Since the Government dropped the duty on low-strength beer last year, brewers have got in on the act. But are customers interested? James Wilmore reports
You can tell a trend has broken through when the big boys start getting involved. Molson Coors' launch of a 2.8% abv version of Carling this month - Zest - backed by a £1.9m advertising campaign, adds to the flood of low-strength beers that have hit the market of late.
Intriguingly, what initially inspired this trend was not consumer demand, but Government legislation. Back in October, a change in law saw the duty rate on 2.8% abv beers cut in half. At the same time, tax on beers above 7.5% abv rose 25%. So why the move? Part of the reason given by the Treasury was to "encourage industry to produce, and drinkers to consume, lower-strength beers." And, amazingly for a Government policy on alcohol, it appears to have worked.
Since October, this slew of 2.8% abv beers - predominantly ales - have come from small breweries and larger regionals alike. Greene King, Fuller's, Wadworth and Adnams have all got in on the act. But so, too, have the likes of Nethergate and the Wolf Brewery. There doesn't appear to be any danger of these brews overtaking their leading sellers just yet, but anecdotal evidence suggests these lower-strength liquids have, on the whole, gone down well.
But are these beers a sign of brewers just feeling a need to keep up with the competition? Or is there genuine demand for low abv beers among drinkers? How have brewers approached the challenge? And what can operators do to turn customers on to this new sub-category?
For some operators, the results have been very positive. At Wadworth managed house the Fox and Hounds in Theale, Reading, licensee Daryl Cooper recently stocked the brewer's Small Beer for about two months, as a guest beer. He now regards it as "one of the best moves ever made by Wadworth" and says customers "were going crazy about it". Since he had Small Beer taken off, he has had customers asking why. The reason, he says, is because it is being treated as a seasonal beer and he wanted a change.
What made him stock a 2.8% abv beer? "We were told Wadworth was bringing out a new low abv beer and I thought it sounded interesting, so we ordered some," he says. "We did some point of sale and posters, I ordered a barrel and we managed to sell around three firkins a week.
"We had a fantastic amount of good feedback. Customers said they liked the fact they could easily have two pints at lunchtime." The beer's appearance also helped. "It doesn't really look like a 2.8% beer, it looks like it has a lot of body," says Cooper, who runs the pub with his wife Katie.
The other plus-point for locals was the price. "Customers were attracted by the £2.50 price, big time," he says. In terms of marketing, it only needed "pushing for a week or two" before customers were familiar with it.
Meanwhile, at the Dove Street Inn in Ipswich, they've had a similarly positive reaction. Since 2.8% abv beers have been on the market, licensee Adrian Smith has had Greene King's Tolly English, Adnams Sole Star and Nethergate's Small Beer on the bar. The Dove Street Inn is a specialist real ale house, so Smith did not feel he was taking a big risk in stocking unusual beers. Even so, he has been delighted by the feedback.
"They're proving very successful," he explains. "We always said, as long as they have flavour and body people will drink them - and that's proving the case. The good thing is, it's encouraging people to come for the social experience rather than getting drunk." Smith has sold the beers at £2.60 a pint, adding: "We could have made them cheaper, but I don't believe in devaluing a product."
In particular, Tolly English has proved popular. "It's got a lot of flavour for a weaker beer." Asked if he would stock more, Smith says he will "watch the market". But he adds: "We have a microbrewery ourselves, so we'll consider doing something weaker than our mild." Overall, his advice to other operators is to "give it a go".
It appears, however, not all licensees are as willing to embrace this new breed of beer. According to Rob Flanagan, managing director of Nethergate Brewery, licensees are quite fixed in their opinions about low abv beers. "Our feedback has been very good, but it's an interesting style of beer because it does polarise opinion. We tend to find landlords are quite black and white as to whether they'll take one," he says. "Some think a 2.8% beer won't work for them, but some keep coming back for more."
The company had considered producing a lower abv beer "for a while" and Flanagan admits it has been a challenge to get the flavour right. But the brewery has achieved that with its Small Beer ale. "The only way to get a full flavour is through adding lots of hops and malts," he says. "Small Beer actually has three malts and three hops, but people would say it drinks stronger than a 2.8% beer."
Nethergate does not brew Small Beer the whole time and tends to treat it like a seasonal and produce it every couple of months. Flanagan noticed it sold well at the start of the year.
"In January, I think people have had their fill of alcohol over Christmas and are looking for a weaker option," he says. Nethergate has been so pleased with the success of Small Beer, it is even considering doing another type for the summer. "Small Beer was purposefully quite full flavour and we might do a lighter, blonder beer, with maybe coriander and ginger for July, to make it refreshing," says Flanagan.
Meanwhile, in Suffolk, Adnams has also seen its duty-saving low abv offering, Sole Star, performing well, after a slow start. The brewer decided to actually run an online survey before releasing a low abv beer to gauge how it would be received. "We weren't sure what people's reaction would be from the survey, but it was overwhelmingly positive," says head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald.
Sole Star is branded as 2.7% abv. The reason for this, Fitzgerald explains, is that it can ferment in the cask and it is better to brew it at the lower abv instead of risking going above that level and incurring a financial penalty. Similar to Nethergate, Adnams has also found persuading pubs to take such a low abv beer can be difficult.
"It tends to sell well in the pubs it goes in," says Fitzgerald. "The biggest hurdle is getting the landlord to put it on and convincing them their customers will buy it. But once it's there most people don't realise it's only a 2.7% beer."
He admits demand in the past few months was not "great" but over the last month it has picked up." But, overall, Fitzgerald approves of the idea of low abv beers. "I think they are a good thing as long as people get the product right," he says. "Some people have produced them, but not thought about who they are trying to get to drink it. But as long as they taste like a proper beer that's fine."
With the ongoing focus on healthier lifestyles and a Government determined to tackle the problem of binge-drinking, low abv beers could have an important part to play. But whether pubs, and indeed customers, will ever truly embrace this as a mainstream option remains to be seen.
Tips for stocking 2.8% beers
● Work out whether your customer base would be willing to try a lower-strength beer
● 2.8% abv beers tend to be lighter, so should be ideal for the summer and daytime trade
● Encourage customers to try one initially, but perhaps don't tell them the strength to avoid preconceptions
● For rural pubs, a 2.8% abv beer could be an option for a driver, but be wary of promoting drinking and driving
● Once established, get your staff to promote them to customers as an option for more health-conscious drinkers. Announce on Twitter and Facebook that you are selling a 2.8% abv beer as a point of difference to your competitors
A selection of low abv beers on the market
● Sole Star (2.7%) - Adnams
● Small Beer (2.8%) - Nethergate Brewery
● Tolly Cobbold English Ale (2.8%) - Greene King
● Copper Ale (2.8%) - Caledonian Brewery
● Summer Stout (2.8%) - Brodie's Brewery
● Guinness Mid Strength (2.8%) - Diageo
● Sweet Sussex Stout (2.8%) - Harvey's
● Hero (2.8%) - JW Lees
● Pale Ale (2.8%) - Marston's
● Founder Brew (2.8%) - SA Brains