By Patricia Pillay
One characteristic of beer culture that is always worth celebrating is its dynamism.
There is always something happening, always something new to add to the variety of brews on offer.
A continuing trend in beer consumption that has been clearly identified, is the appreciation of low or no alcohol beers.
This positive trend is growing fast and it offers opportunities for the South African beer industry, which has prioritised positioning beer as a drink of moderation in communities across the country.
In general, drinks with an alcohol-by-volume (ABV) between 0.05% and 1.12% are typically called "low-alcohol" beverages.
Your usual beer usually has an ABV of between 5% and 7%.
If we look at the European beer industry, it offers a very clear indication that low ABV is becoming much more common.
Data compiled by the Brewers of Europe shows that in 2012 low/no alcohol beers made up only 3.5% of the market. Fast forward nine years and figures by the European Commission sketches an entirely different picture. In 2021 the low/no alcohol beer market was valued at a staggering €7 billion, comprising 8% of the market in terms of volume. All indications are that this growth will continue. Even in the craft beer sector, which has often been the home of stronger brews.
The biggest beer company in the world, Anheuser-Busch InBev, recently stated that by the end of 2025 at least one fifth of the company’s global beer volume will consist of low and no alcohol beers. The global low-alcohol beverages market in general will almost double in size in the next ten years, estimates Future Market Insights.
So this change in drinking habits is a very real phenomenon. But what are the causes of the low-alcohol beer trend? Where does it come from?
Analysts attribute the change to the general health and wellness consciousness that has spread under consumers. Low-ABV beers are perceived to be healthier and safer than higher ABV beers. Consumers are aware of the comparative benefits of consuming less alcohol, and also less calories.
Another possible reason for the shift in behaviour is a wider awareness younger people of the impact that excessive drinking has on society as a whole. They are awake to the impact that the harmful use of alcohol has on public health.
More actively offering beer as a drink of moderation is something that the Beer Association of South Africa (BASA) and our members have been doing for a number of years. We have been involved in a number of public health campaigns as well. But apart from the continued engagement on health issues, the local beer industry is also providing more no/low alcohol options that facilitate balanced and sensible alcohol trends. BASA has also sponsored Beer Awards for best brewed low and no alcohol beer at National Beer Competitions, encouraging more brewers to brew low/no alcohol beer. This is not only a responsible thing to do, it makes good business sense.
A culture of moderation and mindful drinking has been established under a large group of younger buyers. Studies point to younger people drinking less alcohol than previous generations. Earlier this year Berenberg Research caught public attention with a study that found that "Gen Z" drinkers (born in the late 1990s or early 2000s) drink about 20 percent less alcohol per capita than "Millennials" (born between the early 1980s and the 1990s) did at the same age.
This is a broad overseas trend, but they do point to developments that local beer producers and retailers should take note of.
The drinker of local non-alcoholic beer is spoilt for choice these days. To name just a few options, Heineken 0.0, SAB's Castle Free, Darling Brew's award-winning Just Naked or Devil's Peak's Hero range of no less than four non-alcoholic beers are keeping consumers very happy. The local low-alcohol beer selection is comparatively smaller, but if global trends are an indication of where the South African beer drinker is heading, then we can expect the product range in this sector to widen as well, following the consumer. In this lies a number of opportunities for our local brewers and retailers to create new products.
Gone are the days when no/low alcohol beers were considered unusual or an inferior option. In the past it was more difficult for brewers to make truly good-quality no/low alcohol products that can stand on their own against the taste of their stronger beer brethren, but that simply isn't the case anymore. This is mostly thanks to impressive technological advances. Reverse osmosis filtration technology removes alcohol from products without damaging the important elements of aroma, colour and taste - and this process is becoming cheaper by the day. Producers are even developing specific yeast species that generate much lower amounts of alcohol. these yeasts are perfectly suited for the creation of low alcohol beers. History has indeed shown us that brewers are nothing if not inventive. And yet another frontier that is being explored is the increased use of stimulants in beer to create traditional taste sensations, but without the element of inebriation.
Taste and enjoyment has always been the focus of brewers, not excess and intoxication. This is an exciting time for the beer industry - our product is keeping up with the times while presenting more choices to the consumer. Beer culture is inclusive and eclectic. It offers a home to anybody who enjoys the crisp, mildly bitter, somewhat sweet, always delicious taste of good beer. The South African beer industry welcomes the increasing popularity of lower alcohol beers and will continue calling for policies and regulations that encourage the production of drinks with lower ABV’s in the country, so we can encourage responsible, moderate drinking.
Patricia Pillay is CEO of BASA.