Low-alcohol drinks are having a moment. The UK’s Department of Health said in April that consumers had spent nearly £35m on no- or low-alcohol drinks in the year to July 2017.
That’s an increase of 20% on the previous year. High-strength booze sales, meanwhile, have dropped by about 12%.
For pubs, which are already struggling under the weight of increased business rates, this is yet another challenge to overcome. But for the wave of craft beer brands, which have been filling shelves, bars and bellies with their US-inspired, highly flavoured and, as a result, high strength beers, this presents another revenue stream.
From big beer to tiny breweries, many are responding by bringing out low-alcohol options.
Session beers – a term coined in Britain which refers to low-strength beers that can see you through an afternoon in the sun – are back. Beer giant AB Inbev launched Bud Light, a 3.5% lager, to the UK last year. In January, Carlsberg started marketing an alcohol-free version of San Miguel. In the year to July 2017, craft beer pioneer Brewdog said it had sold £2m-worth of ‘Nanny State’, its 1.1% beer. Cult indie brewery The Kernel has a ‘table beer’ in its range, sitting at 3.3%.
A number of breweries have opened which exclusively produce low-alcohol beer. The Small Beer Brewing Company launched in London in 2017, producing beers between 0.5% and 2.5% in strength. It currently has two drinks in its range: a light and dark lager.
The difficult thing about brewing low-strength beers is making sure these creations are as flavoursome as craft beer fans have become accustomed to. High-strength tipples tend to be easier to pack flavour into, and can often carry a greater variety of textures. Based in Huddersfield, Magic Rock Brewing Company’s ‘Cannonball’ range of beers, which comes in regular (7.4%), human (9.2%) and unhuman (11%) varieties, is an education in how higher alcohol levels can produce complex flavours. But these types of beer just don’t suit UK drinking habits. After all, this is a nation where pub trips can start at noon and go on until late in the evening.
Big Drop Brewing Co is trying to prove that low strength beer can still have the punchy flavours of a high-strength version. The Ipswich-based brewery launched in 2016, with a chocolate milk stout. This was followed up by a citrus pale ale, and most recently a sour beer, launched in April. All of the drinks are 0.5% in strength.
Rather than brewing the beer and then removing the alcohol, which can weaken flavour, Big Drop monitors the strength of the beers during the brewing process, ensuring the alcohol value doesn’t climb over 0.5%.
Although a young cohort of brands are launching these drinks, ‘small beer’ is actually nothing new to the UK. Prior to the 19th Century, beers at 2.8% or under were preferred to water – it was much less likely to make the consumer sick. However, it’s unlikely these Middle Age brewers had mastered the art of creating a citrus pale ale.
Rise in low-alcohol drinks sales in 2017
Carlsberg plans to double sales of alcohol-free beers by 2022
Of UK 16-24 year olds are tee-total
The minimum unit price of alcohol in Scotland as of May 2018
The number of people who went alcohol-free in January 2018
The strongest beer in the world – Snake Venom, by Scottish brewery Brewmeister
The range typically considered to be ‘table beer’