See the light: lower-alcohol beers

Beers, ciders and wines that are lighter in alcohol are gathering momentum, reports Mark Ludmon

When Ilkley Brewery introduced its Dinner Ale five months ago, it was part of its Origins range of experimental brews. However, the level of interest made it clear that it belonged in the Yorkshire brewer’s core list despite having an ABV of only 3.3 per cent. “We saw a gap in the market for lower-ABV beers in the UK and believe it’s a market that has room for growth,” explains Luke Raven, brewer and marketing manager at Ilkley Brewery. “It fits in with our focus on matching food and beer which is a natural fit for lower-ABV beers, and it is good for promoting responsible drinking.”

Luke and fellow brewer Harriet Marks were inspired by the success of lower-ABV ales in Australia as well as the light “dinner ales” that were enjoyed by working families with dinner in the 19th century, using a pale ale recipe from 1884. “There are a lot of lower-ABV beers that don’t deliver in terms of flavour because it is a challenge,” Luke adds. “But, because of the hops, Dinner Ale does deliver and people can’t believe it’s only 3.3 per cent.” After being launched in cask and bottles, Dinner Ale can be found in bars such as Common in Manchester and some of Antic Group’s London outlets. It is also likely to be introduced in keg early this year, and Luke says more lower-ABV beers are being considered for 2013.

Consumers’ scepticism about the flavour of lower-alcohol products has been one of the barriers for their widespread take-up, suggests Michelle Whelan, managing partner at marketing agency Arc, which works with drinks brands. “A crude analogy for these products would be between a normal burger and a skinny lettuce-wrapped one,” she says. “While consumers can see the benefit and are told it again and again, will it mean they sacrifice on what they are looking forward to and enjoy?”

However, she points out that good low-alcohol beers and wines have been available across Europe without promotion. “There is already a great opportunity to take these existing and credible products into the on- and off-trade and use their location and heritage to sell them more convincingly in addition to the benefit of having a lower-alcohol content.”

While the Government has halved duty for beers below 2.8 per cent ABV, it has not done the same with cider where sparkling ciders have the same duty up to 5.5 per cent ABV. However, lower-alcohol styles are emerging such as Aspall Lady Jennifer’s at four per cent ABV which, after its launch in August 2011, is growing at 107 per cent year on year.

Aspall partner Henry Chevallier Guild believes it is the increasing level of duty on higher-ABV drinks that has led to growth in lower-alcoholic styles rather than messages about responsible drinking. “The positive here is that low-alcohol products are more widely available and there is certainly better choice than there used to be. Many consumers try low-alcohol drinks out of curiosity. Like with all drinks, if the taste is good enough they are likely to drink it again. However, if the taste profile is sub-standard they are very unlikely to come back for more. What we have to remember is that alcohol is a really important ingredient as it gives body, flavour and complexity to a drink.”

The biggest growth area for lower-alcohol drinks is in wine, with new products such as the 5.5 per cent ABV Delicate range from Blue Nun and Banrock Station Moscato, also at 5.5 per cent, from Accolade Wines. “Low-alcohol wine is an absolutely crucial part of the market that we all need to get behind,” says Ian Anderson, director of category development and insight at Accolade. “I hear a lot of negatives said about the quality of low-alcohol wine but the factual information about our products shows repeat purchase rates that are exactly the same as the ‘full-alcohol’ products.”

According to Accolade’s new WineNation industry report, the biggest potential for growth comes from female consumers who are fairly established wine drinkers. “They are likely to drink wine two to three times a week and are very conscious of diet and calories,” explains Clare Griffiths, European marketing director at Accolade.

This audience is targeted by Banrock Station Light’s advertising, which has helped it become the UK light wine category’s number-three brand worth over £2.6million in its first year of launch. “Light wines are relevant throughout the year as consumers are continually health-conscious, but there are occasions when light wines can be effectively promoted, for example in the summer for lunch-time alfresco drinking, and also around Christmas time when consumers often over-indulge and a lighter option is a welcome alternative.”

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