Ignore the low/no sector at your peril

Consumers across the country are drinking less than ever before, whether it’s for health or financial reasons, or both.

Simon Turton, editorial director at Hand Crafted Drinks Magazine, considers the changing drinking habits of UK consumers and argues that drinks producers need to meet the needs of increasing numbers of people who are drinking less alcohol or eschewing it altogether. 

In January 2023 over 9 million people cut out alcohol altogether, up by one million on January 2022, and over 30% of the population — according to research published by Alcohol Change (the charity that organises Dry January) — were planning to reduce their alcohol consumption during 2023. One in six consumers were cutting down as a direct result of the cost-of-living crisis.

Whatever the reason for the changing drinking patterns, it is a growing market, which was valued at over £250m in 2022. The low/no sector has the potential to grow every year, as consumers moderate their drinking, but the producers have to be ready to fill the void with high quality alternatives, which are competitively priced.

Despite the growth in this sector, there are very few bars or pubs that have low/no alcohol lagers or beers on tap; yes, more and more venues are stocking canned and bottled beers, but to really break through and make an impact, these beers need to be available on draught so that the drinking experience isn’t marginalised in any way.

There’s nothing worse than a group of friends ordering their favourite pint and then the person who is either driving or simply abstaining, has to ask what low/no beers are available. At too many places they have to settle for a soft drink, which will affect the choice of where people decide to meet the next time around.

At Hand Crafted Drinks Magazine we have been fortunate to sample a wide range of low- and no-alcohol beers and spirits, and we’re happy to report that the quality is improving.

Zero alcohol spirits still have a long way to go, because without the alcohol there is always going to be that missing element and I genuinely question if any company will ever get that close to the real thing without the alcohol. Low-alcohol spirits may have to be the compromise for this sector. As for alcohol-free wines, I can’t really comment on, except that the one zero-alcohol sparkling wine that I had the misfortune to sample — had all appeal of one of Baldrick’s cappuccinos. It wasn’t good. 

With beers and lagers, the quality of the low- and no-alcohol alternatives is very much on the increase. Compared to some of the early alcohol-free lagers, which were barely palatable, the latest generation of artisan brewers (we don’t deal with mainstream producers) are really making a name for themselves.

I won’t name names, but one brewery in Surrey sent me three beers to sample, whose ABVs were 0.5% (zero alcohol), 2.8% and a limited edition at 6%.

Such was the quality and flavour profile of their no- and low-alcohol beers that I could hardly believe my tastebuds. Rich, hoppy ales, were so good that I was disappointed when I reached the bottom of the glass. I would have no issue drinking either of their beers all night, because there was no compromise on experience or taste and that was when sampled against their 6% ale, which was also sensational.

So, the message is clear: the low- and no-alcohol sector is growing, but the experience of a low- and no-alcohol beverage has to almost exceed — certainly match — the quality of the ‘full fat’ varieties.

For the artisan and hand-crafted sector there is a real opportunity to get ahead of the international brewing conglomerates by working with their local bars and pubs to get a low- or no-alcohol beer on draught and offer it at a competitive price.

Even for those bars and pubs that can’t offer a separate line for a low- or no-alcohol beer or lager, making sure that bar staff know what options they have for their consumers will also play an important role in promoting this sector and keeping the tills ringing.

Images (Copyright 2023 Simon Turton)