Thursday, 24 January 2019

Here to stay low

Over the past couple of years, there has been a marked increase in interest in no- and low-alcohol beers, accompanied by a substantial rise in sales. As the Morning Advertiser reports, it certainly looks as though this is not a passing fad, and they are here to stay. However, it’s important not to get carried away, and it should be remembered that there was a similar surge in enthusiasm in the early 1990s that eventually fizzled out. The inherent nature of these products means there is a basic limit to their appeal.

It has to be remembered that the fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. That’s why people drink it. They will choose between different beers based on taste, but they choose beer in the first place because it is alcoholic. Even the weakest beers within the normal strength range will have a subtle but gradual effect. What non-alcoholic beer aims to do is to mimic the experience and ritual of drinking beer, and as far as possible the taste, while avoiding that effect. But it always carries an implication of “ideally, I would like a normal beer, but for whatever reason I feel I need to drink this instead.”

Realistically, it is never going to be seen it as a product worth drinking and seeking out in its own right. It only exists because normal-strength beer exists. Nobody is going to go on a non-alcoholic pub crawl, or hold a festival of non-alcoholic beer, or make a pilgrimage to a particular pub because of the rare non-alcoholic beer it sells. Although the term may seem harsh, it is essentially a distress purchase.

The linked article refers to the “significant benefits of having a drink with friends”, but that occasion only exists because other people are drinking alcohol. Yes, a non-alcoholic beer will allow someone to join in, but without the alcohol it wouldn’t be happening in the first place. Not for nothing is alcohol, in moderation, referred to as a “social lubricant”. And, if you choose a non-alcoholic beer without any obvious pressing reason to do so, your choice may come across as a self-righteous reproach to your drinking companions.

Health may be cited as a reason for choosing non-alcoholic beers, but they still contain calories, and sugar, the current bête noire of the public health lobby, whereas diet soft drinks are free from both. And de-alcoholisation is a complex “industrial” process that requires significant investment in the necessary plant. They’re not products that can just be knocked up in a shed in a natural, artisanal way.

As well as being the key to the appeal of beer, alcohol is also an essential component in its flavour. Even in the weakest mild or light lager, it’s still a noticeable part of the mix, and it becomes more pronounced the further you go up the strength scale. Take the alcohol away, and something seems to be missing. A couple of years ago, I did a tasting of some widely-available non-alcoholic beers, with distinctly mixed results.

Early alcohol-free beers, which all tended to be lagers, often had a noticeably cardboardy taste. This seems to have been much reduced nowadays, and some of the lagers are quite palatable, if distinctly bland. As many normal-strength lagers are fairly subtle in flavour terms anyway, this is maybe not too much of a problem. Things get more difficult when it comes to ales. Full-strength ales generally have more robust flavours, and when an attempt is made to translate this to a low-alcohol brew the results can often be quite unpleasant, with a malty gloopiness and a sense of unfermented wort. The St Peter’s Without which I sampled was so nasty that it went straight down the sink. I recently tried the new low-alcohol Old Speckled Hen, which wasn’t much better, with an odd off-flavour that reminded me of nothing so much as room-temperature school milk. Adnams’ low-alcohol Ghost Ship was considerably better, with a hoppy character reminiscent of the standard brew, but even here you feel that is hiding some nastiness lurking underneath.

Having said that, it has to be accepted that these beers do fill a substantial and growing market niche. It’s no good to pooh-pooh them and just say “get a proper pint down your neck!” Whether at home or out and about, people have a range of entirely valid reasons not to want to drink alcohol: driving, wanting to keep a clear head for work, pregnancy or other health issues. Surely choosing something that has at least some of the flavour and character of beer is preferable to sparkling water or Diet Coke. Who knows, they could even act as a “gateway drug” to proper beer!

As I mentioned in the post I linked to, I had been trying some of these beers and continue to do so. Following a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, I wanted to reduce my beer consumption somewhat, and one way of doing this was sometimes to replace the glass of beer drunk at home in front of the telly with an alcohol-free alternative. This wasn’t the world’s most cutting-edge beer-drinking experience in the first place, and I am still maintaining the ritual of beer drinking, which is the key aspect. However, I have to say that I have generally stuck to lagers, as I can’t really get on with any of the low-alcohol ales.

Low- and no-alcohol beers are certainly here to stay, but some of the more bullish predictions of their likely market potential are overstated. They will only ever be an inferior alternative to normal-strength beer that cuts out the alcohol. They may be not too bad, all things considered, but they will never be quite as appealing, and people aren’t going to start seeking them out in their own right. Unless people were visibly enjoying the one, the other would have no reason to exist.

28 comments:

  1. I find that for domestic "dry" days low alcohol beers and wines do greatly expand the choice of beverage. Water is far too dangerous to drink in other than small quantities, tea and coffee too much of a faff to make and most other non alcoholic drinks tend to be rather too sweet or too fizzy for my taste. So l-a beer is a good choice.

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    1. That's the point - the comparison needs to be made with other forms of non-alcoholic drinks rather than normal strength beer.

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    2. David sums up well. For me the 0.5% Adnam's Ghost Ship, or Brewdog Nanny State fulfil the beer-drinking ritual without too jarring a shock when you put it to your lips.

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  2. Curm, Why will non-alcoholic beer help with your diabetes? It's the carbohydrates, including sugars, which are the problem, not the alcohol calories; and which are still present in non-alcoholic beer. Why not switch to red wine at home, which is what I did when I stopped going to pubs after the smoking ban. It contains very little sugar.

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    1. Well, it certainly seems to have been suggested to me that alcohol per se is an issue. I also felt that, while I don't believe my drinking was in any way problematic, I was drinking a lot of "empty units" just for the sake of it that I wouldn't really miss.

      Red wine is one of the few kinds of alcoholic drinks that I really can't take to. I assume the same doesn't apply to strong ciders?

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  3. When alcohol goes the way of smoking you'll have to put up with it and if you love pubs as much as claimed, you will.

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    1. Pubs without alcohol are rather like brothels without whores.

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    2. Or as a friend of mine put it: alcohol free beer is like contact free sex :-)

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  4. I can agree with the broad gist but I'm not too sure this appreciates many of the cultural reasons why people drink beer. Why a similar type of person in france would instead have a glass of wine, say. A pint of beer is ingrained. What of is flexible. Low alcohol beers like Bud Light have legs as they tick many boxes with drinkers whilst still being a pint of beer. I'd drink an alcohol free Erdinger any day of the week as an enjoyable drink, not a distress purchase but I'd struggle to think of a reason why I'd want to drink 6 of them on a night out, like I might the alcohol version. That's the crux of socialising without the booze. A drink is just something to put in front of you because that's the done thing.

    Pubs could do with serving Vimto. The best of the 19th century temperance drinks to become a kids soft drink. Vimto is lovely.

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    1. Erdinger Alcohol Free is a very good drink, and in my view one of the best A-F beers. However, I agree about not wanting a session on the stuff.

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    2. I think you're basically agreeing with me there. Obviously there are cultural reasons why people drink beer as opposed to wine, but the reason people drink alcoholic drinks as such is because they are alcoholic. Yes, I know in the past they were the only drinks that weren't contaminated, but those days are long past.

      Bud Light isn't a low-alcohol beer in the usual sense of the term - it's towards the lower end of the range for normal-strength beer, and indeed is the same strength as Windermere Pale as found in the Petersgate Tap.

      You might drink an Erdinger on that "I'll have one drink" occasion, but not, as you say, when out for a session.

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    3. I drink a bottle of Erdinger AF after a session at the gym or a bike ride - its composition make it a perfect isotonic that also tastes good.

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  5. Is there non-alcoholic craft beer yet? The type of muck described a few Curmudgeons ago, but processed industrially to de-alcoholise it?

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    1. Quite a few in this listing, although not sure how murky they are. £2.59 for a 330ml can - somebody saw you coming!

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  6. " Nobody is going to go on a non-alcoholic pub crawl, or hold a festival of non-alcoholic beer, or make a pilgrimage to a particular pub because of the rare non-alcoholic beer it sells."

    Maybe people would do all of these things *if* there were hundreds of LA/AF beers, in a broader range of styles, and in cask form? I'm pretty sure I would.

    The limitations currently aren't necessarily about the lack of alcohol per se, but because the market is still restricted to a tiny number of products, virtually all small-pack rather than draught.

    Nobody to my knowledge goes on a 'bottled stout' pub crawl or hosts a 'canned saison' festival either.

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    1. No, people go on pub crawls because it gets them pissed. Just not going to happen with NABLABs. And cask NABLABs are not really feasible, as by definition a secondary fermentation is undesirable, added to which they would go off very quickly. There has been talk of draught alcohol-free beers, but it's probably going to be Heineken.

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    2. Brewdog claim to offer Nanny State but I assume that to be keg. I've not come across it anywhere anyway.

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    3. Yes, it's a keg beer, but you're only likely to find it on draught in BrewDog bars. It's widely available in bottle form, but I have to say I found it rather like a one-dimensional hop syrup.

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    4. Yes, keg Nanny State sometimes appears in Brewdog bars. I don't dislike it, but it's really not that interesting.

      I had the original/pilot Nanny State - the 1.1% version - on cask about ten years ago. Pretty much undrinkable. But then it was something like 300 IBUs and brewed pretty much as a novelty/publicity stunt more than anything else. They had to refine it considerably to make a beer people would actually want to drink.

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    5. The Stafford Mudgie26 January 2019 at 01:56

      “And cask NABLABs are not really feasible, as by definition a secondary fermentation is undesirable, added to which they would go off very quickly” – but a cask conditioned ½% abv cask conditioned beer would be feasible with a cask breather.

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    6. In the last few months I've really enjoyed Kent 'Driving home for Christmas' and Brentwood 'BBC1' at 1.8% and 1.5% respectively. Both on cask.

      Is their really a floor ABV beyond which cask cannot go, or is something that exists purely in peoples minds simply because of a lack of precedent?


      The Brewdog 1.1%er wasn't pleasant, but I'm far from convinced it was the cask-conditioning that was the problem there.

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    7. The Stafford Mudgie27 January 2019 at 14:45

      BV,
      I've not seen such 1.8% and 1.5% cask beers but am pleased that a couple of brewers are doing that. They are at about the strength of Hop Ales brewed about a century ago.
      I don’t think there’s a floor ABV beyond which cask cannot go and getting under 1.2% would be defined as “Low-alcohol beer” and exempt from Excise Duty

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    8. I might have to pen a post challenging Mudge's generalisation that the primary motivator for drinking beer in pubs is always intoxication.

      There are a lot of us (tickers in particular) for whom the alcohol is frankly an inconvenience we could do without.

      And if one is intent on getting pissed, drinking beer in pubs is an incredibly expensive and inefficient way of so doing.

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    9. The Stafford Mudgie28 January 2019 at 10:47

      have to pen a post challenging Mudge's generalisation that the primary motivator for drinking beer in pubs is always intoxication.

      BN,
      But the primary motivator for drinking beer and other alcohol in pubs for many ordinary pub goers is intoxication, hence all the 'preloading' before a Friday or Saturday night out.
      Tickers for whom the alcohol is frankly an inconvenience we could do without are surely very much in a minority.
      Drinking beer in pubs might be an incredibly expensive, and inefficient, way of getting pissed but many people, especially down south, have enough disposable income for that.

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    10. I would still contend that, in the vast majority of cases, people choose beer over tea, coffee or soft drinks because it is alcoholic. Tickers only make up a tiny proportion of the overall drinking population, and if other people weren't drinking the beers they wouldn't be there to tick in the first place. The fact that beer is alcoholic adds to the thrill of the chase, because tickers have to balance number of ticks against level of inebriation. And I would suggest ticking is essentially the way that some people choose to pursue their desire to drink beer. Being a beer drinker comes first, then becoming a ticker.

      People go to pubs for a wide range of reasons, but surely the most common is to socialise over a drink. It's very rarely simply a question of wanting to get pissed.

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    11. The thing is that reasons for drinking are varied. I rarely set out to get pissed these days; now I'm nearing 50 the hangover is enough to stop me doing that. Sometimes, i drink just to socialise (and some of those visits are with a friend that drinks alcohol-free beer by choice). Sometimes it's for a place to be away from the TV, especially if my better half is watching something I hate, and sometimes we got together to relax and get out.

      Most often it's a mix of the above. I find it very hard to not be in a pub on a Friday evening, even if only for a couple- it's my wind-down.

      This is probably different for different people. The kids will go out to get pissed and that explains the preloading, and also the comment about pubs being an inefficient and expensive way to achieve that (though, of course, like most things, it's not that simple- as we've discussed before, if pubs and clubs were just places to purchase alcohol, no one would go there).

      I'm not a ticker, but I do enjoy visiting new pubs- as many as possible- but the thought of removing the alcohol from the experience would fill me with dread, frankly.

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  7. Interesting post and its made be think about whether it is a distress purchase or not. I'd say 'sometimes' but not always.

    At the risk of over analysing a fun activity, I've always found meeting up with people to be perfect around 4 pints or so. Any less and its too short, and more and I start to worry amount the morning given I start work very early. If I want to stay longer the options are limited and unsatisfactory. But idea of including a couple of AF beers mid session to extend the night is very appealing. I would still get the relaxation of alcohol but limiting the ill effects.

    To a certain extent low ABV could achieve the same aim but you're then restricting your choice of beer. The only thing that is stopping me doing this now is the AF beers are only available in tiny bottles. Ghost Ship is a notable exception but I've only ever seen it in Spoons. I'd love to see something on draft but 500ml bottles would be a start. Not sure how much they can develop the taste of AF beers if there was demand?

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  8. The Stafford Mudgie28 January 2019 at 01:50

    The primary motivator for most ordinary pub goers of drinking beer and other alcoholic drinks in pubs is intoxication, hence all those youngsters 'preloading' before their Friday and Saturday nights out.
    I have only seen 'a lot of' tickers at beer festivals and would suggest they're an eccentric minority.

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