In focus: Top trends in lower alcohol beer

The rise of low- and no-alcohol beer has been welcomed by the industry and by consumers looking for healthier serves. But this segment of the sector still has a lot of room for growth, writes Phoebe French.

While the trend has been brewing for many years, in the last 12 months there has been a surge in the production of and demand for lighter beers with lower levels of alcohol. This isn’t to say that lager and other lighter styles of beer, such as pale ale, witbier or saison, have ever fallen out of favour.

The UK in particular has a long history of brewing at lower strengths, with terms such as ‘ordinary’ or ‘session bitter’ – denoting a pale, hopped cask ale up to around 4% ABV – persisting to the present day. Lager remains the most popular segment of the beer category, the style accounting for 93% of the market by volume and 88% by value, according to Euromonitor. Unsurprisingly, the 10 most popular beer brands in the world, including the likes of Snow, Budweiser, Bud Light, Tsingtao and Heineken, are all lagers.

DELIVERING ON FLAVOUR

What has been seen, however, is a move towards sessionable, easy-drinking beers that deliver on flavour without overloading on alcohol. Terms such as ‘session beer’ and ‘table beer’ have crept into our vocabulary; the former loosely defined as a quaffable beer below 5% ABV, which when consuming multiple glasses, doesn’t cause palate fatigue or inappropriate intoxication. The latter, originally an 18th century beer-tax bracket between ‘strong’ and ‘small’ beer, is now more akin to Belgian tafelbier, usually around the 3% ABV mark.

While the majority of the world’s lager is produced by the global brewing giants, the category has newfound respect in the craft beer world, as brewers attempt to recreate the elegant and refined Bohemian and German styles of pilsner, kölsch and helles. According to figures provided by data monitor CGA, craft lager’s moving annual total has risen by 15.9% in volume and by 15.1% in value in two years, and by 10.9% and 11.4% respectively in the past year.

The no- and low-alcohol beer (Nablab) category has been transformed beyond all recognition. Whereas once, according to contributors to this feature, sampling the Nablab range was an “act of self-abuse” and “little better than drinking flavoured water”, with improvements in brewing techniques producers can now control the amount of alcohol created, rather than simply de-alcoholising the end product. Beers are thus able to retain their flavour.

In the 12 weeks to 12 August 2018, sales of no-alcohol beers were up by 58% compared with the same period last year, according to Kantar World Panel. Moving annual total of Nablab products has risen by 24.4% in volume and by 29.6% in value in two years – by 22.7% and 24.3 % respectively in the past year, according to CGA. “I have a non-alcoholic porter, IPA and lager in my fridge. You’d never have seen that a year ago,” says David Bremmer, director of marketing at Robinsons Brewery in Stockport.

This development prompted The Department of Health and Social Care to open up a public consultation on the descriptors used to refer to low-alcohol products in March. In the UK, the current descriptors, which are due to expire in December, are as follows: low alcohol, which is 1.2% ABV or below; nonalcoholic (cannot be used in conjunction with a name associated with an alcoholic drink except for communion or sacramental wine); alcohol-free (0.05% ABV or below); and de-alcoholised (0.5% ABV or lower).

In the past couple of months alone, Curious Brew has reduced the strength of its IPA from 5.6% to 4.4%, renaming it Curious Session IPA; Crate Brewery has won listings at Tesco for beers including its session IPA and lager; Stroud Brewery has released a light lager; it was announced that 71 Brewing’s lager would be on tap at the V&A in Dundee; Big Drop brewery has also secured a Tesco listing for its 0.5% ABV beers; and AB InBev revealed that it would be bringing back its low-alcohol Michelob Ultra beer back to UK shores.

Focusing on lighter beers is a shrewd business decision. While experimentation has become synonymous with the craft beer movement, developing a beer that is reliable, quaffable, and good value is sure to guarantee a return on investment.

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