No and low alcohol beer? Really?

There’s an elephant in the room in alcohol right now. Everyone seemingly is jumping on the no and low alcohol bandwagon. As well as new beers, BrewDog have launched an AlcoholFree only pub. Alcohol Free only breweries have opened. Craft breweries have launched multiple low and no alcohol beers in multiple styles: lagers, pale ales, hazy pale ales, sours. And commentators are fanning the fire too – ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 20’ articles in the mainstream press; beer writers such as Pete Brown posting on his social feed on the topic.

But a few things bother me, and here’s why I remain unconvinced by the whole category.

  1. It’s been tried before. I know. I know. Long in the tooth. “We’ve tried it before” being the killer of new ideas and all that. Sure. But it has been tried before and frankly, with much greater scale than today (if less breadth). 30 years ago, in the days of the ‘Big 6’ vertically integrated nationals, no and low alcohol beer was the big thing. Not just in the UK, but abroad too. Back then, the predictions showed that by today alcoholic beer would effectively be a niche beverage for frankly, people with problems. Time and money was invested on creating brands; big brands that were were well distributed – bottles, cans, and draught – and were supported by huge advertising and marketing campaigns. Not a few social posts, but big, scale TV ads. Here’s one for Barbican (Bass). But there was Bass L.A. and Tennent’s L.A (also Bass, clearly). And Swan Light (Allied Breweries). And Kaliber (Guinness). And undoubtedly others. There were low alcohol wine brands too – Eisberg, anyone? Yep, this is when that delight dates from too.What’s different this time? Well, there are certainly more breweries giving it a go and there are certainly more beer styles being attempted. Oh, and of course, we’re all so much healthier and mindful of what we’re consuming today…. aren’t we?  Obesity crisis? Type 2 Diabetes rates anyone?
  2. There’s a difference between a trend and normal behaviour.  Here’s a stat for you to consider, what with all the coverage around plant-based eating, vegetarianism and specifically, veganism. The Vegan Society report that in 2019, there are 600,000 vegans in the UK (quadrupled since 2014 according to their statistics). That’s 1.16% of the UK population (this is presumably the whole population including non-decision makers such as children, but nevertheless). Yet, according to Mintel, 23% of food launches in 2019 were labelled as vegan. So it’s not vegans driving the growth, it’s those people who are choosing to cut down their meat consumption, but not cut it out – the so-called ‘flexitarians’ – people who are still consuming meat, fish, dairy as part of their everyday lives. And if that’s the case, why bother going to all the trouble of considerably more complex processes, complex sourcing and increased costs to make it vegan?Is this the future for no and low alcohol products? Part of the ‘smart’ repertoire for those moments when we either can’t drink alcohol, or want to cut down? Life hacks? Perhaps. But this was pretty much the same rationale 30 years ago too: drink drive laws were tightening. Fewer people drinking in regular ‘sessions’. Fewer ‘men only’ and more mixed gender social occasions with the bars and clubs that catered for them. And we were making healthier choices as our tastes expanded. What’s different? Really?
  3. Companies have to show willing. Brewers and alcoholic drink manufacturers are under more pressure today. There are voluntary codes. There are mandatory rules and regulations too, designed to prevent alcohol misuse and encourage moderation. There’s ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. There are frankly, good reasons to be doing this both for company purpose and good reasons to be doing it for the responsibility to wider society. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a genuine, long-lasting commercial opportunity. One that’s rooted in real insight about how we run our lives.
  4. What is the insight here? People choose to drink alcohol for a whole range of reasons. Because they’re partying and want to let go a bit, or because they’re unwinding and want to either re-energise or de-energise. They may want to mark a moment, either a celebration or just celebrating getting to Wednesday. They may want to connect, to bond. Or even to show off. But what’s at the heart is the effect of alcohol. There’s no point denying it or pretending that everything would be the same if it weren’t there. And let’s be clear too, humans want ‘drugs’. I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if just as we get rid of the alcohol we started ramming everything full of CBD?
  5. A matter of taste. I’m cutting down on meat, for all sorts of reasons and  the one thing I’m not missing is the taste of meat. Why would I? Food is all about taste, and the days of healthy foods being a compromise are over. Look at the lunch time meal deal aisles today. It’s not just triangles of brown with a coloured centre any more, there’s bread alternatives that are purple and green; there are salad pots that are as vivid as a double rainbow, vegan and vegetarian products – whether they feature meat substitutes or not  -now inspire not depress.But the low and no alcohol products I’ve tasted still taste like compromises. And I’m not prepared to compromise with beer, because life is too short for bad beer, and if I’m driving and not drinking, frankly I’ll have something that is, at least, itself, not a pale imitation of something else.

    And so begins a little quest to find a low or no alcohol beer that really tastes like a beer. No compromises. No tricks or hood-winks. Any recommendations are welcome. Reviews will be short and to the point. Whilst I hope I find this holy grail, my reservations still persist. And even if I do: is there ever a beer occasion where I don’t want the very thing that defines ‘beer’ over water, coffee, juice or a soft drink? Let’s see.

Author: David Preston

Brand expert; beer enthusiast; outdoorsman; fell walker; writer; eclectic observer; pun lover

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