Thursday, 16 February 2017

Thin Times Ahead?

Is it a sign of the times that London’s latest craft brewery is to focus entirely on low and no alcohol beer?  Nirvana Brewery Co, is a new craft brewery based in East London, is aiming to produce “great quality, full flavoured craft beers, but with low or no alcohol.”  Steve Dass, Co-Founder of Nirvana Brewing and said: “We want to create a range of alcohol free beers in a way without compromising on quality or taste. Ultimately, we want to produce a range of beers that can be enjoyed by those looking to cut down – as well as craft beer fans. The aim it seems is to target specialist craft bars etc in London and around the country.

 Interestingly the brewery mentions “We’ve already seen a huge rise of people wanting to drink non-alcoholic beer as part of a healthier lifestyle in both the UK and Europe.”  Now funnily enough I was reading yesterday in the German press about the fall of beer consumption, down by roughly a third since the seventies. “For years this number has slowly been going down,” Walter König of the Bavarian Brewers’ Association explained. As well as the fall off in lunchtime drinking Herr König mentions the public’s changed perspective on beer. "In people’s minds, beer is not healthy. Consuming anything that seems unhealthy has decreased… There is more health awareness, though with a false understanding - beer in moderation is healthy.”

The goes on to mention another aspect, not reflected in the statistics, is that more Germans are drinking alcohol-free beer. The nationwide German Brewers’ Association wrote in their annual report for 2016 that there are now about 400 different brands of alcohol-free beer - 50 more than the previous year. And every 20th litre of beer brewed in Germany is alcohol-free. So is Nirvana Brewery on to something?  The first thing to say about that is that Britain isn't Germany and it doesn't follow what happens there will happen here.  The history of no and low alcohol beers (NABLABS) in this country isn't exactly a glorious one. Frankly beers such as Kaliber and Whitbread White Label were pretty poor and nowadays while you may encounter the odd bottle of Beck's Blue or Clausthaler, you'd probably be advised to check its "best before" date before handing over your dosh.  You'll be just as unlucky if you fancy a low alcohol beer. When the Government reduced the duty on low alcohol beers it encouraged a rash of them, the vast majority of which lasted a few months before sinking without trace. That isn't to say that there aren't honourable exceptions, but you'll be unlikely to find them down your local.

The problem with low/no alcohol beers is that typically, they just don't taste very nice - ales taste thin and even German ones taste a bit odd when the alcohol is taken away.  The ambition of providing "a good quality craft beer that is full in flavour" as Nirvana hopes has proved to be a Will o' the Wisp for the industry as a whole. It would be a brave man that thought this will have a different outcome, though of course I wish them well. Nirvana aims to export their beer, but wait. Let's return to Herr König. "We can compensate for what’s not being drunk inland with export increases and alcohol-free beer,” he said. Looks like a fair bit of competition for Nirvana then.

Is history of NABLABS about to be overturned? Will this venture fly or are there thin times ahead?

I suppose that there are exceptions to the rule and one variable would be where you draw the line in deciding low in alcohol is low. 2%? 3 or more?  That will make a difference.  I still reckon that for no alcohol beer, there isn't a rosy outlook taste-wise. There will also be more possibilities if you drink at home rather than the pub though it will still be a hard find to source them. As usual, I talk from a pub perspective.

If you do want to take a punt on these kind of beers, the Independent and the Telegraph have some advice. Good luck.



Anonymous said...

I share your less than rose tinted view. Even Brewdog couldn't pull it off with Nanny State, but that always suffers against their range. Their Edge (2.8%) on cask was exceptional, if short-lived.

Phil said...

Until recently Russia classified beer as a foodstuff, not an alcoholic drink, apparently on the basis that it contains less than 10% alcohol. So I guess that's the Russian definition of 'low alcohol'!

Stono said...

spin it around though and Nirvana were just another new East London craft brewer churning out their slightly higher then sessionable abv hoppy IPAs and the like, their unique selling point would be what exactly ?

whereas selling low abv but still claiming to hit the all important craft "flavorfuls" its different enough that maybe a bar or two will pick them up to offer that something different, and if its <2.8% those lower duty rates still apply, and Im sure that will totally be reflected in the price...wont it

IrishseaDave said...

Well,I also wish them luck. As one doomed to often being a designated driver on Friday evenings because of work next day,I still after 25 years cannot find an acceptable non sugary non alcoholic drink. Hope someone does it sometime-but they only have a decade or I'll be free from the daily toil- of course hoping there are any pubs left!

The Maltese Penguin said...

If they can pull it off, they'll be quids in. Even as a small niche, it would, for a craft brewery, be massive. I rate their chances however as between very slim and none, certainly for NAB. If the combined forces of the German and Czech breweries can't pull off something which is at best slightly better than nothing*, why would they be able to? (I am discounting the attempts of British brewers. Tennent's L.A. (1%) actually did ok for a while and was quite widely available on draft. It wasn't awful. Just watery lager. Disappeared years ago though.)

The best bet I would think is some kind of flavoured beer LAB; no coincidence that the most palatable continental offerings are radlers or fruit flavoured around 2%. I suppose bagloads of fancy hops might count in that case.

*I did enjoy several glasses of dunkelweisse alkohol frei after a half marathon. Isotonic sports drink. And crucially, free on a hot day.

Curmudgeon said...

The problem is that no or low-alcohol beer, however good it is, is always going to be a distress purchase, not something you would happily choose to drink in its own right.

Cooking Lager said...

I quite enjoy a Becks Blue or Erdinger Alkohol Frei. Nothing distressful about it. It's nice to go out to lunch, and have one of these.

Matt said...

"Is it a sign of the times that London’s latest craft brewery is to focus entirely on low and no alcohol beer?"

Almost certainly not, just a very niche product for a relatively small market.

I'd also be interested to see what evidence they've got for their bold marketing cliam that "We’ve already seen a huge rise of people wanting to drink non-alcoholic beer as part of a healthier lifestyle in both the UK and Europe".

Nick said...

The Störtebeker Brauerei in the former commie East brews the best alc-free lager I've found. As you might have noticed from my tweetage, I use it to cut Pilsner Urquell down to proper session strength (100 ml with a 500 ml bottle of PU) for a nice at-home quaffer. It is also very drinkable on its own, as Cookie says, for lunch.

Störtebeker is new in the last decade IIRC, and sort-of positions themselves as craft-oriented. They brew a credible "Atlantic Pale Ale" and now some sort of strong porter I've not yet tried. And their Schwarzbier and Baltic Lager (?) are quite credible. IOW, a very decent brewery.

Then there's Gutmann's alc-free Weizen. You may want to experiment with that once next time you're down this way. Also their Weizen Leicht, probably 3% or so.

The special Clausthaler Extra Herb, with the golden label, not the white one you can get anywhere, is quite remarkable; very hoppy in aroma. One of the hoppier German beers around, actually...or was before all the IPAs started showing up. Not sure if it leaves Teutonia.

I'll find you bottles of each of these for your next visit.

I think we've also enjoyed Palm alc-free in that Belgley. So that makes one alc-free ale from the continent.

None of this listing off great alc-free beers says anything about the main point though: whether it could work in the UK or not. Probably not, as you lot are filthy drunkards. Hopefully not, as we need to keep you that way.

I wonder how much of the trend down in German consumption is related to the blanding- and dumbing-down of the beer over the same time frame.

Beermunster said...

Although I have never had any particularly nice alcohol free beers, I have had some pretty decent low alcohol beers. The most recent was Ticketybrew's Table IPA which is 2.8% and I had something similar from Kernel a few months back.

I wish them luck. If they can genuinely create a good beer with less than 1% alcohol, then there is I think a small market for it. Often if I am driving, I end up drinking water as I'm not a fan of fizzy drinks and there are only so many orange juices you can drink in an evening.

Whiffy Mingehampton said...

Alcohol-free beer is a bit like a vegetarian sausage or Tony Blair.
What's the bloody point of it ?

Tandleman said...

So mixed views then?

Nick you make a very good point about the dumbing down of German beers. Why drink flavourless lager if you are at work the next day if you can drink flavourless alc free?

Matt: I mentioned one part of the evidence in my article and in fact it is one of the main points.

Mudgie: In this country at least I agree that it will be a distress purchase.

Maltese Penguin and Stono: If the niche exists and the jury is out on that one, then I agree low alc is that niche.

Curmudgeon said...

I've been told that in Germany people are happy to drink alcohol-free beers in the way they would Coke and similar soft drinks here. I remember someone blogging about raising eyebrows seeing a pregnant woman drinking an alcohol-free beer, which certainly would be a rare sight in the censorious UK.

It would be good to have an alcohol-free alternative in pubs that wasn't either sweet or fruity.

Anonymous said...

It makes one wonder whether they are merely, cleverly, attempting to get under the lower duty threshold like Humphrey has done with Sam Smith's mild and Alpine Lager? Thus saving mega bucks on beer duty.

Curmudgeon said...

Don't know for certain, but isn't it the case that you can't claim both Small Brewers' Relief and Lower Strength Relief on the same beer?

Paul Bailey said...

I think that without the contribution which alcohol makes towards the final taste mix of a beer, all attempts at trying to produce an alcohol-free beer, which actually taste like beer – rather than ditch-water, are doomed to failure.

I’ve tried plenty in my time; none were enjoyable, and none tasted anything like beer. Good luck Nirvana; I think you will need it!

electricpics said...

@ ouhouse, Sam Smiths don't save 'mega bucks' on duty because they lower the price of the beer and lager accordingly.

Nick said...

Mudgie...Pregnant women are frowned upon for drinking ALCOHOL-FREE beer?

Ironically, I see lots of commentary down here about how women should abstain from alcohol whilst *nursing*, even.

My mother says she drank wine every day when she was pregnant with me, just as usual, to help her sleep. I turned out ok.

Oblivious said...

If they act fast they could be in time to celebrate the centenary of Government ale in April 1917, everyone moved that stuff....

Ben Viveur said...

No love here for Nanny State?

While the original cask beer was a ridiculous novelty that Brewdog seem intent on erasing from their history, the current bottled version is excellent. Hoppy, refreshing, thirst quenching, very low calorie as well as low alcohol.

py said...

knowledgeable industry-watchers have seen this coming for a while - I predicted the rise of non-alcoholic options several years ago, and sure enough, its the highest % growth market in beer. Brewdog nanny state is the current benchmark for quality, and is already one of their biggest selling beers - its becoming ubiquitous in pub fridges.

Its just the way things are going - people want to be healthier, they want to be able to drive home from the pub without risking their licence. Soft drinks are just too sweet.

Anonymous said...

On Störtebeker, here's an anonymous comment from R-Patz's blog:

"Stortebeker is basically the old Stralsund brewery, but it is trying to make good quality beers with a bit more thought to hop variety and so on. Their porter is wierd but the others are generally good. They do not do the full craft beer thing but rather a German conservative version."

(The porter comment was responding to me saying I'd had it & disliked it - far too sweet.)

Tom said...

Interesting perspective on the matter. Craft Beer Pubs seem to be picking up steam these days, veering away from the regular brewery owned pubs. Perhaps the health benefits can be attributed for this. I've found a couple decent pubs but there are London Craft Beer tours you can go on that will introduce you two a few good ones and with a nice crowd, save you wandering lost in the city looking for the good places:

electricpics said...

And don't you think it's curious that many Craft brewers always seem to have plenty of higher alcohol beers in their portfolio, and very few weak? There's a reason for that. Low and No is a niche that needs filling, but people mostly like the effect of alcohol.

qq said...

Never mind 5% of the German beer market, in Spain alcohol-free makes up 14% of the beer market. Obviously it's a lot easier when your full-fat competition is tasteless Eurofizz, but technology has moved on a lot in the last few years, and there's a lot of modern AF beer that's of a similar quality to say full-fat Heineken or Becks, which is good enough for many people if not those here. It works pretty well for lagers, but you do miss the alcohol in ales - I've not had anything darker than the Bernard amber that's really worked without alcohol. It's just a shame that Becks Blue is one of the less good ones - even the new version of Clausthaler is significantly better. And @Tandleman - I've seen someone have a session on AF Arcobrau wheat beer for the taste, even though they were not constrained by driving etc, it wasn't a distress purchase.

The best-before dates are a problem, they're typically <6 months.

But I think it's no surprise that it was a Scottish brewer that created Nanny State - it's a logical response to their drink driving rules. And it fits in with the general trend of people trying to reduce calorie intake - without the alcohol beer is actually lower in calories than most of the alternatives.

So while the trend towards AF beers is probably not going to trouble many people here, it is a "thing" that is only going to get bigger, helped by improvements in brewing technology, social trends and tougher drink-driving laws.