Low-alcohol - Where the beer growth lives - Comment

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Historically, the brewing industry has enjoyed the race to the top, in abv terms. Category commentator Stephen Beaumont, however, believes the brewers that have stopped and turned in the opposite direction are best-placed to capitalise on the trend among consumers towards lower-strength brews.

Could consumers reputations be the growth-driver for lower-alcohol brews?

Could consumers' reputations be the growth-driver for lower-alcohol brews?

For most of my history as a drinker and brewing industry observer, alcohol content has been considered an important, even pivotal, attribute in beer. When I was a young man growing up in Québec, the 6% abv Brador from Molson, at the time available only in my home province, was the envy of beer drinkers from Halifax to Vancouver. Later on, when 'microbrews' began to attract attention, one of their more newsworthy aspects was their strength and, as the late beer writer Michael Jackson made us aware of beers from around the world, we marvelled at classics such as the German EKU 28 and Swiss Samichlaus, which then vied for the title of 'the world's strongest beer' with abv's of around 14%.

Then came the potency wars, which began with the US pair Dogfish Head Brewing and the Boston Beer Co battling for strength supremacy in the mid- to late-1990s, and later moved to Europe with Scotland's BrewDog and Brewmeister and Germany's Schorschbräu upping the stakes further. Meanwhile, in less esoteric circles, any number of brewers from the US to Italy were raising the strengths of their IPAs to the point that it was sometimes hard to find anything under 6% on tap at many of the world's foremost beer bars.

Recent developments, however, suggest that dynamic is in the process of changing. 

It began with the rise of the 'session IPA' in North America, a beer style designed to combine the hoppy impact of an IPA with the alcohol content of a light pale ale. Likely the most impressive demonstration of the style's rise in popularity was and remains the All Day IPA from Founders Brewing in Michigan, which became the brewer's number one seller not long after its 2011 introduction, but other examples took hold from Vancouver to Milan and Philadelphia to Manchester.

Still, lower alcohol beers didn't really take off outside of that particular style, with craft beer drinkers still largely enamoured by big flavours and bigger strengths. Until, that is, a pivotal panel discussion took place at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon.

The topic at hand was kettle souring, or the use of lactobacillus and other microflora to deliberately raise the pH of wort prior to boiling in order to add tart flavour characteristics to the finished beer without resorting to expensive and time-consuming barrel aging. It was, to say the very least, extremely well-received.

As kettle souring became far more commonplace, so too did so-called 'sour beer' styles like Berliner weisse and gose and the emerging dry-hopped sour, all tangy and refreshing low-alcohol beers, sometimes goosed with fruit flavours to compensate for their lack of overall complexity. And with their arrival en masse, beer drinkers quite suddenly became used to, and even favoured, lower alcohol contents in their beers. Within a matter of months, beers with strengths that would formerly be summarily dismissed by 'true' craft beer drinkers - think 4.5% or lower - were being embraced by brewers and consumers alike.

And, it wasn't just North Americans finding joy in low abv's, either. A January feature this year in the UK's Independent newspaper reported that almost one-quarter of the country's beer market now comprises lower strength beers, defined in the story as 3.5% abv or lower. Even in notoriously strength-focused Belgium, young breweries like De La Senne and Augrenoise are producing ales of 4.5% and lower.

The reasons behind this 'strength shift' are largely the same ones driving the emerging (and horribly-named) 'sober curious' movement in the US, namely health concerns, alcohol fatigue and an ever-more responsible approach to drinking and driving. They also, of course, mimic the factors that are said to be growing the audience for alcohol-free beers.

The difference, however, is that while zero abv beers are rarely - if ever - found on tap and generally make much of their temperate status on their labels, low-alcohol beers are positioned as, well, just beers. So where drinking a Budweiser Prohibition Brew or Heineken 0.0 might carry with it some sort of social stigma in certain circles, opting for a 2.8% Cloudwater Small Pale or 2.4% Muskoka Ebb & Flow would be seen as simply 'ordering a beer'.

All of which points to many months of frustration for beer marketers seeking to expand sales of their no-alcohol brands exponentially, at least in North America and most certainly in bars, and a perhaps quite rosy future for low alcohol beers. For, where the choice when drinking in public is between a bottle of what used to be known as 'near beer' and a pint of something tasty and low strength poured from the draught taps, I dare say that the vast majority will still opt for the latter over the former.

Sectors: Beer & cider

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