Non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers are becoming increasingly mainstream, finally breaking their social stigma and general disdain. Although a seemingly insignificant fashion in our drinking behavior, the rising popularity of these beverages reflects changing consumer practices and social norms. As such, we need to understand the deeper social and cultural foundations that explain the appeal of non-alcoholic beer.

Our observations

  • Non-alcoholic beer is the fastestgrowing segment of the U.K. drinking market, up by 27% this year, and 58% last year. This trend of growing non– and low-alcohol consumption is mirrored in other countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, China, and the U.S., while the Middle East already has a long tradition of non-alcoholic beers, given the strict stigma on alcohol in the region.
  • Heineken and Carlsberg owed their record sales in 2018 to non- and low-alcohol beer sales, while AB InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, wants to increase its share of this segment from 8% in 2017 to 20% of its total sales by 2025.
  • This growth is not confined to beer alone, as the U.S. market for non- and low-alcoholic beverages will grow by 32% in the coming years. In Western countries, there is a trend of younger generations consuming significantly less alcohol compared to previous generations, such as in the U.S., Netherlands, U.K., and Germany.
  • Last year, researchers have published a review of 700 scientific studies on the burden and benefits of alcohol consumption. It found that no level of alcohol improves health, and that alcohol was the leading cause of disability-adjusted life years for those aged 15-49. However, the burden of alcohol spreads beyond doing harm to the individual consumer. A 2010 study found that of all the drugs and intoxicants available in the U.K., alcohol is the most harmful overall (followed at a significant distance by heroin and crack cocaine). The study distinguishes in the overall harm of the substances between the harm to the user and to others, and it is in the latter category that alcohol scores extremely badly.
  • Alcohol consumption is often a social activity, and high alcohol consumption is significantly related to particular life phases as well as temporary moments. For example, students tend to consume alcohol inlarge quantities because they think it is an integral part of their identity as a student and that it is a socially accepted practice. Similarly, most people consume the highest quantities of alcohol at the onset of or early in the weekend (from Thursday to Saturday) and state that their alcohol consumption is mostly related to social expectancies (instead of tension reduction expectancies, which is mostly related to weekday drinking).
  • In 2015, the U.K. government started theDry January” campaign, encouraging Britons to stop drinking. In 2014, 17,000 Britons abstained from alcoholic beverages during the 31 days of January, which increased to 4.2 million in 2018. In the U.S., one in five people planned to participate in Dry January this year,showing that its popularity is not contained to the U.K. Abstinence from alcohol has deeper, religious,roots in the U.K. and U.S.; Anglican and Evangelist leaders claimed that alcohol desecrated the individual’s soul and free the body from restraint, giving way to unwanted pleasures. This led to the “temperance movement” which sought to ban all alcoholic consumption, leading to the prohibition of alcohol between 1920 and 1933 in the U.S.
  • This practice of “teetotalism” has many other cultural exponents, as most religions prohibit the consumption of alcohol on spiritual and religious grounds, such as Buddhism (abstaining fromintoxicating substances such as alcohol or drugs is one of the Five Precepts), Hinduism (it does notforbid, but denounces tamasic food and drinks, such as alcohol and meat, that bring the soul out of balance), and Islam (most Islamic jurisprudence prohibit khamr, the Arabic word for wine).

Connecting the dots

Eating and drinking are intimate issues for most, as they are an everyday practice and closely related to culture and tradition. In many countries, especially in the West, the consumption of alcohol is deeply ingrained in social, cultural and even religious practices (e.g. the transubstantiation of Jesus Christ’s blood into wine during the Eucharist). Of these alcoholic beverages, beer is the most prevalent. However, non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic beers are becoming increasingly popular. There are various reasons why consumers are choosing non- or low-alcoholic beer over regular beers (containing 5% of alcohol).
Beer companies are playing into the growing thirst for non- and low-alcoholic beers and invest heavily in R&D in order to unbundle the taste of alcoholic beer, at the molecular level, and then rebundle this into beer without alcohol but with the same taste. Combined with lower prices because of lower taxes (because it does not contain alcohol), non-alcoholic beers thus become more attractive from a utilitarian perspective. However, there are deeper reasons, driven by more fundamental social and cultural trends that explain the appeal of these non- and low-alcoholic substitutes.
The first is that no- and low-alcoholic beer ties in with the rising “wellness mentality”, in which consumers want more control over their physical and mental health. This holds more for younger generations, who increasingly spend their time in virtual habitats, and thus place higher value on their physical and biological constitution and wellbeing. As such, many of them no longer find that the pleasure of consuming beer or alcohol in general outweighs the costs (e.g. a hangover, reduced concentration, worse sleep), and instead focus on those activities and refreshments that actually increase physical wellbeing (e.g. sports, healthy food).
Furthermore, digital technology empowers consumers to critically examine the effects of our consumption and practices to ourselves and others. Generally, we are living in a time in which traditions and habits are increasingly challenged, and consumers are applying this mindset to the health aspects of particular consumption products, exemplified by the rise of veganism and eating less meat or drinking decaf coffee.Technological rationalization creates a “risk society” according to the modernization theory of Giddens, as well as a society that is less willing to permit socially harmful behavior and practices.

As data on alcohol consumption tends to have a will of its own, unveiling that alcohol consumption renders the highest socially detrimental effects and costs, social norms are increasingly biased against alcohol and thus in favor of non-alcoholic beer.
More fundamentally, consuming beer is also an important cultural practice, especially when it isn’t related to tension reduction, but to societal expectancies. As such, drinking beer can be considered a rite of passage: these are rituals or ceremonies that inaugurate the individual in the world through the three-step process of separation, transformation or liminality, and finally incorporation back into the world. There are numerous social activities – especially in the West – in which one is supposed to consume alcohol that have the characteristics of a rite of passage (e.g. champagne on New Year’s Eve, “vrijdagmiddagborrel” as the inauguration of the weekend or “hazing” at fraternities and sororities). From this perspective, non-alcoholic beer enables those who want to abstain from alcohol, but want to be included in these socio-cultural rites of passage without subpar experiences.
This also points to the most fundamental element: our experience of consuming beer and alcohol. Phenomenologically, these are substances that “numb” or “anesthetize” us, blurring our experience of the world. However, consuming alcoholic substances does not befit our digital living world that continuously stimulates our senses (e.g. social media, ads) and invites us to act in the real as well as in virtual worlds. One could even claim that other types of intoxicating substances, such as XTC or weed, fit better with the markets emerging around hyper experiences and spirituality. Indeed, other intoxicating substances besides alcohol could actually help fulfill our longing to find holiness and meaningful experience.

Implications

Non-alcoholic beer could also become another “culture war phenomenon”, like LGBT rights, eating meat, vaccinations, drug legalization, stem-cell research, euthanasia, or sexual education. More radically, beerand alcohol could even come to have a new social stigma, given their harmfulness to health and society. Untangling this discussion and providing a meaningful narrative for understanding this polarization makes the tradition of hermeneutics all the more relevant in our times.
Non-alcohol beer is another exemple of a trend in which food (e.g. meat) and beverages (e.g. milk) are unbundled into their fundamental tasteful (or (un)healthy) components, and then rebundled into new tastes. Combined with 3D-printing technology, this could lead to wholly new designs for food and drinks, such as squared tomatoes for efficient transportation, food printed in the form of merchandise (e.g. action figures), or tasty medicines.