MCA examines the explosive rise of the low-to-no alcohol category, which has seen the most growth across the drinks market in recent years as both suppliers and operators take note of evolving attitudes towards moderation

In a bid to recover from the excesses of the festive season, growing numbers have made Dry January one of the most widely followed and certainly the longest lived ‘detox’ trend.

The low- and no-alcohol categories of the drinks market have correspondingly experienced a boom at the start of every year, sustained year-round by the increasing number of people looking to go teetotal.

According to charity Alcohol Change UK, which first launched the Dry January campaign in 2013, an estimated one in seven (15%) of all UK adults – some 7.9m people – gave up alcohol in January 2022, a 22% increase on the estimated 6.5 million who did so the previous year. The pandemic accelerated this shift, with a sharp increase from 3.9m adults participating in Dry January in 2020 to 6.5m in 2021.

While many are looking to reduce alcohol consumption rather than cut it out altogether, it is the alcohol-free subcategory that has made up the majority of the sales mix and seen the most growth across the entire drinks market in recent years, according to Jonny Jones, UK&I managing director at CGA. However, the vast majority of these consumers aren’t teetotal – they are simply looking to moderate.

“For the most-part, this isn’t necessarily about consumers abstaining from alcohol altogether, it is much more about moderation,” Jones tells MCA. “These brands cater to those going completely teetotal and those looking to moderate, so have a broader appeal.”

CGA research shows nearly nine in 10 bars now offer drinks without alcohol amid a rising emphasis on health and wellbeing that has led to the boom. Seventy percent of on-premise visitors are now actively trying to lead a healthy lifestyle – up from 64% pre-pandemic – with 14% of this number drinking more ‘healthy drinks’ as a result.

This growing market can be attributed to both health- and experience-led trends, according to Giorgio Rigali, who organises William Reed’s Low2NoBev trade event. 

“Other than abstinence and moderation, the wider consumer trend that is key in contributing is health, particularly demand for lower sugar and lower calorie products,” he says. “Another consumer trend driving growth is demand for experience. This has resulted in a boost for the functional drinks category – ingredients that help calm, excite, or focus the mind.

“The growth of brands such as Three Spirit, Sentia, Trip, and InTune is evidence of this.”

According to Rigali, the key challenge facing suppliers is increasing the visibility of their product. “One of the big opportunities and challenges in the on-trade is visibility…how brands get the products in front of consumers to allow for an informed choice to be made. Getting these products on tap is a great way of achieving this. This has been a key for success and expansion for Lucky Saint recently. Other brands such as Big Drop Brewing are achieving this too.”

While visibility remains a challenge, year-on-year, the percentage of consumers that say they have tried a low- or no-alcohol alternative has only gone up – and so has the number of players within the market. Existing brands have expanded their offerings with products like Gordon’s 0.0 gin and Guinness 0.0, while newer specialists like Lucky Saint are on the rise.

“The brands seeing success are the ones with a clear focus on the quality of the liquid,” Jonny Jones points out. “At the price points no and low alternatives are being offered at, they have to provide a greater experience than a traditional soft drink, so the taste of the product is key.”

Research from Alcohol Change also indicates 25% of those aged 18-34 were planning to do Dry January this year, compared to only 10% of those aged 55 and over. Similarly, 40% of 18-34s want to reduce their alcohol intake over the year, while only 20% of over 55s do.

Despite these figures, MCA contributing editor and Peach 20/20 founder Peter Martin believes moderation is not just about age. “The age thing can be a bit misleading,” he says. “Younger people are probably driving the trend mainly because they go out more.

“It’s about a lifestyle and about choice. It’s about giving people what they want. If operators don’t have a range these days, they’re missing out.”

In December 2022, research from CGA and non-alcoholic spirits brand Crossip indicated one in three bar professionals have increased their range of low- and no-alcohol drinks over the past year, while more than four in five plan to broaden their range in 2023. A few brands have been at the forefront of this evolving offer, foremost among them alcohol-free beer Lucky Saint – the self-proclaimed ‘official beer of Dry January.’

Earlier this month, the brand, which launched in 2018, announced it had raised £10m to fund the next stage of its growth.

“Alcohol-free has accelerated much faster than ‘low’ in recent years,” Lucky Saint MD Emma Heal says, echoing Jones.

Research commissioned by the brand predicts low-and-no in the UK will be worth more than £450m by 2024, and this is mostly being driven by alcohol-free. In terms of drinks categories, it is mostly beer.

“I think this is because the alcohol-free proposition is much easier for customers to understand, sometimes it can be tricky to find the right occasion for ‘low’. However, as attitudes change, I’m sure we will see the world of ‘low ABV’ starting to pick up pace.”

“We saw a real acceleration for the alcohol-free trend during lockdown with people drinking alcohol-free options at home,” Heal continues. “Now that trend has transferred to the on-trade, which is exciting to see.”

Lucky Saint is forecasting 25% year-on-year growth, with short-term goals including expanding its draught offering and financing a European expansion. The aim is to appeal to all types of people, rather than a specific demographic.

“We think more about psychographics than demographics, the desire to moderate spans all types of people,” Heal adds. “From people who enjoy an active lifestyle and people wanting to make healthier choices, to people with demanding lives or those who enjoy socialising but just don’t want the hangover.”

Despite explosive growth, Heal believes the alcohol-free trend is still very much in its infancy, with opportunities for innovation on the horizon. Experimenting with completely new alternatives rather than alcohol-free versions of alcoholic drinks is a key focus for suppliers looking to stand out within the space.

“As the generation who just don’t drink grow older, they won’t be looking for alcohol-free alternatives because they haven’t got the taste for wine, beer and spirits,” Heal says. “They’ll be looking for something new – it’s something we need to think about.”

Operators, on the other hand, are more and more focused on extending their offering, with CGA research indicating 78% of bar professionals believe the low-to-no category adds new occasions to people’s drinking habits rather than replacing current ones.

Clive Watson, executive chairman of the City Pub Group, said the 44-strong premium pub operator had noticed a growing trend towards moderation throughout the year and launched a campaign in response. The ‘Noughty but Nice’ campaign aims to increase the visibility of ‘noughty’ wines on offer at City Pub Group sites.

“If you drink an alcohol-free alternative as opposed to a grapefruit juice, you tend to feel part of the crowd,” he suggests. “It’s a trend that’s growing and growing, not just in January but throughout the rest of the year. I say let’s embrace it.”

With pubs and bars expanding their offer to cater to moderators, it certainly seems as though operators are embracing the shift.

“In a world where alcohol has been the centre of all social occasions for centuries, this change in attitude feels truly innovative,” Heal adds.