The evolution of alcohol alternatives - analysis
From sparkling tea to shrubs and moodboosting beverages, there is a burgeoning world of drinks with adult appeal that are not just alcohol alternatives, finds Lucy Britner
Remember the Volkswagen Just Like a Golf TV ad from about 10 years ago? Loads of cars were likened to a Golf but the message was that they ultimately weren’t the same.
Well, that sometimes feels like the low and no alcohol category, as more and more products try to ape the mouthfeel, taste and texture of their alcoholic counterparts.
But not all drinks in this space are alc-free spirits, beers and wines.
There are an increasing number of products that can meet the traditional alcohol occasion, but that don’t meet what has come to be recognised as alc-free versions of an established category.
“It’s impossible to get away from the straight ‘replacement value’ that an alcohol-free beer or spirit offers,” says Henry Chevallier Guild, founder of fruit, cider vinegar and botanical syrup brand Nonsuch Shrubs.
“This means it can be difficult to find any real alternatives to these styles of drinks,” He explains that one of Nonsuch’s USPs is that it is not pretending to be something else.
“Shrubs are utterly unique and one of these unique attributes is that they have never relied on ethanol to provide body, mouthfeel, finish – so aren’t as ‘hollow’ on the palate as many products that are alcohol-free equivalents of the ‘real thing’.”
Chevallier Guild points to the versatility of shrubs, which he says can be simply served with a mixer, as part of a three-ingredient spritzer, mocktail or a hot-serve, alcohol-free mulled wine. Other producers, too, are eschewing the dealcoholisation method.
Paul Beavis, former managing director of Lanson Champagne, is now chief executive of Wild Idol – a sparkling wine alternative that comes in Sparkling Rosé and Sparkling White.
“Unlike alcoholic wine or other dealcoholised wine products, Wild Idol has never contained alcohol and does not undergo a process of fermentation,” the company explains in its launch release.
“This means that, unlike most other non-alcoholic drinks, Wild Idol is naturally alcohol-free, so there is nothing to remove, and minimal handling required.”
Beavis adds that there was a gap in the market for a “premium offering that has no compromise on production method or taste”.
TIME FOR TEA
Also sitting in the sparkling space, sparkling tea is really carving a niche for itself. Saicho, for example, is a single origin sparking tea brand that claims to be “on a mission to establish a new category identity”.
Copenhagen Sparkling Tea, too, is making inroads and Freddie Cobb, head of drinks and wine buyer at hybrid retailer Vagabond, stocks the company’s jasmine variant, Bla.
“Copenhagen Sparkling Tea is a unique product,” Cobb says. “While there are non-alcoholic and low-alcohol sparkling tea options, it is slightly deceiving placing it in a low and no category as consumers, for the large part, expect a low or no equivalent of their alcoholic counterpart.”
For Cobb, the excitement of the category is the innovation behind new drinks not trying to mimic something else, something he believes Copenhagen Sparkling Tea has achieved. He says one of the key serves at the Heathrow site is in a non-alcoholic cocktail.
“Who says spritzes needs to be mixed with fairly neutral sparkling drinks?” he asks.
Tea also crosses over into the functional space. Late last year, Go Mate launched its range of “all-natural, sugar-free smart drinks”, made using yerba mate tea, to the gaming audience.
“We believe that our approach to ‘good energy’ will be a great asset to the gaming industry and esports communities, offering an evolved alternative to energy drinks that can boost gamers to the next level of play,” says Guido Rosales, co-founder of Go Mate.
And it is this evolution of energy drinks that is driving the next wave of functionality, believes KAM Media senior insights manager Laurence Brown.
“The pandemic has supercharged some past trends and stopped others in their tracks,” he says.
“One of these trends is the growth in awareness, trial, and consumption of functional foods and drinks.”
Brown says functional beverages are a type of drink marketed to highlight specific ingredients to promote a feeling or other positive effect on the mind or body – and the latest models go beyond traditional energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster.
Within the functional space, he highlights CBD, with KAM’s research suggesting that awareness, trial and consumption of CBD drinks has doubled – from 13% of consumers in 2020 to 26% in 2022.
Brown says 18 to 24-year-olds are most likely to drink CBD products. “Corresponding to the fact that CBD-infused products are a recent trend and younger people tend to be early adopters, it is unsurprising that over half of Gen Zs have tried CBD-infused products; much higher than any other age groups,” he says.
“Drinks manufacturers and operators should start to develop and list CBD options if they are looking to engage a younger audience.”
There’s more crossover here, too, and Altrincham-based Hip Pop makes a CBD-infused kombucha that is listed in Harrod’s.
“The brand has grown significantly over the past year. Since inception, we’ve successfully doubled our revenue year on year, and we now employ a growing team of 16,” says Hip Pop co-founder Emma Thackray.
It seems the key to not just being compared to alcohol is to take an altogether different route.