Tag Archives: Macmillan Cancer Support

Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part two)

Inspired by Macmillan Cancer Support’s “Sober October” campaign, ICIP has decided to use this opportunity to investigate the world of low- and non-alcoholic beers. If you missed part one, catch it here

In part two we look at the demand for these products and ask why they are not being better promoted in today’s health-conscious society.

afshopDuring ICIP’s research, we stumble across The Alcohol-Free Shop, a company based in Manchester selling non-alcoholic beers and wines. Their range is impressive… and international. There are beers from Germany, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic. They’ve obviously found a bit of a niche market that isn’t being adequately supplied by the likes of Sainsbury’s and Tesco. We asked co-founder Christine Risby where the idea sprang from. “My husband [co-founder John Risby] is a recovering alcoholic. He had stopped drinking for about two years when he was fed up with being offered nothing but cola, lemonade or orange juice. He wanted to enjoy wine with his meals and enjoy a beer without returning to his old ways. We discovered that there were many alcohol-free wines and beers available across Europe but little available in the UK.”

Christine says that interest in alcohol-free options has definitely increased in recent years – and business is obviously doing well, as they were able to open a showroom to accompany the online shop last year. “People are more aware of the dangers of alcohol and more health conscious. A lot of people choose alcohol-free beers based on brand awareness but once they realise there are so many brands that they don’t know, they start experimenting more. Also, people come back from holidays abroad having enjoyed alcohol-free beers that are available in many bars in Germany, France, Holland and Spain and seek them out when they get home.”

ICIP is stunned by the range available at The Alcohol-Free Shop. We hadn’t even considered the possibility that you could make an alcohol-free stout or dark ale like Super Bock or Bernard Free. Does Christine think that supermarkets should be trying harder to offer consumers a bigger range? “People who go to supermarkets aren’t looking for alcohol-free beer,” she points out. ”On occasion they may buy a six pack for a guest who is driving. But every product has to earn its shelf space. If a product doesn’t move quickly, they are likely to drop it. Some supermarkets have tried selling a wider range of alcohol-free beers but have gone back to just one or two brand names. The difference about us is that the people who come to us are looking for alcohol-free drinks whereas most people who visit supermarkets are not.”

We tried to get some information from supermarkets about the demand for alcohol-free options, but had no response from Tesco or Asda. Sainsburys told us they couldn’t give us any figures but offered a statement: “Our 2020 commitment is to double the sales of lighter alcohol wines and reduce the average alcohol content in our own brand beers and wines.  We are certainly seeing a demand from our customers for lighter styles of wine and lower alcohol drinks so we will continue to use our buying and winemaking expertise to ensure we have beers and wines available that do not compromise on taste or quality.”


It could be that we have a bit of a chicken and egg situation whereby demand is not going to increase substantially until a wider range of better quality products are available, but brewers are unlikely to experiment with quality low-alcohol beers if they don’t think they’ll sell. “Anyone who’s tried to buy low-alcohol beer in a pub in Britain will find that often there is only one brand available, it’s not necessarily the one you want,” says Alcohol Concern’s Andrew Misell. “I’ve occasionally wondered what an alcohol-free ale or stout tastes like, because if I want to drink alcohol-free beers I can only find alcohol-free lagers in my local pubs and supermarket. It’s a lot more normal on the continent to buy alcohol-free beer in a pub.”

“In Norway it’s mandatory for all places who sell alcohol to also offer a non-alcoholic beer/wine,” says Terje, 30, when we hit Reddit for some international input. “There’s a zero-tolerance for driving under the influence so it’s expected both by the state and fellow citizens that you stick to non-alcoholic beverages.” Hugh, 37, tells us there is a similar attitude in New Zealand: “The culture of peer pressure around alcohol is slowly changing. There’s a legal requirement for any on-premise licensed venue to carry something under 1%”. Surely this would be an strong first step – requiring all pubs to stock a low-alcohol option?

“Most pubs would say they do offer alcohol-free alternatives because they sell soft drinks such as orange juice and cola but that doesn’t really satisfy people who want a nice beer or glass of wine,” laments Christine. “Also most of their customers want alcohol and they don’t want to take up shelf space with a range of alcohol-free beers. I think pubs need to change their attitude. There’s not enough choice in pubs and staff too often make customers asking for alcohol-free beer feel embarrassed and unwelcome.”

“It’s not something we would say should be mandatory,” Andrew adds. “But for a number of years it has been compulsory under Home Office rules for pubs to provide water and I think that has made a difference. It always used to be a bit embarrassing to go to the bar and say “can I have a pint of water please, but now it is a lot easier.” It’s a start, at least. Now that the craft beer scene has really taken hold of the UK, higher-ABV beers are becoming more popular, and sometimes you need to take a break as a drinker to prevent your evening spiraling into oblivion. ICIP knows it has been grateful for being offered an Erdinger Alkoholfrei somewhere in the murky depths between a 7%+ offering from The Kernel and something evil by Flying Dog before now.

We have also considered the labelling of alcohol. A lot of fuss has been made in the past about including the number of units on alcohol packaging, and in June 2013 it was announced that the government is to roll out a standardised labeling system for food products. But nutritional information on booze is hard to find. “The legal position is that there is an exemption for beers, wines and spirits across the European Union. That is the result of lobbying by the big wine-producing countries who for whatever reason didn’t want that kind of labeling,” says Andrew.

It seems strange, at a time when we’re constantly being reminded that two thirds of the population in the UK is overweight or obese, that we’re not being given the information we need to make informed choices about the liquid calories we consume. “We’ve suggested in the past it should be considered. Consumers don’t understand a great deal about the number of calories in alcohol,” Andrew tells us. “Some drinkers graduate towards white spirits like vodka – they have a lower calorie count because they don’t have the sugars and carbohydrate you get in beer, but you get a much higher alcohol content.” He warns of the potential dangers of this: “People keen to lose weight might be drawn towards spirits, and obviously drinking spirits means you take on a number of units of alcohol quite quickly.” So there’s a risk that if labeling is not supported by the education of drinkers, it could actually lead people to be less responsible about their alcohol consumption – knocking back a few measures of 40% spirits instead of taking their time over a 4% pint.

deptofhealthWe tried to ask the Ministry of Health about their views, but the reply was predictably standard: “the Department agrees that alcohol is a major public health issue, and that a comprehensive strategy that covers information, prevention and treatment is essential in tackling it.” They had copy-pasted a swathe of blurb about all the money they have ring-fenced to fund “alcohol services” and “misuse prevention and treatment” but they were very vague about what any of this would entail.

So what’s the future of low-alcohol beer? Brewdog seem keen to continue experimenting: “We’re all about breaking boundaries and trying new things, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw us experimenting with some interesting takes on low ABVs for other styles in the future,” says brewer Charlotte Cook. Nøgne Ø seem determined to continue working on their low-alcohol stout, and lower percentage session ales are becoming more popular. Ultimately Christine believes that the best way to make progress is to continue to strive for quality: “It’s much better to show pubs that if they served decent alcohol-free beer then people would drink it.”

In the final installment of our Sober October series we will be taste-testing a selection of low- and non-alcoholic beers. 

– PS

Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part one)

Assonance-loving charity Macmillan Cancer Support has proclaimed the tenth month of the year as “Sober October”, with fundraisers asking for sponsorship for a full 31 days of abstinence. ICIP has decided to use this opportunity to investigate the world of low- and non-alcoholic beers.

In part one we look at the lack of choice available at present and ask why these beers have such a bad reputation.

What first comes to mind when you think of an alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer? For ICIP it’s a sad, battered 4-pack of Cobra Zero on the supermarket shelf, those horrid little glass bottles of weak French lager our mum let us have when we were 14, or a disappointingly unrefreshing can of Bass Shandy. We’ll probably just have a coke, thanks.

“The biggest problem I have with alcohol-free beers is that they are so infrequently bought that even when you find a pack at the store it tends to be old, dusty and sometimes skunky.” – Dan, 30, USA

In an era where we are constantly being bombarded with healthy-living messages by the government, health professionals and the media, you’d think that guilt-free booze would be a hot little potato right now. Yet a quick peruse of the shelves in your local Sainsbury’s or Tesco will probably bring up the same few brands – Becks Blue, the aforementioned Cobra Zero, maybe Bavaria. There don’t seem to be many options readily available, and what there is seems pretty substandard. These products have a pretty poor reputation, and given the choice, most people would probably pick a soft drink.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is that low-alcohol beers just don’t pack a punch in the taste department. Let’s face it – most of them taste like fizzy water and bear little resemblance to their boozy cousins. So why is this? What is it about alcohol that makes beer taste so good?

“When you drink a beer that has alcohol in it, as soon as it hits your mouth it starts warming up,” explains Annabel Smith, Beer Sommelier and friend of ICIP. “Alcohol is volatile, and when it’s in your mouth some of it comes out of the beer solution. This will give rise to ester and fruity flavours, and maybe a bit of diacetyl, which smells and tastes a bit like butterscotch. When no alcohol (or very little alcohol) is present, you just don’t get these flavour sensations that we associate with ‘proper beer’. This may lead to some opinions that these beers are bland and tasteless.”

“I’d rather have just one or two normal strength beers than non-alcoholic, as they’re rarely good.  They’re pretty much like Christian rock music – I’ve nothing against it as a concept, but the end product is usually horrifyingly bad” – Jouni, 32, Finland

So maybe we can retrain our palates to appreciate lower-alcohol beers over time. After all, low-alcohol beers start off in exactly the same way as “real” beer.  “The beer is brewed in the normal way, and then the alcohol is removed by either distillation, freezing, or osmosis,” says Annabel. “Each method will affect the flavour in a different way. Osmosis is perhaps the best method of preserving the flavour of the original beer – but it’s also the most expensive method.”

The only craft brewery we can find making a well-publicised non-alcoholic beer is Scotland’s Brewdog. At 0.5% their Nanny State, an imperial mild, has been designed to shake up the trend for tasteless alcohol-free booze. “We use Pale Ale malt in Nanny State for the majority of the sugars, and then we bump up the malt bill with specialty malts like Rye, Crystal and Caramalt,” says Brewdog brewer Charlotte Cook. “These add flavour, colour and mouthfeel without increasing the Original Gravity of our wort too much. We also hop it to hell and back, which is pretty uncommon with low ABV beers!”


It’s interesting that of all the big-name breweries it is Brewdog who are making a low-alcohol beer. The Scottish brewer has repeatedly hit the headlines for their uber-strong brews, including Tokyo* (18.2%), Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) and Sink the Bismark (41%). Although most of these are intended to be drunk in spirit measures and are seen as a new way to enjoy beer, the brewery certainly attracted a lot of negative press for these concoctions (a motion was even brought in the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to ban Tokyo*). So is this the only reason that Brewdog felt the need to make Nanny State – as yet another middle finger to the man?

“Initially, this was something that influenced brewing Nanny State, which is an extreme of low alcoholic beers,” admits Sarah Warman, Brewdog’s  Digital Marketing Manager. “We were proving a point and standing our ground, showing that flavour and complexity don’t have to be compromised by ABV, and that even a low ABV beer would be consumed in an appropriate fashion.” Charlotte defends the decision, pointing out the brewery is not just about high-percentage headline-stealers: “BrewDog really excels at brewing comparatively low ABV beers. Dead Pony Club (3.8%) and How to Disappear Completely (2.8%) are both great examples of this.”


Nanny State has been phenomenally popular for a low-alcohol beer, both at home and abroad. “It has a massive audience considering its low ABV! It flies out of our online shop and bars when we have it in stock, and our international markets, particularly those in Scandinavia, really dig it,” says Sarah .”Because it offers a low ABV without scrimping on flavour and bitterness, it’s ideal if you want to stick with something relatively sober whilst enjoying a proper, flavoursome beer.”

“I think most non alcoholic beers taste so awful, so that I am reminded for every sip, that I am not drinking proper beer!” – Kjetil Jikiun, Nøgne Ø co-founder

Given Brewdog’s enthusiasm, ICIP is surprised that more breweries are not jumping on the bandwagon. Isn’t it a bit of an untapped market? “It’s not the easiest process to make a low ABV beer,” says Charlotte. “With such little alcohol flavour, you really have to work to balance the beer out well. There is still a negative image around it – to a lot of people, you’re not seen as fun if you’re not drinking, which is an unhealthy and unproductive attitude which needs to change. If people knew they could still have a great beer, and not get drunk, or take a break from higher ABV beers, then their popularity might increase.”

ImageA bit of speedy Googling reveals that low-alcohol beers are much more common in Europe. In Germany especially, most of the main breweries, such as Erdinger and Bitburger, offer an alcohol-free version. There also seems to be plenty of experimentation – for example, Danish brewer Mikkeller has produced a 1.9% hefeweizen, Drink’in the Sun, and Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø has been working on a non alcoholic ‘Inferial Stout’: “Inferial Stout is one of few unfiltered non-alcoholic beers (if not the only one) to go through a normal primary and secondary fermentation,” says co-founder of Nøgne Ø, Kjetil Jikiun. “We have made it once, as a prototype, but need to wait until we have a pasteurizer before we can regularly make and sell this product with an acceptable shelf life.”

So if the likes of Brewdog, Mikkeller and Nøgne Ø – all well-respected brewers – believe that it is possible to deliver on flavour despite the lack of alcohol, maybe it’s attitudes that need changing. What can we do to remove the stigma of drinking low-alcohol brews and stimulate demand? We’ll be looking into this in part two.

– PS