No more cakes and ale. January is often a month for cutting calories and booze. But going on the wagon involves less self-denial than it used to. A wave of innovation is expanding choice beyond dreary fizzy drinks and juices.
The nolo — no and low alcohol — sector was growing at an annual rate of 8 per cent before the pandemic slammed on the brakes. Sales of beer variants stagnated in 2020, while those of spirits fell slightly, according to drinks analytics group IWSR. But both put in a sparkling performance compared with alcoholic drinks, which fell 8 per cent.
That outperformance is expected to continue, in part because of increasing teetotalism, particularly among young people. The proportion of drinkers is expected by the World Health Organization to fall globally by 1.4 percentage points to 40.3 per cent in the five years to 2025. Production techniques that lead to better-tasting products are also a big driver.
Brewers have vastly improved their non-alcoholic offerings. The world’s third-largest brewer Carlsberg reckons that share of the beer market held by zero-alcohol ranges could triple to 15 per cent in western Europe in the next few years. They can expand the outlets and occasions where such brands can be sold. Dutch brewer Heineken reports far less cannibalisation of mainstream beer sales by its zero-alcohol product than its low-alcohol version launched in 2005.
Spirit and winemakers are experimenting too. France’s Pernod Ricard is expanding its nolo choices, along with Jacob’s Creek Better by Half wines and a partnership alcohol-free gin company called Ceder’s. Last year, the world’s largest spirits company Diageo bought majority control of Seedlip, maker of a gin alternative sold in many Michelin-starred restaurants. In January it also took a stake in Chicago-based Ritual Zero, which makes whiskey and gin alternatives.
Profitability is enhanced by lower or non-existent alcohol duties. These can account for up to 40 per cent of the cost of spirits. That said, such drinks’ high price tags — often as high as their alcoholic rivals — could be hard to sustain as competition intensifies.
Of the many new drinks being concocted, a lot will fail to win loyal fans. Some of the buzz around alt-alcohol may fade too. But, as with the rising popularity of meat substitutes, there is a solid foundation to this trend. Changing lifestyles mean non-alcoholic drinks are not just for January any more.
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