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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.

BREWING BUSINESS

“Brewers are business people, and realise that the market for four bottles you sell for £2 each is much bigger than the one for one bottle you sell for £8,” said Archie McDiarmid, manager of Luvians Bottle Shop in St Andrews.

“Craft beer customers tend to be very experimental; they’ll try one of your beers once or twice, then move on to the next new release, but if you make a solid, affordable, easy drinking beer it becomes one of the ‘safe bets’.”

Robinsons’ best-selling cask beer, Dizzy Blonde, which retails for around £1.99, illustrates this point. Bremmer says: “Dizzy is 3.8%, pale and we sell more than two million pints of it a year. It is also in 11% growth this year.”

That said, while brand loyalty is rife, craft beer drinkers are inherently curious. Driven by flavour, they’re more willing to experiment with beers below a certain ABV threshhold and try the growing number of low- and no-alcohol brews on the market.

“There’s the search by customers for new and interesting flavours with a willingness to explore something different,” said Shane McNamara, production and innovation manager at Longflint Drinks and head judge of the drinks business’s Global Beer Masters.

Bob Pease, CEO and president of the Brewers Association, agrees, saying that ‘curiosity’ and ‘experimentation’ are two of four major factors motivating the purchase of craft beer in the US.

“Beer drinkers like to discover innovative, diverse beers, and are unlikely to limit themselves to one style or country. They are constantly looking for what’s new, what’s rare, things they haven’t had before, what’s next. They are also are more discerning and more adventurous than ever before.”

But you can’t have experimentation without variety. With sours, saisons, wheat beers, goses, pilsners, pale ales and table beers, to name but a few, the selection and the quality of lighter brews on offer has mushroomed.

Bob Pease, CEO and president of the Brewers Association.

The number of beers on the shelves at specialist retailers such as Caps & Taps in London’s Kentish Town is indicative of this trend. With around 60 lagers and lighter-style beers, and 20 low- and no-beers available, co-founder Phill Elliott says recent demand has been high.

“We’ve always had a reasonable demand for lighter styles in the three and- a-half years we’ve been open, but the past six months has definitely seen an increase. This is because of a mixture of the trend of lighter styles, people wanting to try new beers and breweries that are doing lighter styles particularly well.”

Elliott says UK craft beer stalwarts Kernel and its Table Beer (3.1% ABV), Cloudwater’s small pale range (2.9% ABV) and Pressure Drop’s Ida Berliner Weisse (3.8% ABV) are top sellers in his shop. There’s a growing realisation among consumers that big flavour doesn’t necessarily warrant a high ABV. In turn, with less colour and alcohol, lighter beers are no longer seen as stripped-back blander versions of the original.

At London’s Borough Wines and Beers, which stocks roughly 25 lagers and light styles and between five and 10 low- and no-alcohol serves, beer buyer Matilda Halttunen says lighter beer should “still provide good flavour and a nice mouthfeel regardless of the lightness. In essence, you shouldn’t be able to guess it’s a lighter style.

“It seems that craft beer brewers are moving towards new challenges, and one of them is for lighter, more sessionable beers that don’t skimp on flavour,” she adds, naming Bianca Road’s lager, 5 Points’ Pilsner, Kernel’s Table Beer and Beavertown’s Neck Oil as top performers in store.

McNamara says: “Lighter beer doesn’t always simply mean lighter flavour, calories or alcohol – which by and large was how lighter beer was marketed previously. I agree there’s a trend towards lighter styles, but I would say they are lighter but just as, if not more, flavoursome than before. For example, a Belgian-style witbier is wonderfully flavoursome being light, bright and zesty but not taxing on the palate.”

McDiarmid agrees: “Far fewer customers are focused on the ABV level. For a long time we had a large group of customers who would simply dismiss anything below 5% to 6% – that is a far smaller group now. Generally, I find that the only people really concerned about ABV is HMRC. They often say about sports people, ‘If they are good enough, they’re old enough’. For most consumers they feel that if the beer is good enough, the ABV is high enough.”

For Lawrence Washington, founder of Purple Moose Brewery in Porthmadog, north Wales, the market has dictated the strength of his beer. He has a portfolio ranging from 3.6% to 5.2% ABV, but when he started out in 2005 he had plans for a strong bitter.

“We quickly discovered, through our monthly specials, that a lot of publicans just don’t take strong beers; some of them not even above 4.0%. So Old Wobbly Antlers, as it was to be called, never happened. At the end of the day you’ve got to listen to, and understand your own market,” he says.

Speaking about the brewery’s bestselling beer, Snowdonia Ale, he says: “My aim with this beer was to produce a refreshing summer beer with a relatively low strength, but still get plenty of flavour into it. At 3.6% you run the risk of the flavour profile being a little thin, but we hit the balance just right and our ‘summer’ beer instantly joined our core range.

“Consumers, particularly in our region, like to have a ‘safe’ beer that they know they’ll be able to have several pints of and still function quite normally. Snowdonia Ale fits perfectly into this category of session beer.”

The rise of a more health-conscious consumer has also contributed to the popularity of lighter beers. A new generation of younger drinkers (and nondrinkers) are influencing new product development, while as Pease states, “craft beer drinkers who entered the category at its inception, some 40 years ago, are ageing now and are looking for more sessionable styles that are lighter in ABV and allow them to enjoy two or three beers in one sitting”.

In a study published by the Office of National Statistics this May, 20.4% of those surveyed said that they didn’t drink, with people in the 16-to-24 age bracket consuming the least, and 47.9% of respondents stating they had drunk alcohol in the past week. While 80% of people in the UK continue to drink alcohol, there is a greater concern with what we put in our bodies and a desire to drink less but better.

Felix James of Small Beer Brewing believes this trend has been a major driving factor behind the increased popularity of no- and low-alcohol beers.

Brewing beer between 0.5% and 2.8% ABV, he says: “We have witnessed a cultural shift towards increased awareness of health, wellbeing and mindfulness, which appears in part to be responsible for the demise of the quintessentially British tradition of knocking down pint after pint in the pub.”

Calorie counters can also rejoice: a pint of 5% ABV beer contains roughly 215 calories, while the same volume of Small Beer’s dark lager (1% ABV) contains 64. Fellow co-founder of Small Beer, James Grundy adds: “Our belief is that it’s consumers not wanting to forego a social occasion, yet often wanting to avoid the slowdown associated with higher-ABV beers. It could be the social lunch, or simply a midweek catch-up with friends.

“It seems that as a population we’re keener than ever to avoid having a cloudy head the following morning. We’re all so busy no one can afford to spend time nursing a hangover.”

Aside from a captive market and return on investment, is there anything else in it for the brewers? Rebecca Pate, beer blogger and formerly of craft beer bar Mason & Company in Hackney, London, believes lager presents them with a new challenge.

“Producing a great lager takes more than having access to some juicy New World hops – it’s a skilful thing and our emerging craft brewing scene is maturing, and techniques are being passed on as people collaborate with other breweries or upgrade to better kit that assures quality and consistency,” she says.

CRAFT COMMUNITY

Pate adds that the respect lager has garnered in recent months could be thanks to the craft community becoming tired of certain established styles.

“It might be the natural movement away from West Coast, New England and Double IPAs over the last few years. Lagers are very elegant and it’s a style that can showcase a brewer’s talents because there’s no aggressive dry-hopping to hide mistakes,” she says.

For Washington of Purple Moose, the UK turning to lager production has been something of a eureka moment.

“The UK has unfortunately suffered from decades of mass-produced, poor quality lager, which is only sold by massive marketing budgets, not by flavour and quality. Go to mainland Europe and it’s not at all difficult to find a fantastic array of lagers to suit any tastes, and of a very high quality. So why on earth not have this now in the UK as well? It is as though a lightbulb has been switched on in the collective minds of the brewers and the drinkers – ‘Oh yes, we’ll have some of that, thank you’.”

Aside from lighter styles, there are other trends in the beer category, with movement on both sides of the alcohol spectrum.

PREMIUM PURCHASES

Known for its strong golden pale ale, Belgium’s Duvel Moortgat has its fingers in all of the pies. Marketing manager Natalya Watson explains that the brewery has added a session IPA (2.7% ABV) to its Vedett range and a strong golden ale (9.5% ABV) – Duvel Tripel Hop Citra – to its premium range.

“Driven by health and wellness, we see some drinkers tending towards no- and low-alcohol beer options, while other drinkers are moving towards drinking less but better, meaning they’re making more premium purchases,” she says.

While there have been many developments, there’s also room for improvement in terms of consumer education, beer quality, and the market share of Nablab.

Gareth Baths, managing director of Curious Brew, says there is still a lot work to do when it comes to the distribution of certain beers, such as fruit-forward sours, radlers and table beers. “Distribution and availability of these beers remains minimal, and we’re a long way from them cutting through into the mainstream. It’s great seeing retailers getting behind some of these styles, but the low, no and glutenfree categories still only make up 0.2% of total beer.”

That said, he deems lower-ABV beers to be a key growth area, which motivated the decision to reduce the alcohol content and rebrand the brewery’s IPA as a session beer.

“We developed Curious Session IPA as a refreshingly balanced premium beer, allowing the bright hoppy citrus aromas of our original Curious IPA to shine through, while passing the ‘second pint test’ of a sessionable brew,” he says. McDiarmid highlights why pricing and quality will be a problem for craft lager. Commenting on the rise of the category he admits “lots of them aren’t very good”.

“Lager drinkers are by far and away the most brand loyal of all craft beer fans. This is why it is so difficult to sell new craft lagers. The expected consumer cost of lager is quite low, thanks to macro lager pricing. The traditional German lagers like Augustiner and Rothaus are such perfect examples of their type, it’s hard to do something better or different without moving away from the lager style, at which point you lose a large number of lager customers.”

Despite his ongoing efforts, Rupert Ponsonby, co-founder of the Beer and Cider Academy, believes knowledge is still lacking.

“Knowledge of what each beer style means is still not great, despite the work of the Beer Academy, Cicerone and others, whereas low-ABV is clear for all to see. It just needs a separate section and engaging words or food-pairing suggestions to highlight its presence, and build sales year-round in retail.”

He adds that initiatives such as Dry January would provide the perfect springboard for no-alcohol beer brands to weave their way into the nation’s fridges.

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