Brews without the bruises

Alex Metcalfe started experimenting with no-alcohol beer about five years ago. Originally from Britain, he now lives in Hong Kong’s leafy Sai Kung district with his wife and two small children and he works as a teacher in a Hong Kong school. “I started drinking no-alcohol beer because I wanted to reduce my alcohol intake,” he says. “If you’re going on a night out, or round to somebody’s, it’s an option. You don’t have to go down the public drunkenness route.”

Drinking full-strength beer, wine and mixed drinks was once considered the norm around the world, but a titanic shift in attitude has been underway for some years. In line with their concerns about eating sugar, meat and junk food, more and more health-conscious consumers are turning away from alcohol. 

People around the world are trying on teetotalism for size, beginning with booze-free months such as Dry January – a popular post-Christmas season time out. 

Unwilling to endure regular painful hangovers or to provide fuel for social media sniggers via revealing shots of drunkenness, younger drinkers are increasingly trying different options – alcohol-free beer and cocktails. 

Baby boomers, too, reaching an age when it becomes essential to maintain fitness and health, are forgoing big boozy evenings and embracing moderation.

Last year, alcohol consumption in 10 nations — including the once big drinking nations of the US and Germany, as well as Japan and Brazil — fell by 5 per cent, according to beverages market analysis firm IWSR, but increasing sales of no-alcohol and low-alcohol beverages bucked the trend. 

No-alcohol beer is widely available in Hong Kong. Supermarket chain ParknShop sells a six-bottle pack of no-alcohol Kellegan Pur Malt online for $42.90 and Carlsberg’s no-alcohol beer is sold by HKTVMall for $36.90 for a four bottle pack. Restaurants and bars, when they are 0pen, routinely list no-alcohol beer and liquor on menus, and bottle shops across Hong Kong stock a wide range of specialty no-alcohol beverages. 

After his children were born, Metcalfe gradually switched from his habit of drinking alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers at different times and in different moods, to the realisation he really only enjoyed alcohol-free beer. The choice to entirely dump beer with alcohol in it, he says, hasn’t hampered his social life. 

Particularly being British, there’s a lot of public pressure to drink beer,” he adds. “If you have a non-alcoholic beer you almost feel you are taking part. Maybe you don’t emphasise the fact there’s no alcohol in it.” His no-alcohol beers of choice are often pale ales, brands like Gweilo Fun-house, Big Drop Pine Trail and Brewdog Nanny State. 

Brewers have invested heavily in their alcohol-free offerings, and connoiseurs, like Metcalfe, now say they often can’t immediately tell the difference in taste between a full-strength beer and the no-alcohol version. 

Even though no-alcohol beers sometimes contain a negligible amount of alcohol, say less than 1.5 per cent, and they are still classified as no-alcohol beers in many nations. As well as a greatly reduced alcohol content, they also have fewer kilojoules – an increasingly important factor for health-conscious consumers. 

Beverages retailer Danny Wong has noticed an increasing appetite for no-alcohol beer in Hong Kong. He and his partner founded The Bottle Shop in Sai Kung six years ago and the operation now sells beer, wines, spirits and other merchandise over the counter as well as delivering all over Hong Kong to a long list of customers including Alex Metcalfe. 

Wong doesn’t believe the trend to no-alcohol beer has been significantly boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the social restrictions in Hong Kong. “It’s actually been steadily increasing for the past two or three years now,” he says. “The quality has improved significantly as well. Demands outstrips supply, and the supplier runs out regularly.”

Wong’s Bottle Shop stocks three types of no-alcohol beer, Big Drop Brewing pale ale, Brewdog Nanny State Hoppy Ale, and Suntory All-Free lager. Wong believes only beer drinkers will try no-alcohol beers; it’s a taste that rarely appeals to non-drinkers. “It’s usually those who have been drinking for a long time and just want a change,” he says. “They want to mix it up; they still want to be functional after a few drinks.”

He thinks it’s strange that beer, full-strength or no-alcohol,  isn’t more popular in Hong Kong. “As much as it does pair with Asian food, beer isn’t that big a culture here in Hong Kong, especially quality beer,” he says. “Given how well it goes with the weather and the food, it’s not actually as popular as, say, wine.”

Although perhaps more abstemious than the people of other nations, Hong Kongers like an occasional alcoholic drink. A Health Behaviour Survey in 2018-19 found that nearly 9 per cent of residents drank an alcoholic beverage at least once a week. Men more than women had a tipple, and more older people than younger people. 

The thirst for no-alcohol or low-alcohol beer is driven by these younger consumers and drinkers who look to a healthier future. Some brewers, particularly in the US, are even marketing low-alcohol beers with added electrolytes as sports drinks. Other beer ingredients intended to appeal to the health-conscious include sea salts, minerals, fruit and herbs. 

“What we’re seeing is a moderation trend that’s sweeping across key global markets, and that’s bringing with it increased demand for reduced alcohol, or alcohol-free drinks,” says Mark Meek, chief executive officer of IWSR in a February report. 

Consumption of no-alcohol and low-alcohol beverages grew by 30 per cent in the US in 2020, despite the industry facing massive Covid-19 challenges when venues closed down in nearly every town and city, according to the report. Consumers worldwide, it says, now increasingly accept no-alcohol and low-alcohol beers as quality products. 

Major players have sniffed these winds of change and brewers like US-based Anheuser-Busch introduced alcohol-free Budweiser Zero in 2020 and Japanese beer giant Asahi plans to launch “Beery”, with 0.5 per cent alcohol content in 2021.  

The managing director of Hong Kong beverage distributor Sipfree, John Docherty, worked for Heinken for 15 years before seguing into the alcohol-free drinks sector with his own firm. 

He first began to understand the appeal of alcohol-free drinks to a younger generation when he went to the launch of a pop-up soy milk corporate promotion. “The buyers were young and healthy,” he says. “A lot of the people went out to bars and restaurants but very few of them actually drank.”

Docherty remembers when ordering an alcohol-free beer was considered a no-no, the act of a wowser or party-pooper. 

“It was frowned on years ago if you walked into a bar or walked into a restaurant and asked for a non-alcoholic beer,” he says. Times have changed and a range of new exciting no-alcohol beers in various styles, including lagers, ales and others, is now available. 

Marketed in well-designed bottles and with catchy labels, the beers appeal to people who simply don’t want to drink much, or any, alcohol, he adds. “The quality and the taste, by comparison, is unbelievable,” he says. “Some of the beers – taste is exactly the same. You would never know.”

Sipfree imports nine different alcohol-free beers from abroad including Mikkeller wheat ale (0.3 per cent alcohol) from Denmark, as well as beers from UK-based Big Drop including Pine Tree pale ale (0.5 per cent), Paradiso Citra IPA (0.5 per cent) Galactic Milk stout (a Guinness-like beer, 0.5 per cent) and Double Strike sour (0.5 per cent). 

From VandeStreek in the Netherlands comes Playhouse IPA (0.5 per cent), Fruit Machine sour (0.5 per cent) and Bock (0.5 per cent) and the limited edition Funhouse Gwei-lo IPA (0.5 per cent alcohol) in collaboration with Hong Kong brewers Gwei-lo. 

“The business is growing month on month; it’s amazing,” Docherty says. “We’ve only been going 14 months and the demand is from all over Hong Kong.” 

Sipfree sells a range of nine alcohol-free beers, along with alcohol-free wines and liquors, via four different channels; to retailers, including Wellcome and CitySuper, to hotels, to restaurants and on-line. The return of Hong Kong’s bars will add another dimension of consumption.

Docherty notes that restaurant menus once rarely included alcohol-free beers, but now often entire sections are devoted to the genre, signalling a giant shift in thinking. “It’s been a massive change,” he says. “I’m a believer.”