A few years ago, if the average pub drinker were asked if they’d be willing to forgo alcohol for one night they would most likely refuse, fearing they couldn’t enjoy themselves without alcohol. With previous non-alcoholic options rarely varying beyond fruit juice and coke from a hose, who could blame them?

Although there are still cynics of non-alcoholic drinks, the last few years have seen a steep rise in the number of non-drinkers. According to the Office of National Statistics around a fifth of British adults under 25 are teetotal, creating a new opportunity for a youth-led non-drinking movement.

Here enters Club Soda, founders of the mindful drinking movement and creators of an interactive guide to the best pubs and bars for non-drinkers. Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby, who gave up alcohol a few years ago, has an insight into this change in attitude to drinking: “Younger people seem more health-conscious in general, they are looking for experiences (rather than vertical drinking in a pub), they have less disposable income, and they don’t want to have embarrassing drunken pictures of themselves on social media for future employers to find.”

Fake spirits: new approaches to alcohol-free beverages

Consumer demand for more varied alcohol-free offerings has left a gap in the market that the drinks industry is hoping to fill. A new generation of brands has stepped up to the plate, ready to create a concoction of drinks to keep the health conscious and non-drinkers satisfied in the pub on a Friday night.

Soda Folk specialise in alcohol-inspired low sugar soda for consumers who want a sophisticated take on the usual offering. The range includes a gin & tonic inspired Juniper flavour, and a prosecco inspired Grape.

Fitbeer, an artisan non-alcoholic lager, focuses on reaching the premium market with a vegan, low calorie, all natural beverage that tastes just as refreshing as the original beverage. The brand claims it has seen demand double for its beer, as they thrive in an industry which has changed dramatically.

Fitbeer director and co-founder Becky Kean says: “Where this time last year a lot of trade was telling us people don’t drink alcohol-free beer and nobody would be interested, now they’re starting to get it as they’re seeing the big players like Heineken and Budweiser splashing billions of pounds on putting loads of advertisements out.”

One of the most striking markers of the change in industry attitude came in 2016 when Diageo, the world’s largest distiller, made its first investment in a non-alcoholic drinks company, Seedlip. Founded by Ben Branson, Seedlip is the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit, flavoured with botanicals to create an earthy taste, perfect for an adult palate.

Craft non-alcoholics: provenance and quality in the industry

Branson feels strongly that the non-alcoholic market is driven by the consumers’ need for high-quality products. Branson says: “We can create driverless cars, put people on the moon, yet if you’re not drinking, for whatever reason the fact that you can’t get a good grown-up non-alcoholic drink is bordering on ridiculous. We demand quality, provenance, morality and aren’t afraid to speak up for it.”

Quality is at the heart of the new alcohol-free movement, driven in part by the craft beer craze. Consumers now expect uniqueness, flavour and a premium quality to ensure they get value for money.

“The biggest thing before that was stopping it [the alcohol-free market] from growing was that all the options out there were just the mainstream, mass-produced lagers,” says Kean. “The craft beer thing took off and everybody was interested in smaller brands and experimental flavours and that hadn’t reached alcohol-free beer yet.”

Brands such as Botonique, an alcohol-free vintage wine brand, use its premium and vintage status to differentiate from other non-alcoholic wines on the market.

Just like the real thing: creating a grown-up beverage

As well as high quality, consumers crave flavours that are varied and complex. When asked why consumers want alcohol-free versions of spirits or beers, Willoughby says: “It is not so much that they want a drink that is similar to alcohol but they want something that is designed for an adult palate.

She continues: “Not so sweet, where they can drink multiple serves over a night (it is impossible to match your mates pint for pint with coke); something that pairs well with food and is sippable.”

Seedlip uses naturally mature and developed blends such as Jamaican all-spice, cardamom, citrus peel and bark to create a unique drinking experience. Branson intentionally did not use Juniper to avoid imitating alcoholic spirits like gin.

Another driver in the alcohol-free market is the renewed focus in the industry on low sugar or low-calorie beverages.

“When customers are having a non-alcoholic drink they are more likely to want drinks that are healthier,” says Willoughby. “Lower calories and no added sugar is key.”

She continues: “Next to water, an alcohol-free beer is the healthiest thing you can drink in the pub.”

Reaching the people: spreading the alcohol-free messages

While there is a selection of alcohol-free bars and pubs, such as Redemption Bar in London, most consumers rely on their local venues to stock new and exciting brands. Despite this, the industry has not fully linked up smaller producers with the rise in consumer demand.

“You can find at least one non-alcoholic beer in the majority of pubs (though we’d like to see more variety of brands), the spirits made a big entrance last year, but the wines are still rare,” says Willoughby. “The biggest issue is that many pubs would like to stock more variety and products that suit their brand, but the wholesalers are either dragging their feet, or set a high bar for the quantity they will stock. So we are stuck in a bit of a chicken and egg situation in developing this new strand of drinks in the market.”

Willoughby believes that pubs and bars are becoming more aware of these new trends in the market, stating that forward-thinking bars are already catching up to appeal to new consumers.

She adds: “Just think about alcohol-free as one of the dietary requirements: you need to serve gluten-free food, so why would you not serve your non-drinking customers? It makes financial sense too.”