Why low/no is going to be the way to go

Low/no? What's that? Some new rap music I don't know anything about?

It wouldn't surprise me, but no, low/no is about the new style of drinks that are taking the alcohol industry by storm - by having very little or no alcohol in them. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but they are amongst the fastest growing new products in the sector, with 10s of new launches coming into the market every month. Be it 0% alcohol beers and wines, through to spritzers, coolers, and a vast range of ready-to-drink products that are a mixture of adult soft drinks with a splash of Prosecco or gin to keep us interested.

But this is hardly anything new. We have had low and no alcohol products ever since Billy Connolly was trying to get us to buy Kaliber beer in the 1980s.

That's true. But they have, up to now, been very much about the drinks industry pushing its own agenda, and wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing and act more responsibly. Pushing a low-no category with sub-standards products that not even the big drinks companies behind them really believed in. Now it is all very different.

Why's that?

This is no longer a drinks industry issue. It's what the consumer wants. Living better and healthier lifestyles is now the standard choice for over 90% of consumers (J Walter Thompson) and that means cutting back or stopping drinking altogether. Or for an increasing number of younger drinkers not drinking alcohol at all - around a third of 18-24 year-olds are said to be teetotal (IWSR). If the drinks industry wants to be relevant to any, some, or all of these consumers, it is going to have to think completely differently about the products it makes.

Sounds like doom and gloom to me?

Not at all, it's potentially very exciting. It was, for example, standing room only at the low/no debate in the Innovation Zone at last week's London Wine Fair. The wine industry realises this is an issue it has to address. Even if it doesn't currently have all, or many, of the answers. Ivan Dixon, head of spirits at Enotria&Coe, summed up the mood: “It's happening. It's going to be massive and we need to be believe in it.” It is introducing 30 new low/no products this year into the on-trade ranging from sparkling teas to kombucha. “I did not see this trend coming. Seedlip was the game changer for the low/no category,” he added. Tom Evans from Adnams, the Suffolk brewer that produces a range of 0% beers and wines, said it is taking the category so seriously it has tripled its investment in low/no products and he is the first low/no drinks ambassador to be appointed by a major brewer.

What can we expect?

What is exciting is that people cutting back or not drinking does not mean the end of them going out for a good time. Far from it. Mark Meek, Chief Executive at research body, IWSR, told the Innovation Zone audience that these consumers don't want to be excluded from the experience of going out to a bar and sharing drinks with friends. They still want to be offered drinks that are as well made and as sophisticated and as crafted as the alcoholic versions, they just don't want any booze in them. Crucially they also want to spend as much for them. It offers huge new opportunities for both the on and off-trade, but particularly for bars that can serve a £12 gin and tonic, and charge the same for a non-alcoholic alternative.

So which products are cutting the mustard in low/no?

Beer, beer and beer. But then the big brewers have been trying to crack the 0% market for at least 30 years. Brands such as Heineken 0% appear to have cut through to the mainstream, or “stolen a march” as IWSR's Meek puts it, and proved you can get a quality beer without the alcohol. Evans confirmed Adnam's 0.5% beer brand, Ghost Ship, is now its fifth biggest seller, “and it can't make enough of it”. Wine has a bigger problem in stripping out the alcohol and keeping the flavour. David Cartwright at Seckford Agencies told the panel he believes a premium, lighter wine category at around 8-10%, that is sold alongside all other wines, was more realistic. It has already had great success with the 9.5% range of Doctors' Wines produced by New Zealand winemaker, Dr John Forrest. It is also a pioneer in the premium, lower wine category by dropping alcohol levels through better vineyard techniques rather than resorting to spinning cones. Simon Oastler at Broadland Wineries, that has its own 0.5% wine range, says the key is not to think of low/no drinkers as one set consumer. Instead they are as varied as all wine drinkers, some of whom are looking for as close to a real wine as they can get, whilst others just want a refreshing, fruity drink that looks like wine that they can have with their dinner. Evans agreed and said its 0% wine is often used as an ingredient in cocktails, or Sangria, or in a mulled wine, rather than a standalone drink.

What next?

The panel heard how the industry needs to think carefully about how it talks about low/no drinks. We are all guilty of wanting to pigeonhole new products into set categories - like low/no. The consumer, however, is turned off by being labelled as a low/no drinker. They might just be having a night off, driving or cutting back for health reasons. They want the choice of trying a ‘cooler', a ‘spritzer', an ‘adult long drink', a ‘mocktail'. Drinks that all have a positive twist to them and don't sound like you have come straight out of a temperance meeting. But then we do need to put all this into context. Low/no might be the fastest growing drinks category, but it only currently represents 1% of sales, says IWSR. But's as E&C's Dixon says. It's happening and it's the next five to 10 years that the industry needs to prepare itself for.