No need to be teetotal: alcohol-free beer is good for all

Alcohol-free beers can be a bit of a mouthful. By which I mean, they have a naming problem. It doesn’t really trip off the tongue. People in the trade sometimes resort to the acronym (initialism?) AFBs, but you wouldn’t order one of them at the bar.

Worse, the term alcohol-free is not as simple as it sounds. Lots of people see 0.5% ABV on a drink and think that means it’s alcohol-free. And they’re not wrong — you could drink 0.5% beer all day without getting drunk; you could expect to find a similar amount of alcohol in a banana — but legally speaking they’re not right either. At least not in the UK.

Elsewhere the law says a drink may be called alcohol-free if it is below 0.5% ABV but here that threshold is 0.05%. At 0.5% ABV in the UK a beer can call itself dealcoholised, but that doesn’t sound appetising at all so no one uses the term. Even more confusing, drinks made outside the UK that are 0.5% ABV or less may still use the term alcohol-free when they are sold here.

Talking low and no

The sale of nonalcoholic drinks is booming. But it’s not just beer, there are alcohol-free spirits now too, and other options like sodas and kombuchas. Taken together with drinks that still contain booze, but less of it, the sector is often called ‘low and no’, a term that sort of works but still leaves something to be desired.

British adults are drinking less than they have at any point for the last 18 years. The headline figure often mentioned is that one quarter of those aged 16 to 24 don’t drink at all. What I find even more telling is that at least one fifth of all drinkers are trying to reduce their alcohol intake.

This raises an important point: low and no drinks are for everyone, not just teetotallers. For decades many breweries saw their alcohol-free beers as niche products, token efforts catering to designated drivers and others who eschewed booze not by choice but because they were compelled to do so by some external reason.

Of course there are many reasons drinkers might choose a low/no option, but increasingly there is also a growing acceptance that you don’t need a reason at all. We’re all adults and can drink as little as we damn well please.

(I almost put ‘as much or as little’ but of course there are social and health reasons why that wouldn’t have been a good idea. Please remember to drink responsibly.)

This is why I’m pleased to see more breweries looking seriously at brewing beers with lower ABVs that do not compromise on flavour — and also to see breweries opening that concentrate solely on alcohol-free beers rather than relegating it to a sideline. Brewing a decent alcohol-free beer is very hard. Even the best brewers struggle. Those who specialise will have a better chance, I think, of offering drinkers an alcohol-free beer that actually tastes good.

The popularity of table beers, those that sit around 2% to 3% ABV, fits into this as well. I think it represents a growing maturity in our craft beer culture towards measured drinking and placing flavour and pleasurable experiences above drinking loads and getting drunk.

The low and no category is booming but it’s starting from a very low base, representing just 1.3% of the country’s total alcohol market. This part of the market is still very underserved, but its growth means more choice for consumers who want to control their alcohol intake.

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