Low- to no-chance

The word ‘redemption’ is defined as  “the action of being saved from sin, error or evil” and was the name Andy Moffat gave to his north London brewery ten years ago. It was Moffat’s way of showing his beer-making enterprise had saved him from an unloved job at a large corporate in the City of London.

In the current anti-alcohol, health-driven climate, such a move might be regarded as a jump out of the frying pan of sin and into the fire of evil, with the likes of Redemption Bar named after its mission to save customers from alcohol and unhealthy food. It was also interesting to note that when Sainsbury’s opened a non-alcoholic pop-up pub it was named The Clean Vic – as if to highlight the unclean nature of alcohol. 

Open for two days in July 2019, The Clean Vic showcased Sainsbury’s low-alcohol range

This highlights a major shift in the perception of drinking, which has fuelled an incredible blizzard of activity in the area of low and no-alcohol drinks. In the past few weeks alone I’ve seen the release of numerous commissioned research reports, advertising for conferences on the topic, crowdfunding by producers of low and no-alcohol drinks, and the launch of restaurant and bar menus honing in on zero-alcohol products. 

Of course a certain Scottish brewer and retailer wants a bite of the cherry and has opened BrewDog AF, which serves only alcohol-free drinks from its 15 taps. It’s an impressive set-up in the Old Street area of London and has delivered the company equally impressive amounts of publicity, which will count as a result for marketing-led BrewDog. I would be surprised, however, to hear that the Scottish brewer sees any longevity for the bar, which might close in a few weeks having been rewritten as a pop-up to re-emerge as a more conventional bar offering a number of alcohol-free alternatives.

BrewDog recently opened its Old Street branch which serves 15 alcohol-free beers

Going the whole hog and not including regular beers seems odd to me and suggests it’s only an experiment. It’s a bit like some of the vegan-only restaurants that have sprung up. They do have a place for ethical vegans but for dietary vegans and all other people it would surely make better business sense to have decent-quality vegan options sitting alongside regular meat and fish dishes. Covering all bases and keeping all members of customer groups happy is where the market will inevitably settle.

But first we have to go through a period of overselling both vegan and no-alcohol. BrewDog AF typifies the way the drinks market thinks at the moment – it’s getting ridiculously overexcited by the prospect of the category saving its bacon in a tough market. This situation is being hyped to the hilt by research companies and conference organisers, which are funded by no-alcohol drinks companies and other interested parties. 

I agree there’s a changing narrative around alcohol and some of the research highlights reduced consumption – one-third of 18 to 24-year-olds are teetotal, according to University College London, and 50% of drinkers are limiting alcohol consumption, according to Ipsos. The big question is how much of that will translate into sales of low and no-alcohol products? We are seeing big multiples of growth with some brands, but these are from near-zero bases.

I’m massively sceptical about some of the projections published and feel we’re in a situation where the hype is being fed by an industry that wants a beacon of hope to cling on to. A big part of this involves trying hard to appeal to the younger end of the market, which has been most active and vocal in their move away from alcohol. 

This group’s willingness to call out the destructive aspects of overconsumption of alcohol and highlight the negative impact it can have on health and well-being should be applauded. Their openness in stripping away of some of the bravado around drinking is massively positive. It’s just a shame the drinks industry has gone so overboard in trying to satisfy them because I fear sales of low and no-alcohol products will end in major disappointment.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.