For low-no read low-yes

John Downe MW on how the non-drinking generations are shaping a lower-alcohol industry


ADRIAN CHILES, A UK TV PERSONALITY, recently presented a programme for the BBC called Drinkers Like Me to huge acclaim. The script was born when he realised his weekly alcohol intake was far higher than the 14 ‘units’ recommended by the chief medical officer.

The programme’s success was due in no small part to viewers recognising their own drinking patterns and the associated health implications. This is the powerful hook that’s driving global sales of non and low (no-low)-alcoholic drinks.

Twenty million UK adults now choose no-low alternatives (Kantar 2018) with those drinking alcohol at the lowest level on record. As more geriatrics join the self-preservation society, one in five of all adults are now teetotal (Office for National Statistics), while those aged 16-24 are least likely to drink, with 27% teetotal, a rise from 19% a decade ago. It’s hardly surprising the UK’s Dry January 2018 attracted 4.5m participants.

Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, a London-based group that encourages ‘mindful drinking’ says: “Younger millennials are looking for an experience; an interesting venue, a bit of drama and good food. They want a nice drink but it doesn’t really matter if it’s alcoholic or not.” Catering for this demand, there are now 464 no-low alcohol SKUs in the UK off-trade.

Social media also plays its part –while drunken selfies were an early feature of Facebook and Instagram, now young people do not want their drunken images online, “it’s also not a good idea in terms of future employment”, a friend whispered.

The popularity of no-low drinks has spurred the UK’s Department of Health to review the existing legislation. Bravo. The current terminology which states that alcohol-free beer must contain no more than 0.05% abv, de-alcoholised beer no more than 0.5% abv, low-alcohol beer no more than 1.20% abv, and low-alcohol wine no more than 5.5% abv is, at best, confusing. “I think we should refer to anything under 0.5% abv as ‘suitable for dry drinking’. At present, shoppers don’t understand the differences,” says Outfox Drinks founder Jessica Hook.

Hook launched her alcohol-free drinks company in 2017 and won the coveted Start-Up trophy supported by Worth Capital in 2018 to the tune of £150 000, proving that the City also has confidence in this market.

From July 2017-18, UK sales for low-alcohol beer increased by 28% with sales of £43m, a volume increase of 21%. (Nielsen). These figures look even better when viewed against a fall in ‘normal’ beer sales of 12% (Department of Health) over the same period.

The sector is moving fast. Sales of Nanny State (0.5% abv) beer boosted Brewdog’s bank balance by £2m over the year to July 2018, up from £1.3m the year before (Neilsen). Big Drop Brewing is a new craft company dedicated to making beer with an abv of less than 0.5% – its pale ale and stout are making friends. Brewer and pub giant Greene King recently launched a 0.5% abv version of its 5% abv Old Speckled Hen. “Our 0.5% delivers the flavour characteristics of the 5% bottled beer,” says managing director Matt Starbuck. “Choosing low-alcohol drinks shouldn’t mean compromise.” Not to be outgunned, Suffolk-based brewery Adnams has launched a low-alcohol version of its bestselling Ghost Ship beer at 0.5%, “with no compromise on the original taste”, says head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald.

The expression “no compromise” keeps cropping up, but should be taken with a pinch of yeast for there aren’t yet many no-low beers and lagers that get pubs a-purring. That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion and quality can only improve as Europe’s big boys bring their expertise and financial clout to the market.

Heineken, the world’s second biggest beer producer, has introduced its 0.0% lager and is already recording strong sales in Spain, the Netherlands and Russia, while Budweiser Prohibition Brew (0% abv) appeared in 2017. These two giants together notched up sales of more than £6.5m within 12 months. Guinness’ Open Gate Pure Brew (0.5% abv) is also making friends around Europe. Not to be outdone, Carlsberg has set targets to double sales of its alcohol-free products by 2022.

De-alcoholisation is generally carried out by reverse osmosis or vacuum distillation, –you pays your money and you takes your choice. “We looked at lots of different methods and reverse osmosis gave by far the best-tasting Ghost Ship 0.5%, removing the alcohol but retaining the full, original flavours and aromas,” says Fitzgerald.

Danish brewer Mikkeller takes a different course: “You can make a normal beer and then remove the alcohol but a lot of flavour disappears,” says the company’s Viktor Danckwardt. “We use special yeast strains that do not produce alcohol when fermenting but still add lots of flavour to the beer.” Hook agrees: “I don’t use de-alcoholising methods in any Outfox product as the aromas are usually lacking, the taste profile too sweet and often there’s a distinct (not in a good way) aftertaste”.

The British beer festival, founded in 1977, will this year be offering non- alcoholic beer for the first time. A sign of the times.

Cards on the table – I’m not the world’s number one fan of no-low alcohol wine, I often get burnt aromas and weird aftertastes. Evidently many don’t share my reservations as it’s now a sizeable UK category with 6.10m bottles sold over the past year with a value of £40m. “Our Kantar research indicates that the no and low-alcohol wine market grew by 35% over the past year and, equally importantly, the number of purchasers grew by 48%,” says Richard Jones, Reh Kendermann’s UK managing director.

Australia’s under-35s have yet to catch on. A recent report found that “they are less aware of lower, non-alcoholic wines” but concluded that “there is an opportunity for the category”. As a regular visitor presenting wine events Down Under that’s an understatement if ever I heard one.


Some of the world’s best-known winemakers are now producing low-alcohol wines. Torres makes two 0.5% abv wines from its Spanish vineyards – a white Muscat and a red from 100% Syrah, the latter oak barrel-aged before de-alcoholisation. In Germany, Reh Kendermann produces a 0.5% abv. Black Tower range of white, red, rosé and sparkling. Blue Nun now includes a white at 0.2% abv, a red at 0.1% abv and a sparkling with less than 0.5% abv. Public relations director Hans Kohl says: “All three wines are an essential part of the Familie Langguth portfolio with exports to the UK, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand and China. UK is our strongest market for low alcohol, China for non-alcohol.”

Taina Vilkuna MW, product communications manager at Alko, Finland’s alcohol monopoly, says: “There is demand for no and low-alcohol wines in Finland but sales are low. However, the sales of non-alcoholic wine are increasing, especially in the sparkling wine category.” This will be music to the ears of Scavi & Ray, the prosecco producer which has created a 0% abv sparkling white wine (100% Glera) in the image of it Veneto.

Mai Tjemsland MW, portfolio manager of Autentico Group in Norway, says: “Us Vikings like our alcohol but, even so, there is a market here for low-alcohol wines.”

US-based Advanced Beverage Technologies has created a new company, Bevzero, to provide bulk non-alcoholic base wines to the industry. “Growth in the non-alcohol category is strong, not only in South Africa and Europe but also in the US,” says chief executive Debbie Novograd. With Canada and several US states legalising cannabis, Bevzero appears to be well placed as cannabis-infused beverages must be non-alcoholic by law.

Looking to the future, a game-changer may be on the horizon as a team at Imperial College, London, is researching an ‘alcohol substitute’ that “may be developed within five years”.

The expression ‘non-alcoholic spirits’ may sound like a contradiction of terms, but it’s this exotic category that’s pushing the no-low boundaries like no other.

Seedlip set the scene when its ‘zero alcohol botanical spirit’, was launched in Selfridges, London, in 2015. Eagle-eyed drinks giant Diageo identified the global potential and had invested in the company by 2016. With a wid range of botanicals, from orange to lemon, hay to hops, peas to ginger, this trendy ‘spirit’ is now poured in exclusive restaurants and cocktail bars in more than 20 of the world’s major cities.

With their bottle shapes, clear glass and a common thread of botanicals, the marketers have cleverly linked their packaging image to gin. Not surprisingly, stories of consumers confusing the two products abound. At £28 (E30, US$45) Seedlip’s price tag makes a mix-up even easier, but such eye-watering prices do, of course, reflect a confident, buoyant and prosperous market.

Caleño, a ‘non-alcoholic spirit’ extends the botanical range to Inca and juniper berries, coriander, cardamom, citrus and spice, “making not drinking fun, it’s best served with tonic”, according to founder Ellie Webb, again touching upon the lucrative premium gin market.

Feeding the exotic, Ceder’s ‘distilled non-alcoholic’ drink sources many of its botanicals, including rooibos and buchu, from the Cederberg mountains in South Africa’s Western Cape, before blending in Sweden with Swedish water. Borrago’s No. 47 Paloma Blend boasts no alcohol, no sugar, no calories and a ‘secret’ recipe of six steam-distilled botanicals.

Soft drinks are big sellers around the world but, let’s be honest, they’re not very cool. Enter the new-wave softies. The sector that needs a new name very quickly. If the ‘non-alcoholic spirits’ category is exotic and exciting, this new wave of soft drinks is running a very close second. With ingredients that include cider vinegar, sour cherry, Darjeeling tea, garden mint, basil, peach, juniper, ginger, pink peppercorns, lavender, fennel, ginseng and nutmeg, to name but a few, they are designed to take our taste buds to another level.

With no alcohol, low or no sugar and revolutionary ingredients they can be served solo, but as mixers with non-alcoholic spirits they’re tapping into the global success of mocktails. The Coca-Colas, Fantas and Pepsis of this world are looking over their shoulders with good reason.

For decades mixers were just, well, mixers. Tonic water was pretty boring, that was until Fever-Tree came along in 2005 “to create mixers that do justice to the world’s finest spirits”. Its extensive range, which now includes six variants of tonic water, is distributed to more than 70 countries. The company is now valued at £4.5bn.

“We saw a gap for a soft drink alternative that can be paired with food and created Nonsuch Shrubs,” says Henry Chevallier Guild, a member of the Aspall Cyder family. Welcome to the curious world of drinking cyder vinegars. Sour Cherry and Garden Mint flavour with your main course anybody?

Real Kombucha, brewed from tea and marketed as a partner for food, is listed in many top restaurants, the Darjeeling style being matched to fish, green tea to salads, and black tea to robust meats.


Responding to the food matching revolution, ‘spirit’ pioneer Seedlip is introducing Æcorn Aperitifs in early 2019, made with English grown grapes and aromatised with herbs, roots and bitter botanicals. “Seedlip has given those who are not drinking a seat at the bar, and now Æcorn Aperitifs will give everyone who is not drinking a seat at the table”, says director Claire Smith-Warner. Ben Branson, Seedlip’s founder, adds: “Since launching Seedlip three years ago, the global traction has been both surreal and overwhelmingly positive. We are still just scratching the surface of the category’s potential and Æcorn Aperitifs takes us another step closer to our aim of changing the way the world drinks.”

Vieve’s range of flavoured protein waters “now includes watermelon and is exported to 10 countries across Europe and the Middle East”, says founder Rafael Rozenson.

Meanwhile, the traditionalists are also stepping up to the plate. Belvoir Fruit Farm’s cordial range is taking ‘just add water’ softies to new heights while giving mixologists further rich fruit options.

Kolibri has added innovation to the exotic by allowing drinkers to add their own sugar from a measuring device (5-15ml) within the cap to such flavours as Cardamon & Chilli. “Customers are individuals with unique tastes. Customisation is the only way to ensure everyone’s satisfaction”, says co-founder Kamila Sitwell representing a sector that refuses to stand still.

I recently joined Adrian Chiles in the recording studio following his TV programme. Just a couple of years ago we’d be talking only of wine. Now the podcasts embrace no-low wine, beer, lager and spirits as well as new wave soft drinks.

We’ve called the podcasts Drink Better. Drink Less, because today that’s what people of all ages want to do.