While dry events and venues, sober curiosity-led activities and the momentum behind mindful consumption have all been building for a number of years, the pandemic provided the fuel needed for the trend to reach escape velocity and fresh, intoxicating heights. There is, hence, little doubt by now that this is more than just a passing fad, as consumer demand appears to be sustained while producer investments, innovation and activities will only accelerate further. Uniquely high profit margins and the opportunity to cement corporate responsibility credentials in the face of increasingly vocal health lobbies will provide clear incentives for continuing on that path. However, a sense of perspective is important to avoid entering irrational exuberance territory.
Flavour versus functionality
Texture, flavour and complexity are all essential pillars defining the alcohol drinking experience and ritual. From tannins, bitterness, viscosity and dryness in the case of wine to hop-forward aromas in the case of beer to spirits’ key barrel-aged mouthfeel, alcohol tends to provide the structural base for sophisticated flavour profiles to develop and blossom.
Many no/low alcohol producers across different segments have been attempting to replicate that experience through the use of alternative ingredients and as technical developments evolve, the results are hugely improved compared to the offerings available over the past couple of decades.
However, beyond the drive for convincing and flavourful alternatives, the next stage of the category’s evolution will be tied to functionality. From chia seeds and whole grain cereal to “performance" ingredients such as electrolytes, vitamins or antioxidants, to calcium, chloride, magnesium, potassium and sodium, all the way to adaptogens and mushrooms, functionality will undoubtedly fuel the profound shift of the category’s coming of age.
No/low and cannabinoids: The holy grail?
While discussing the evolution of the no/low space, there is a very obvious - if rarely discussed - proverbial green elephant in the room. Cannabinoid infusions - be it CBD, THC or any of the plethora of minor molecules present in the plant - provide the perfect cross-pollination opportunity for the category’s next stage of evolution.
Allowing for either added functionality through non-psychoactive cannabinoids such as CBD and/or the psychotropic buzz of THC without the downside risks of a hangover, calorie intake or alcohol toxicity, cannabis beverages will increasingly rise as the most effective route towards adding value to an increasingly saturated and competitive area. Obviously, legislative barriers - and the alcohol industry’s inherent complacency, traditionalism and inflated reputational concerns - will need to first be addressed, a fact that means that North America will remain the de facto epicentre of such experimentation in the short to medium term.
While the excitement, enviably explosive performance and headline-grabbing media coverage will continue to drive the virtuous cycle of experimentation within the no/low category in all its formats, it is extremely important to stress its limitations and proverbial glass - or aluminium - ceiling. Historic volume growth and forecast projections might indeed be firmly within double-digit territory, but category size remains marginal and barely registers when compared to the industry’s historic bastions.
Over-optimistic projections abound; given that non-alcoholic beer, by far the most advanced and historically embedded among the key no/low category, rarely surpasses high single-digit share of overall beer sales in any key market - and still only accounts for low single-digit share or less in most - expectations should instead be moderated. No/low will grow but the death of alcoholic drinks in the trend’s shadow is greatly exaggerated.
Source: Euromonitor International Voice of the Industry: Alcoholic Drinks survey, November 2020
For further insight, read our report No/Low Alcoholic Drinks: Evolution, Drivers and Future.