Next month sees Just Drinks’ sister company, Arena International, host the ‘Innovation in Non-Alcoholic Beverages’ conference in London. In the run-up to the event, we caught up with one of the speakers, Big Drop Brewing co-founder Rob Fink.
Just Drinks: The alcohol-free beer sector has transformed in the past few years, especially in the UK. What stage is it at now?
RF: I started Big Drop at the end of 2016 and wanted to do for non-alcoholic beer what craft beer did for beer. And, that’s what we did. You’ve now got half a dozen players in the pure alcohol-free space just doing alcohol-free beer. That journey reflects what happened in alcoholic craft beer – once all the big players saw what was happening in craft, they just bought loads of craft brewers.
JD: What stage are consumers at in terms of their acceptance of non-alc beer?
RF: In terms of volume, non-alc is massively outpacing alcoholic. More people are drinking it and, by definition, must be more accepting of it as a proposition. From my end, the consumer just accepts it as a thing.
JD: We now have far more options in non-alc outside of beer. Functional soft drinks with added nutritional ingredients or adaptogens, for example. How have these changed the market place?
RF: It comes down to consumers wanting choice. People demand a level of choice transparency. There’s probably room in the market for all of these options.
JD: Will your product always be part of beer, or will the non-alc category evolve away from beer-related cues, or even wine- and spirit-related cues?
RF: I’m not trying to create a new category. Everybody talks about occasions. We’re just fitting into the existing occasions where people drink beer in the pub. We’re not saying: “Here are some new occasions when you could drink Big Drop.” I’m not going to turn up and say, “Hey, it’s a breakfast beer.”
JD: With Heineken and other major brewers entering the segment, has it been a case of the rising tide lifting all boats?
RF: Yes, I think so. I met a distributor at a beer conference in Antwerp a few years ago and he said he loved what we were doing, but what are we going to do about Heineken 0.0? I said, “Nothing.” What can I do against the world’s second-largest brewing company? But, that’s okay, because we’re not in the same category Heineken might put itself in. People who drink Heineken 0.0 probably are not drinking Big Drop, because it’s a different sector. Meanwhile, Heineken is spending tens of millions of pounds on marketing, saying drink alcohol-free beer. I’m the guy going “yeah, and if you want to craft beer, then we’re over here”.
JD: What’s your sales progression been like?
RF: In January 2017, we sold about 1,000 pints. Last year, we sold about 2m bottles and this year we’ll sell about 4m bottles.
We’ve taken investment – In June, we took GBP3.5m (US$4.8m) – and we’ve invested in salespeople. Fundamentally, we’re a very small craft brewer competing against other people with a lot more money and ability to make noise. I joke about not competing with Heineken and we don’t. At the same time, we still have to make people aware that we exist.
JD: Is draught beer taking off in non-alc?
RF: Mitchells & Butlers is probably the largest pub group [in the UK] and they’re running trials at the moment for Big Drop on draught. If anybody asks me what’s next in alcohol-free beer, I’m banging the drum for draught.
JD: How did consumption occasions change during lockdown?
RF: We’ve grown and maintained a customer base that is willing to have our beer delivered to their door. In terms of behaviours, we piggybacked on two trends. The first is that now people are more comfortable about having individual companies deliver: We now offer a monthly subscription. The second was whether people drank more or less alcohol throughout lockdown. The jury’s still out on that!
JD: You are present in the UK, the Nordics, Australia and the US. What further plans do you have for expansion?
RF: We’ve probably reached the geographic scale that I think we’re happy with. A few years ago, we went to Melbourne to meet brewers and distributors. Nobody got it. All of a sudden, in the last year, it just exploded. That’s very much our second market. In the US, we’re focusing on Chicago.
JD: How is the US non-alc market progressing?
RF: It’s nowhere near as advanced as the UK, which is leading the world in terms of innovation in adult non-alcoholic beverages – we’re miles ahead of everybody else. The US is a slow burn.
JD: Why do you think the UK is leading? Other non-alc markets such as Spain and German are bigger.
RF: I’m talking about it from an innovation perspective. Brewing in Germany is what it was like in the UK back in the 1950s, when every town had a brewery. They just happen to brew a – great quality – non-alcoholic beer as part of their portfolio. I don’t necessarily see that as particularly innovative.
Rob Fink will present a session at the ‘Innovation in Non-Alcoholic Beverages’ conference in London, on 3 & 4 November. For further details of the event, click here.