For customers returning to hospitality after lockdown, any occasion can be a celebration. But don't pop the Champagne just yet – today's drinkers are increasingly tempted by premium no- and low-alcoholic tipples. John Porter discovers the latest products and trends.
Hospitality operators might be forgiven for finding the lines between soft drinks and no-alcohol options somewhat blurred – does a fruit juice with the addition of ice and a little umbrella become a mocktail?
For customers, it seems the distinction is as much about the occasion as the drink, a view echoed by the entrepreneurs who have driven development in the no- and low-alcohol sector.
Rob Fink, founder of Big Drop Brewing, says its products are "very much part of the beer range; they don't sit alongside soft drinks. Our consumer is the same as the craft beer drinker, who appreciates good beer, understands different styles and wants a flavourful beer.
"It's very occasion-driven. We're stocked in the Barworx group of pubs on draught, where we outperform other brands at lunchtime and early evenings. People want a beer with a meal, but no longer want to go back to the office after two or three pints."
Kamila Sitwell, co-founder of non-alcoholic cocktail range Kolibri, believes "alcohol-free opens up new opportunities at lunchtime or mid-week drinking occasions. Kolibri was designed to appeal to food pleasure-seekers, who enjoy social times together to reconnect over good food and good times."
Luke Boase, founder of 0.5% Bavarian-brewed lager Lucky Saint, takes up the theme: "What people have been missing is the social connection – going to the pub, having parties, heading to restaurants – rather than alcohol. So when people start going into the on-trade again, they're looking forward to spending time with loved ones, rather than focusing on drinking. If anything, drinking no and low will allow them to make it to as many plans and catch-ups as possible."
Paul Mathew, founder of non-alcoholic aperitif range Everleaf, says: "It's about occasion and moment, so non-alcoholic beer is drunk at the same occasions as alcoholic, just as a non-alcoholic spritz is drunk in a similar way to an alcoholic one. We're catering for people who want to reduce their alcohol intake, without missing the occasion or being short-changed with something bland and boring."
Big brands in the non-alcoholic market
Pre-lockdown, CGA valued the no- and low-alcohol category at £60m a year in the on-trade, growing about 30% year-on-year. It's a market that has understandably engaged the interest of established drinks players alongside the pioneers. Asahi UK launched Peroni Libera 0.0% in 2019 and now has a sponsorship partnership with the Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team.
Sam Rhodes, marketing director at Asahi UK, says: "Following prolonged closure, operators now have to deliver on the ‘experience factor', and that means an offer of premium and high-quality low- and no-alcohol alternatives. The number one barrier to choosing a low- and no-alcohol alternative is negative perceptions around taste, so stocking a premium alternative from brands that consumers know and trust is vital to capitalise on the opportunity."
Heineken UK has made its Heineken 0.0 beer available on draught, using the counter-top Blade dispense system. Through stocking Heineken 0.0 in both packaged and draught format, its Star Pubs & Bars operation saw volume sales lift by 133% over packaged alone.
John Gemmell, on-trade category and commercial strategy director, says: "Customers remain loyal to category and format, so having a non-alcoholic beer on draught alongside its alcoholic alternative drives inclusivity and encourages greater sales all-round."
Also from the Heineken stable is Old Mout Berries & Cherries Alcohol Free, the on-trade's best-selling no- and low-alcohol cider, while cider-maker Thatchers offers Thatchers Zero, which, says on trade sales director Rob Sandall, is "changing perceptions with its crisp, medium-dry character and fruity aroma.
"It's for any venue looking to offer an alcohol-free alternative choice in their cider selection, for the growing number of drinkers looking to moderate, yet importantly for those who don't want to compromise on taste and enjoyment. As a premium cider, Zero fits really well into our wider range and it's great to have an alcohol-free option that fully delivers on taste."
Molson Coors has recently added Doom Bar Zero, an alcohol-free version of its bestselling ale brand, to a range that also includes lagers Cobra Zero and Bavaria 0.0%, and Rekorderlig Alcohol Free Strawberry & Lime cider. Mark Bentley, on-trade category controller at Molson Coors Beverage Company, says "Low-and no-alcohol options remain a small part of the overall beer and cider category, but one that is growing in popularity. There's been a huge increase in variety and flavour options in the category, so the range available has never been better, and with so much diversity, more and more people are starting to take notice."
The no and low spirits market has also attracted the big players. Diageo, having acquired the pioneering Seedlip brand in 2019, has now launched Gordon's 0.0% and Tanqueray 0.0%. which, while carrying the branding of Diageo's flagship gins, are not labelled as gin.
With hundreds of no-alcohol brands having followed Seedlip into the spirit alternative market, the Wine & Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) felt the need to issue guidance on labelling in January this year on what descriptions are permitted.
With that clarity now in place, Faith Holland, head of category development, on-trade, for Diageo, points to an IWSR forecast of 14% year-on-year growth for no and low spirits until 2024. "Within the no- and low-alcohol category, no and low spirits represent the most sizeable opportunities for operators to retain footfall and drive sales this year.
"As brands continue to influence buying behaviours, venues should also ensure that recognisable category leaders are placed in prominent positions on back bars. Alongside long-standing brands such as Seedlip, which is poured in the top 50 bars in the world, there are an exciting number of no and low spirits innovations across the mainstream and premium categories."
Gareth Bath is managing director of Diageo-backed Distill Ventures, which has invested in US brand Ritual Zero Proof, offering gin and whiskey alternatives. He says: "The no and low sector has seen unprecedented brand growth. Now that the non-alcoholic category is well-established, we've seen clear evidence to suggest it is developing in parallel with the alcoholic category, with consumers wanting drinks that are suitable for all occasions."
The Three Spirit range offer spirits alternatives with functional benefits, such as Nightcap, a whisky alternative said to aid sleep. The functional line is also emphasised by German beer Erdinger Alkoholfrei, where country manager Peter Gowans says the brand's drinkers "recognise that its low alcohol content is complemented by isotonic properties that help quench thirst faster, and essential vitamins that have numerous positive effects, including promoting the normal functioning of the body's immune system."
Spirit alternatives brand CleanCo aims to change the conversation by talking about "clean drinking". Chairman Justin Hicklin explains: "If you chose not to drink, instead of ordering ‘a non-alcoholic' drink at a bar or restaurant, you ask for a clean gin and tonic instead – removing the negativity."
No and low-alcohol wine and wine alternatives
Beyond drinks that are direct analogues of familiar categories, such as beer, cider, wine and spirits, there are more innovative products that seem to fit comfortably into a no and low drinks menu. Fermented tea drink kombucha is a good example, with Teapigs tea trainer Andy Byron comparing the kombucha scene to the craft beer scene. He also suggests that the brand's recently launched three-strong flavoured range work well as mixers.
David Begg, founder of kombucha brand Real, took the decision from the start to position its two varieties, Dry Dragon made with green tea, and Darjeeling-based Royal Flush, as wine alternatives.
"Prior to lockdown, we were almost an entirely on-trade business," he says. With sales having doubled over the past year after Real won retail listings, "the on-trade is now coming back incredibly strongly," as more consumers seek healthier alternatives. "We were originally in Michelin-starred restaurants, but the on-trade is now much broader for us."
With pack sizes including a 750ml bottle with cork-and-wire closure, Real is reinforcing the wine cues visually. "Our approach to fermentation is just like a winery, and we were accepted by restaurants as a sparkling wine alternative."
With food occasions in mind, following listings in Michelin-starred restaurants in Copenhagen, no and low-alcohol brand wine Muri has launched in the UK with Passing Clouds, a white wine alternative to pair with spicy and seafood dishes, and Nuala, its red wine alternative to match with charcuterie and cheese.
Also carving out a different niche is Nine Elms, made with the juice of dark berries infused with botanicals, and describing itself as a ‘ruby velven'. It can be used in non-alcoholic cocktails, or mixed with tonic, ice and a slice for a spritz-style aperitif, and it matches with a range of dishes.
James Morgan, business development manager for the brand, says: "While there is an increasing number of consumers who for myriad reasons are either drinking less or taking a break from alcohol, they're not aliens. They still want to go out, meet friends, have business lunches, celebrate, share a meal, party, get married, enjoy great dining experiences – you name it.
"There's a plethora of really exciting no- and low-alcoholic drinks for consumers now. Britain is leading the way in the no and low category and there are many drinks that operators can list with pride and enthusiasm."
Big Drop Brewingwww.bigdropbrew.com
Molson Coors Brewing Companywww.molsoncoors.com
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