The Suffolk brewers riding the wave of the craze for low alcohol beer
PUBLISHED: 15:07 05 January 2019 | UPDATED: 08:37 07 January 2019
A growing number of breweries are launching low alcohol beers, and Suffolk's own are leading the market
Back in 2016, when James Kindred and Rob Fink started up their low alcohol beer company Big Drop Co, ordering a low alcohol beer at the bar raised the risk of being ridiculed by your mates.
But most people (52%) now agree that no-alcohol beer has become more socially acceptable in the past two years, according to a recent OnePoll survey.
It is fitting that Big Drop Brew is sponsoring Dry January this year, because they claim to be the first brewers to launch in the UK with low alcohol as the main ethos of their brand.
Rob, a former City lawyer, and James, a former creative agency owner and entrepreneur, first met as students at Thurleston High School (now Ormiston Endeavour Academy) in Ipswich and went on to play in bands together.
The pair ditched the heavy booze when they settled down to raise kids. “Rob and I could see the demand growing for low alcohol beer, and at the same time, we were changing our own drinking habits,” explains James. “You can’t match a drinking lifestyle with getting up early to look after children,” admits James.
Big Drop Co’s 0.5% beers are now available in major Tesco stores across the UK, as well as online through Amazon and Ocado, and they’re embarking on a global expansion drive too.
But now it’s not just craft beer brewers that are embracing the trend for low alcohol, but big name breweries too, with Suffolk’s own leading the pack.
Last year, Adnams in Southwold launched its Ghost Ship 0.5% beer, St Peter’s brewery in Bungay started selling its ‘Without’ beers.
This week, Greene King in Bury St Edmunds got in on the act by launching a low alcohol version of Old Speckled Hen.
At a recent Diageo’s ‘The Future of Drinks trends’ session hosted by Diageo, it was predicted that low and no alcohol alternatives would continue to grow in 2019, with younger consumers driving the change.
Mr Kindred believes the movement reflects a big step change in society.
“It’s not just health and fitness people,” he says. “People cut down on drinking for a variety of reasons. You can drive afterwards, have a day out with the family, have one on a work night and not worry about feeling sluggish the next day.”
While the health benefits of low alcohol drinks are undeniable, some would argue that getting raucously drunk is a fundamental part of British culture and heritage.
Well, it depends how far back in history you go, according to James. “If you go back to meads (a drink made with fermented honey and water popular in the Middle Ages)- they were brewed to have very low alcoholic strength because they had been brewed and heated to kill off the bacteria, and were safer than drinking water.”
James admits there were parts of history where drinking was central to our British culture, but emphasises that pub culture isn’t the same as drinking culture.
“Pubs are points for the community to meet and we have to get back to that - things like Meet up Mondays (social gatherings to combat loneliness) help with that,” he says. “It’s trying to bring the community aspect back into the pub, but get rid of the happy hours and two-for-ones.
“It’ll be interesting to see whether pub chains like Wetherspoons embrace the low alcohol movement, and how that drinking culture will change.”
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, although millenials are the ones turning their backs on alcohol the fastest, Big Drop Brew don’t actively market themselves to the millenial crowd.
“The millennials drink less, but they drink better - they drink higher quality, so they will tend to drink spirits rather than lager, or alcohol free drinks which are essentially fruit juices,” he explains. “A lot of them will never have had a full strength before so they won’t have a taste for it. We do well with people in their late 20s to late 40s - that’s when the most lifestyle changes happen.”
As well as low-alcohol beers, Kombucha, a drink brewed from mushrooms, is also now becoming popular, and LA Brewery at Bentwater in Suffolk, which started brewing kombucha last year, is hoping it will catch on in pubs.
James is intrigued that Greene King is launching a low alcohol version of Old Speckled Hen, because he believes it appeals more to an older age group. “It will be interesting to see how it fares,” he says.
Craft brewers like Big Drop Brew, as well as Adnams and St Peter’s, are brewing their low alcohol beers naturally using traditional brewing techniques, which James claims makes them taste better.
Big Drop Co is based in Ipswich, and plays to its Suffolk roots - all bottles feature illustrations of Suffolk by local artist Helen Maxfield - but the beer itself is brewed in Wales through Tiny Rebel, is a large craft brewer. “We started off as a nomad brewing company, because two years ago there was no real industry for low alcohol brewing,” explained James.
Low alcohol beers have become popular as drink-driving has become more of a taboo, and Big Drop Co beers are proving to be especially popular in Scotland, where a zero tolerance drink-drive policy is in place.
“We also sell a lot of pale ale and stouts in Scandinavia, where the drinking culture is very different,” he says.
“We’re about to go into Canada and we have opportunities to go into Australia, where the drinking culture there is more in line with the British drinking culture. It will be interesting to see how the market there reacts.”
To cater for this growing global demand, Big Drop Co raised £500,000 last month and now has a bigger sales team on board and a projected turnover for 2019 of £650,000.
“The real trick then is to meet demand, which is always a juggling act,” he says.
James says he takes part in Dry January every year - “it’s a good reset”, he says. But this year, he claims there has been a “little bit of backlash” about Dry January being a risk to pubs.
“Last year the interest in Dry Jan was quite high, this year it’s quite polarising - not everyone likes it. There is this idea that people go to the pub less when they stop drinking. I think people should embrace the ‘Tryanuary’ movement that encourages people to try new beers - and we bridge both.”
Rob Fink explains how giving up the boozy city culture set him on the path to co-found a low alcohol brewer
“In 2010, I co-founded the City law firm, Fenchurch Law. I was largely responsible for the marketing side of the firm. However, at that time in the City, the drinking culture was fairly well-embedded and marketing could often mean afternoons spent in the pub, followed by dinner and drinks. It was all pretty good fun at the time but in 2014 I had my first child and bath time after an afternoon in the pub or night time nappies after a boozy dinner made it all seem less appealing.
I therefore stopped drinking completely for about seven months, However, I still had to go out to the pubs and restaurants with clients and that’s what made me appreciate the total lack of choice for those looking for a good beer, but without the side-effects of alcohol. All I really wanted was a decent alcohol-free stout but despite looking, I couldn’t find one at all. And so Big Drop was born.
“Nowadays, I enjoy a beer or glass of wine every now and again.”