinks sales.

Teetotalism in the 65 and older age range has actually decreased. This has been accompanied by greater drinking in general for the middle aged (30-65), as seen in the recent reports from doctors, who are worrying about this new generation of “almost alcoholics”, i.e. people who are drinking so habitually and in such large quantities that it is a health concern even if it is not having a dysfunctional effect on their family and lifestyle etc. Despite the heavy drinking for the older generation, it does make sense for drinks brands to be pre-empting the shift that is occurring with the youth.

The public is famously contrarian in its behaviour, however. For instance, although sugar continues to be their number one health concern (according to Nielsen’s report this summer), the number of people who said they would continue to buy sugary soft drinks also grew post sugar tax, increasing from 31% in February to 44% in June. Perhaps the Great British public simply don’t like being told what to do!

Soft drink sales have remained flat this year, so there seems to be a disconnect between what people say they will do and what they actually do. However, it may simply be that there are more natural soft drinks coming onto the market, just as there are more natural premixes and great tasting low ABV drinks. People are finally being given a choice. As David Begg, the founder of Real Kombucha, says, “choice is often limited to alcohol or something sugary and served with a straw. It’s that behavioural change on the part of the pub and the consumer that we’re really interested in.”

Tell me more about behavioural change…

Why is this no or low ABV trend happening? Mainly driven by the 16-35 year age group (let’s call them the youth so it includes all the senior management at JAMS PR ;)), drinking less seems to be rooted in a more health and diet conscious society. Brought up on programmes like “You Are What You Eat”, government anti-drinking campaigns and image-obsessed social media influencers, it is no wonder that “the youth” want to drink less.

The social media impact is most keenly felt by Gen Z, who “don’t want a digital footprint of drunken photos to follow them as they enter the world of work.” So says Laura Willoughby, co-founder of Club Soda, a “mindful drinking movement” whose tagline “everything in moderation, except flavour” excellently sums up this shift in priorities. With 1000 more signs up this month and festivals in London and Glasgow, their message is obviously hitting home for a lot of people.

Gen X may be more inclined to drink low ABV due to social media and their lower spending power, but the millennials are becoming moderate for slightly different reasons. Willoughby points out that this generation are seeing alcohol is their coping mechanism and that the only way to improve mental health and get more out of life is by becoming more moderate. As Gen Z and the millennials share their changing attitudes and values online, alongside celebrity endorsements, the notion of drinking less is becoming more accepted.

Maybe we are reaching that point in society where ‘going for a drink’ means just that, i.e. going for ‘a’ drink. Not an alcoholic drink, just ‘a’ drink. And maybe when someone uses those immortal words to their non-drinking friend next time, that friend won’t have to qualify their visit to the pub with “yeah, ok, but just a soft drink for me.”

In light of Stoptober coming around the corner and next week’s 7th Annual Innovation in Non-Alcoholic Beverages Congress, will you try being more moderate? One of our favourite phrases is “everything in moderation including moderation”, but we would love to hear from you in our comment section below.