Industry bodies have reacted favourably to plans by the UK government to allow beers described as “alcohol-free” and “low-alcohol” to have a higher alcohol by volume (ABV) content. Presently, “no-alcohol” beer in the UK must be less than 0.05%, and “low-alcohol” beers can be up to 1.2%. The proposed amendments to current legislation – reported by The Times – would allow “no-alcohol” products to contain ABV of up to between 0.5 and 1% and “low-alcohol” beers to be up to 3% in strength. The move would bring the UK closer in line with other markets globally, including in the EU where “alcohol-free” products are allowed to contain up to 0.5% ABV.
Neil Walker, communications manager for the Society of Independent Brewers, said the move would reduce confusion for consumers and benefit British brewers. “It is very positive news for British brewers that the descriptors around alcohol-free and low-alcohol will be updated to better match what is out in the market,” he said. “There has been a huge boom in the number of great-tasting, lower-strength beers being brewed in the UK and these new rules should allow those beers to be more accurately labelled. “Equally we have seen the rise of lower strength beers of around 2-3% ABV, sometimes referred to as ‘table beers’, which are by their very nature lower in alcohol and a really great choice for people who want to enjoy a great tasting beer whilst reducing their alcohol consumption overall.”
Laura Willoughby, co-founder of global mindful drinking movement Club Soda, said the move to confirm 0.5% as alcohol-free “makes sense” but warned talk of raising the limit to 1% could “scare a lot of people” and was not based on science. “Customers and the alcohol-free drinks makers have always asked for clarity that 0.5% is considered alcohol-free like the rest of the world,” she said. “At the moment, government guidance is confusing. 0.5% and below is a trace element of alcohol naturally occurring in many foods and drinks. Consumers need clear guidance on the level of alcohol in drinks that will impact them if they are driving, pregnant or avoiding alcohol. The science is clear on 0.5% ABV. Confirming this level as alcohol-free makes sense.”
British charity and campaign group Alcohol Change UK said it supported the move to expand the definition of low-alcohol from 1.2% to 3% ABV, but stated a distinction between products of below 0.1% and those between 0.1-1% was needed “for both religious purposes and for pregnant women”.
Alcohol Change UK CEO Richard Piper added: “It is essential that this 3% limit applies to all alcoholic drinks – beers, ciders, wines, spirits, etc. – and that the calls from some in the alcohol industry for the word ‘low’ to be allowed mean different levels of ABV for different drink types to be soundly rejected.” The proposals are believed to be ready to be published in a government white paper but are currently awaiting sign-off from the new Prime Minister, who will enter office in September. The Times reported that neither Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak – the two candidates to replace Boris Johnson – have raised objections to the move.
It is unclear whether the plans would roll out across the whole of the UK, or just in England, as much of health and social care policy is devolved to the Scottish Government, Welsh Government or Northern Ireland Executive. Interest in low and no-alcohol products has exploded in the UK in recent years, with the market for beers and ciders with a strength of 0.5% or under set to be worth US$290m this year, according to GlobalData. By 2027, this will have grown to US$515m, giving the segment a ten-year compound annual growth rate of 11.7% between 2018-2027.
The no and low alcohol beer market in the UK has been one segment that has flourished despite world events. UK sales of low-alcohol and no-alcohol beers have almost doubled in five years. Some beer brands have also introduced truly alcohol free 0% beers, which like their no and low counterparts are fast growing in popularity and sales. Great news for the on and off trade, as consumer mindsets seem to prefer what is perceived as an ‘adult’ soft drink option.
So, news that plans are in place to change the ABV limits covering no and low alcohol beer are awaiting sign-off by the next PM would seem at odds with continued growth of what is now an established and important segment of the beer market. Buoyant consumer preferences for no alcohol drinks do not need confusion added to dilute a strong growth sector especially as there are many reasons for no alcohol choices. The consumer is driving, or has work to do later that day, or has a problem with alcohol.
Currently, no alcohol beer contains less than 0.05 per cent ABV and low alcohol less than 1.2 per cent. The proposed new limits increasing to between 0.5 and 1 per cent and up to about 3 per cent respectively. Laura Willoughby MBE, founder of mindful drinking movement, Club Soda, and an authority in non-alcoholic drinks told us: “This is surprise news and I am not sure it makes things easier for the consumer. “Customers and the alcohol-free drinks makers have always asked for clarity that 0.5% is considered alcohol-free like the rest of the world – at the moment government guidance is confusing. At 0.5% and below, this is often a trace element of alcohol naturally occurring in many foods and drinks.
Sales of low and non-alcoholic brews are surging in the UK and indeed across the world. In the past year alone, ‘low and no’ beer sales in the supermarkets were up almost 50% to £37.9m. In many countries like Spain, Germany and Russia, the category is already well established, in some cases accounting for a significant market share of the total beer category. And it is looking ever-more likely that the UK will follow in these footsteps.
But guidance around how UK suppliers should describe these products is holding back the market and needs to change. UK suppliers are told to label 0.5% beers ‘de-alcoholised’ or ‘low alcohol’. But if you were to buy a 0.5% beer from Munich, you’d find it called ‘alcohol-free’ or ‘alkoholfrei’. From a New York brewer it would be called ‘non-alcoholic’, and in Sydney it would be ‘ultra-low alcohol’.
This simply does not make sense, especially considering beer is a global industry, with products from across the world next to each other on the shelves. Take a trip to Tesco and you’ll see what I mean. It is leaving British shoppers confused. Because it is proven that what you call these drinks is important. In 2011, Denmark changed the threshold of what can be called ‘alcohol-free’ from 0.1% abv to 0.5% abv, and there was a three-fold increase in sales over the subsequent three years.
Remember, a 0.5% abv drink has no physiological impact on the body. It is too weak to affect your blood alcohol level, and is safe even for those driving, and pregnant women. ‘De-alcoholised’ or ‘low alcohol’ does not convey this in a way that makes sense to shoppers. So the rules leave independent British businesses, like ours, at a disadvantage versus multinationals, which can use ‘alcohol-free’ – arguably a much clearer designator.
Luckily, it seems like the Department of Health, whose shambolic consultation last year resulted in no change to guidance whatsoever, has twigged how wrong this is. It is now looking into changing the labelling guidance so that <0.5% does equal ‘alcohol-free’. It’s a start. ‘Alcohol-free’ is better than what we are currently stuck with. But ‘non-alcoholic’, arguably, is an even better descriptor, as 0.5% abv beers do technically contain alcohol, but have no alcoholic effect. The Americans have it right on this one.
Many people are keen to make healthier choices by reducing their alcohol intake or becoming teetotal. This is a huge market for potential growth. Entering a new market or category for the first time can be daunting but leaving compliance until the very last hurdle can lead to many unnecessary delays in securing product approval.
With no worldwide harmonised approach to labelling laws, health claims, or what counts as low and non-alcoholic drinks, it can be extremely easy to fall victim to non-compliance. Although some argue no-alcohol should literally mean just that, the suggestion would bring the UK in line with many other countries. Homegrown players have long argued the current rules have held them back and made them less competitive against imported brews, which have been able to sell their 0.5% drinks in the UK as ‘alcohol free’ for some time.
It could also encourage innovation. As Infinite Session founder Chris Hannaway points out, brewing between 0.05% and 0.5% does not require the specialist kit that brewing to 0% does. Yes, the switch could leave somewhat of a sour taste in the mouth of suppliers that have invested in producing ‘pure’ 0.0% drinks. They may struggle to communicate exactly how these are any better or more virtuous if the rules around 0.5% are relaxed. However, many of those brands – Heineken 0.0%, Guinness 0.0% and Peroni 0.0% – have such a huge following that the impact is doubtful. Going as far as the mooted 1% limit, though, would be more dubious. There is very little demand for a 1% limit for ‘alcohol free’ drinks in the supplier base, it would risk creating confusion for consumers and would put the UK out of step with the rest of the world.
Raising the threshold for ‘low alcohol’ beers to 3% could have even more interesting ramifications. Genius Brewing co-founder Jason Clarke says this could in essence create an entirely new category of ‘light’ beers. Splitting low and no alcohol into ”separate categories with clearly differing ABV ceilings” will ”help retailers to range more precisely and cater for the increasingly nuanced needs of the health-focused consumer”, he says.
Indeed, if the rules change, buyers could end up ranging low-alcohol beers in their own dedicated space, which in turn could create a big opportunity for suppliers whose brands fit the bill. It would not be surprising, Clarke speculates, to see bigger suppliers that currently sell their drinks at 3.5% (like Bud Light and Michelob Ultra) reformulate to take advantage. This category wouldn’t just appeal to shoppers moderating their booze consumption, but also those seeking less calorific drinks, he adds.
In any case, that these changes are on the cards is a crucial step forward for the sector, and will come as a major relief to those who were dismayed when a consultation on changing descriptors back in 2018 resulted in no changes whatsoever.
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