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Back from his long-haul travels, just-drinks' beer commentator, Stephen Beaumont, believes he has found an untapped growth opportunity for the world's brewers.

The start of this month saw me in Australia where I was attending BrewCon, the annual brewers convention and trade show put together by the country's Independent Brewers Association. I was keen to see what was happening in a craft beer market characterised by many as being in its adolescent years - too established to be considered still in its youth, but not quite what one might call fully mature.

I was expecting a fair amount of stylistic experimentation (check), some interesting trials of still-in-development hops (check) and a fair number of beers brewed specifically for hot weather enjoyment (double-check). What I was not expecting was to be entranced by an entire class of beers in the 3%-to-3.5% abv range. Known as 'mid-strength' beers, these ales and occasional lagers are less a style category than they are a social and economic imperative.

The way their existence was explained to me was twofold:

  1. On the social side, Australia's size and generally mediocre-to-poor public transport means that cars are a necessity of life for most Aussies. At the same time, Australia's is very much a beer-drinking culture, and its drink-driving laws quite strict and strongly enforced. Low-alcohol beers, then, fill a niche for those who drive through necessity, yet still wish to be able to enjoy a beer or two while remaining below the country's .05 legal Blood Alcohol Concentration level.
  2. According to a study put together by the Brewers Association of Australia, the country's brewers are the fourth-highest taxed in the world, with a graduated excise structure that heavily favours lower-alcohol beers. This economic reality, explained to me by Australian beer journalist Matt Kirkegaard, has made the country's brewers experts at extracting maximum flavour from minimum strength.

Based upon the admittedly-limited sampling I had time to undertake, reinforced through conversations with brewers and beer-savvy Australians, most mid-strength beers fall into one of two categories, either malt-forward beers styled as a sort of thirst-quenching version of a British mild, or hop aroma-centric beers that rely heavily on the retro-olfactory effect for a large part of their appeal. Either way, the focus is on refreshment and quaffability.

As I reflected upon these brews, I was struck by the fact that Australia is almost alone in the world in making a viable market segment of low- rather than no-alcohol beers. (That is if we discount the aforementioned mild, which given its fading status in its homeland, is fairly easy to do.)

I started to wonder why that is. 

These days, one can hardly open a magazine, newspaper or lifestyle website without being bombarded with stories detailing the imminent rise of no-alcohol drinks, be they the beers that Anheuser-Busch InBev's Carlos Brito expects to comprise 20% of his company's sales by 2025, the burgeoning class of alcohol-free 'spirits', or the growing demand for creative 'mocktails' at bars. (Incidentally, why is so little written about no alcohol wines?)

At the same time, however, we hear next to nothing about low-alcohol drinks.

This seems odd. Certainly, Australians aren't alone in wanting to be able to legally drive after having consumed a couple of beers at a party, so why do we see so few global beers in the 'mid-strength' or lower range? Is it due to the all-or-nothing approach to alcohol that is so prevalent in North America, which seems to dictate that you either drink freely or not at all? Or, is it that our brewers and beer marketers have convinced themselves that there is no audience for such beers?

At one point, I would have placed the blame at the feet of the beer consumer, at least in Canada and the US. There was definitely a time when drinkers saw value for their money in strength, to the point that anything lower strength was considered inherently inferior to a beer of normal alcohol content. (There's a reason the early marketers of American light beers rarely if ever spoke of strength, opting instead for euphemisms such as 'less filling'.) But, with light beers now the market leaders and alcohol-free beers selling for the same price as their full-strength counterparts, surely those times are behind us.

Not long before my trip Down Under, I visited a local Toronto brewery and partook of an excellent pilsner with a stated strength of only 3.5%. When I asked if I could buy some to take home, I was told they'd only produced one batch and canned very little of it, with no plans to brew it again anytime soon.

It's that sort of lack of vision that might just be preventing the industry from discovering the next big growth segment in brewing.

Sectors: Beer & cider

Companies: Anheuser-Busch InBev

Expert Analysis

Beer & Cider Global Industry Guide 2013-2022

Beer & Cider Global Industry Guide 2013-2022

Global Beer & Cider industry profile provides top-line qualitative and quantitative summary information including: market share, market size (value and volume 2013-17, and forecast to 2022). The profi...


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