Belgian brewers facing rising popularity of non-alcoholic beers

Belgian brewers facing rising popularity of non-alcoholic beers
Credit: Belga

More and more people are turning to non-alcoholic beverages, a trend that has not gone unnoticed by the Belgian brewing sector.

Social media-driven initiatives such as Dry January encourage people to give up alcohol for a certain amount of time to benefit from the physical and mental health benefits of abstaining but increasing numbers of consumers, particularly young people, are continuing beyond the end of the campaign and remain tee total.

Krishan Maudgal, director of the Belgian Brewers' Federation, says that growing awareness among people about their relationship with alcohol is one of the main reasons behind the shift. "Socially, a lot has changed,” he told VRT NWS. “There is more sense of responsibility and growing awareness about healthy living. People are more aware of their general lifestyle."

However, Maudgal sees what he claims to be a ‘hardening’ of attitudes against alcohol and that the public debate on the topic is heavily weighted towards the negative.

"Of course, you have to be very conscious about alcohol and we have to fight alcohol abuse,” he said. “But the general tone seems hardened to me. You now mainly hear a negative message. You see many messages in which alcohol is presented almost as a murder weapon. Anyone who drinks alcohol should almost be ashamed."

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The switch towards non-alcoholic beers and spirits is also having an effect on the brewing industry. Supermarkets are seeing a decline in sales of ordinary beers, and uptake in sales of specialist or artisanal beers. Moreover, the market share of non-alcoholic beers, spirits and cocktails is expanding rapidly, not just during abstinence campaigns but all year round.

The Delhaize supermarket chain in Belgium recorded an increase of 15 to 16 percent in non-alcoholic sales last year compared to 2021, with people in their twenties, thirties and forties the most likely to favour these drinks over alcoholic beverages.

Not to be left behind, more breweries are responding to this growing market and the preference of those consumers who want to live healthier but still enjoy the taste of alcoholic drinks, especially beers.

The segment of non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beers has grown by half since 2016. Within the segment of non-alcoholic beer, it is mainly the speciality beers that sell better, rather than alcohol-free lagers.

The rise of alcohol-free beers is not surprising, according to Krishan Maudgal, who credits the evolution of its quality and taste over time. "In the past, non-alcoholic beer was a pilsner beer from which the alcohol had evaporated,” he said. “Not only was this more focused on quenching thirst than on taste, the alcohol that served as a driver of the aromas had evaporated with it. The result was an empty, sticky, grainy drink."

That time is long gone. There are two new techniques on the market. One works on the basis of filtering out the alcohol with membrane techniques, while another one is looking at nature. "Brewers have found yeast cells that convert sugar into beer, but without producing the alcohol and while preserving the aroma,” Maudgal adds. “This gives a taste experience that is almost the same. Many breweries have jumped on it, we see a huge growth of non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beers."

So, is Belgium’s world-famous brewing industry in danger from the rise in non-alcoholic drinks? Krishan Maudgal does not believe so. "(Non-alcoholic beverages) will take an increasingly important place in the overall mix of supply,” he said. “But if you ask me if the alcoholic beer is going to disappear altogether, I say no."

"Beer is part of our DNA and our collective history and has also been recognised by UNESCO as part of intangible heritage in Belgium. The non-alcoholic beers will also play their role in our further development as a beer country."

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