Sunday 30 January 2022

The unlicenced off-licence

Continuing my theme of finishing off Dryanuary, last week's tasting at the Club Soda pop-up shop* was an interesting experience - and also a reminder of just how mixed-up AF attitudes can be. It has the feel of an off-licence, with wine, beer and spirits sections, yet contains almost no alcohol, the drinks being between 0.0% and 0.5% ABV. 

Just as the shop resembles an off-licence but isn't one, the drinks trade people I met there described some of the odd things that arise when assumptions about "beer" collide with not actually being alcoholic. 

For one, it was a big bonus - at least, it is in his company's US market. One of the legacies of Prohibition is that brewers can't normally sell direct to the public outside their taprooms, but must instead go through distributors. However well this was intended, it has become hugely distorting - in some cases, small brewers with their own bars downtown have to sell their beer to a distributor, then buy it back at an inflated price! 

When you add in the fact that some of those distributors are now under the control of big brewing groups, you can see how distorting this can be. Yet this being the outwardly puritanical USA, and with this system favouring the big brewers, getting rid of these rules is very hard.

But if you brew AF beer, those rules don't apply. Johnny, who reps in the UK for Connecticut's Athletic Brewing Co, explained that during lockdown, Athletic was able to sell by post where many others weren't. Similarly, US retailers are not allowed to import alcohol themselves, but must work through distributors, but AF products aren't restricted in the same way, so AF bottle shops can more readily offer a global range. 

Others had tales of opposite problems. For example, one of the Lucky Saint reps noted that Amazon still demands proof of ID/age when delivering AF beer. In fact, Amazon came up in discussion a number of times as a company that has difficulty recognising that AF beer is not actually an age-gated product. There's also problems with some social media platforms auto-deleting AF beer posts, presumably because their algorithms are too stupid to do more than go, "Mmm, beeeeer!" like some braindead robot Homer Simpson. 

And there's possible problems with UK regulations, with elements within the government trying to move towards a ban on 0.5% beers being labelled alcohol-free - even though several soft drinks can also contain up to 0.5% but will still be able to carry their AF label. 

There's even the suggestion that AF beers should have age limits and carry the "don't drink alcohol in pregnancy" warning! I fear this could well be the pernicious influence of the nannies, neo-prohibitionists and killjoys of the anti-alcohol fake charities. 

It's something to watch out for, anyhow - and it's going to be counter-productive if, like the AF drinks business, you want people to carry on drinking nice drinks but to drink less alcohol in the process. As Club Soda's Laura (right) pointed out, the bigger market share held by AF beer in countries such as Germany and Spain "didn’t happen by accident – all the relevant organisations there aligned on [supporting and promoting] it."

*Open until the end of February 2022. 

Saturday 29 January 2022

Say hello to better alcohol-free beer

Dryanuary is nearly over for another year, thank goodness*, but the low-alcohol and alcohol-free (AF) beer business continues to grow both in volume and quality. It’s also shifted focus, as I recently learnt from meeting several AF brewery reps at a tasting session organised by the Beer Writers Guild earlier this month. 

The biggest change, according to Laura Willoughby, who runs the Club Soda pop-up AF shop where the tasting was hosted, is simply the range available. AF used to mean just lager or Weizen, but now there's ales, stouts, porters, even sours. More broadly there's also wines and drinks that mimic some of the character of gins and even whiskies. As she pointed out, "There's enough variety now for a whole off-licence, and if we'd had room we probably could have got another ten brands in!"

From a technical perspective, the biggest AF innovation is quite simply the dispense method – it used to be you’d only ever see AF beers in bottles or cans, but it’s increasingly common now to find them on tap. For example Heineken has a special tap for its 0.0% lager, Brewdog has been making a big feature of its AF products and last year ran what it claimed was the world’s first alcohol-free beer bar, and new brand Lucky Saint now has its 0.5% unfiltered lager on draught in hundreds of venues UK-wide.

Freshness is a challenge

Why has it taken so long to get AF beers on tap? Well, there are challenges, said Lucky Saint’s Jimmy Adams: “The first thing is the line has to be cleaner – we have our own technician now to help with that. The second is the length of time it sits on the bar – we really need a keg sold in a week for freshness and quality.”

He added that the latter is a particular problem when a bar first offers AF beer on draught, as it can take four to six weeks before customers realise it’s there and start to order it regularly. Get past that though, and things can pick up. 

“We find we’re doing 10% of the house lager [volume] in some bars,” he said. “The operator needs to understand they’re not going to sell six kegs of it a week, but at the same time, 55 pints of alcohol-free is going to be more profitable for them than 55 pints of house lager.” 

“People who normally drink alcohol are more fussy over their AF choice,” added Laura. “Drivers for example often like to have one regular beer, then switch to AF. Sometimes it’s the AF drinker in the group who dictates where the group goes, because of the good AF choices.” 

Brewdog rep Ben agreed on the potential for draught AF sales. “It can be 10% [of volume], or up to 16% or 17% in some bars,” he said. “Plus, people stay longer with AF and they spend more.”

Battling the nannies

Draught Elvis AF in a take-away can

Think what you want of Brewdog’s top management and its company culture, but the brewery has invested a lot in its AF ranges since the debut of Nanny State. That was originally launched at 1.1% ABV as a retort to the frankly idiotic attempt by the nannies of the Portman Group in 2009 to ban its 18.2% Tokyo* Imperial Stout.

However, Nanny State quickly acquired fans before being relaunched at 0.5%, the legal max for being labelled non-alcoholic. Fast forward a few years, and Brewdog has an entire stable of AF beers available both canned and on draught. It recently added one more, in the shape of Elvis AF, and Ben had samples for us. Sadly, while it was pleasant enough drinking, it’s almost completely unlike Elvis Juice – sure, there’s fruit and beery notes in there, but they’re way too indistinct.

Back on the innovations front, I was surprised to discover that, despite all the work on low-alcohol yeasts and the like, there’s still brewers dealcoholising. Although in the case of Lucky Saint, its Bavarian brewers clearly know what they are doing. They use vacuum distillation then blend regular beer back in to add a little body and return the beer to 0.5%.

This also seems to be the kind of technique that’s allowed the big brewers to offer 0.0% beers – check on Ratebeer or Untappd and there’s a whole raft of these now. It’s not a cheap technology to get into, by all accounts, but if you want to sell in some parts of the world it’s your best bet.  

*I’m not a fan of the whole Dryanuary schtick, as – in normal years, at least – it hits pubs and bars when they can least afford it, in the post-Xmas lull. Maybe with more and better AF options it could be less of an issue, but that’s a big ‘maybe’.