Thealcoholic beverages market is very large and diverse, covering a range of products,including wines and spirits, beer and cider, liqueurs, and the newer-style alcopops, andpremium pre-mixed spirits. The UK market was worth about £28.2 billion in 1997, comparedwith just £6.7 billion for soft drinks, and between £5 billion and £6 billion for someof the largest food categories, such as bakery products, confectionery, and fresh produce.Per capita consumption is difficult to measure because of the various different strengthsof the products, but has been estimated to be equivalent to about 9 litres of pure alcoholper annum for the adult population. This puts the UK in the top 20 countries worldwide,but only just, at nineteenth place in 1996.
Factors driving the alcoholic beveragesmarket are many and complex, but can be summarised in terms of the effects of socialchange, which, among other things, have made drink driving socially unacceptable andincreased our leisure pursuits, hence reducing the time available for social drinking. Weare also increasingly concerned about our health, although the effect of this on themarket is complex, since publicity about the possible beneficial effect of red wine mayhave encouraged consumption for that reason. Consumers are also becoming increasinglysophisticated, demanding a wider range of interesting and convenience products. Finally,another driver of change has been the increasingly concentrated retail structure in theUK, which gives the major multiple retailers considerable influence to drive the take-homedrinks market, which is the fastest growing sector of the market.
The production of alcoholic drinks reliesupon the fermentation process, whereby certain naturally occurring yeasts are able toconvert a solution of sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. Ancient man firstdiscovered this process when either fruit juices or wet grains were found to ferment onstorage and to produce a beverage with a pleasant alcoholic effect! Hence the first crudeforms of beer and wine were discovered. The fortified wines came next, when it was foundthat when wines were shipped through hot climates, some of the liquid evaporated, soconcentrating the alcohol and fortifying the wine. This opened the door for development ofthe process of distillation to produce raw spirit at up to 90% alcohol, which would thenbe diluted back to about 40% alcohol strength to give the range of spirits we recognisetoday. The different flavours are obtained partly from a combination of the rawingredients and source of water used in the fermentation process (e.g. peaty waters inwhiskey), and the addition of other flavoursome agents such as juniper berries in gin.
In terms of production technology, therehave been relatively limited changes over the last few years. The exceptions would be anincrease in performance of the specialised yeast used to produce the beers or lager, wherethe brewers found that they could increase the alcohol tolerance of the yeast and henceimprove yield. Yes, there really is a yeast called “Carlsbergensis”, which wasdeveloped for the lager of that name. Other improvements in the production of beer haveincluded the improved concentration of the active ingredients of hops to achieve moreconsistent flavour, and a significantly improved filtering technique that allows the moreefficient separation of the yeast from the partly brewed beer.
The basic processes of wine making havealso remained substantially the same. The big changes have been the development of winesfrom areas such as Australia and South America. In these areas, new varieties of grapeshave been developed and blended to give new styles of wine. Also, in these areas, the wine- making process has been modernised in terms of the equipment, so that the winerycontains a lot of stainless steel vessels, instead of the traditional wooden casks, and solooks more like a dairy! The benefit has been a big increase in the quality andconsistency of the wine, and some of the more traditional wine producing countries, suchas France, have needed to import some of these new ideas in order to maintain their marketshare.
One of the strangest developments of recentyears was the so-called alcopop. This market originally developed in Australia, when afarmer had a crop of lemons that he could not sell, and allegedly in discussions over acouple of beers, decided to try to ferment them. The result was a refreshing drink ofmodest alcohol content, which was marketed under the Two Dogs label, and the alcopopsector was born. This type of product rapidly gained a cult status in the UK, and severalother products with different flavours soon appeared on the market. The growth may havebeen driven in part by the fact that these flavour drinks soon gained favour with youngteenagers, although their alcohol content meant that they were not legal for this agegroup. By chance, the drinks industry had found a solution to a long-standing problem,namely, how to produce an alcoholic beverage that was acceptable to young drinks many ofwhom do not like the taste of traditional alcoholic drinks. However, following a publicoutcry, the producers agreed to change advertising so as not to appeal to under-agedrinkers, and this sector has slipped into decline.
Perhaps the biggest innovation in thealcohol beverages market has been in the different types of packaging that have beenintroduced of recent years. We are seeing the introduction of plastic bottles. Thisachieves two things: firstly, a significant reduction in weight – a typical beer bottleweights 300 g, whereas a plastic bottle of equivalent volume weighs just 40 g. Such areduction leads to a significant reduction in distribution cots. The second benefit isincreased safety, since there has been an unfortunate increase in violent behaviourinvolving glass bottles. In the wines sector, we are seeing the traditional cork replacedeither by a plastic stopper of a metal screw cap. Both of these alternatives improve thequality of the wine in terms of shelf-life, and preventing corking of the product. also,following the safety theme, some bottles of champagne are being produced with a valve inthe neck of the bottle, so that the pressure may be released before attempting to removethe cork.