The sobriety shock

Friday, 1. December 2017 - 12:45

Verre de Rouge/Skitterphoto

Young adults are drinking less alcohol, although binge-drinking figures are holding steady. On the industry side, the new ‘wellness trend’ – as the International Wine and Spirits Record (IWSR) calls it – is having a significant impact on the alcoholic drinks market. Many alcohol producers appear well positioned to meet the new demand, with a range of low- to no-alcohol drinks hitting the market in the last few years. 

Falling consumption
Three recent reports, one on UK drinking habits and two on European ones, all show similarly downward consumption trends. The first study, released earlier this year by Britain’s National Statistics Office (NSO) shows 59.9% of young adults (aged 16 to 24) saying they drank alcohol in the week before they were surveyed in 2016, compared to 64.2% asked the same question in 2005. More generally, the NSO study looked at drinking patterns and bingeing. In the young adult category, it reported binge drinking is more likely to involve spirits and liqueurs, while older men who binge generally choose beer, and women look to wine. The report quantified a binge as anything that exceeds (for men) four pints of normal strength beer or three quarters of a bottle of wine, and (for women) anything exceeding three pints of normal strength beer or two large glasses of wine (at 250 ml each); these figures might come as a surprise to some drinkers. 

Meanwhile, a World Health Organisation (WHO) study, “Public Health Successes and Missed Opportunities 2016,” shows alcohol consumption by those aged 15 and older falling from 2010 onwards across the 53-country European Region. Two slight upticks can be seen in the central-eastern EU, which includes Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, and the central-western EU, which includes Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany. 

Third, the latest European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), which is conducted every four years in 35 European countries and covers the period 1995 to 2015, shows drinking (and smoking) declining in 15- to 16-year olds, although it noted that alcohol use remains high. In figures, the ESPAD said 47% of respondents had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days, down from 56% four years ago. The report added that there has been a marked decrease in alcohol consumption generally, since a peak in 2003. The prevalence of “heavy episodic drinking” (otherwise known as bingeing) remains almost unchanged over the last 20 years: One in three student respondents had binged in the past month. Overall rates declined from 36% to 35%. 

Low alcohol reaches new heights
Finally, on the industry side, the IWSR Global Trends Report 2017 sees many consumers opting to drink less but better quality, or simply less. The result is rapid growth in the low- to no-alcohol drinks sectors. New products include Diageo’s non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ Seedlip, Black Tower’s B low alcohol wine and Michelob’s Ultra beer. The IWSR report also found that “a rising number of brands now make claims such as natural, organic and dairy free, hoping to benefit from consumers’ growing affinity for these kinds of product”. It predicts robust growth in the alcohol-free wine sector, especially in France, where major producers Castel and Grands Chais de France are  investing heavily. 

Meanwhile, the report said low-alcohol shot liqueurs are gaining ground in Finland and Norway, while the “other wine” category is successfully reinventing itself in Latin America. In Brazil, for example, a local herbal wine, catuaba, has gained a cult following among younger drinkers, thanks to its low price, sweet taste and supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Key losers in the new paradigm, the IWSR said, are alcopops, or Flavoured Alcoholic Beverages (FABs). Consumption of these drinks is falling, particularly in the UK, Ireland and France, due to their negative associations with both binge drinking and low quality. 

In another sign of the times, Heineken launched a zero-alcohol beer for European markets in May this year. The brewer has been one of the most prominent drinks producers to encourage responsible drinking, most notably with their ‘Moderate Drinkers Wanted’ global ad campaign, launched in 2016. The English language clip shows women singing the Bonnie Tyler song “I Need a Hero” as men slump in alcoholic stupors. It closes with one classily dressed male refusing a beer, much to the admiration of the female barkeeper.

French producers aside, most winemakers have yet to invest in the no- to low-alcohol category, in part because wine laws mean low alcohol products can’t be sold as wine. But the costs of not doing so may be high.

A best-case scenario is higher prices for premium wines, if consumers do choose to drink less but better. The worst-case scenario was suggested by Konstantinos Lazarakis MW at the recent Wine in Moderation symposium: “Will my grandkids see the wine glass the way my son sees the ashtray?”
Sophie Kevany

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