A missing trick: Non-alcoholic beer

Why non-alcoholic beer could be a golden market in the UK’s capital.

In the 1980s non-alcoholic beer hit European shelves but failed to impress. Rave culture had begun to take hold of the UK and even high-profile advertisements by the likes of Billy Connolly could not compensate for the dour taste and lack of kick. Young and old alike just couldn’t see the point.

However, the atmosphere in London is changing. Could this once failing product turn into a success?

The facts are already pointing that way. A report by independent retail analyst Kantar Worldpanel revealed that sales have grown by 40 per cent across all retailers in the past year. Consumers have downed 15 million bottles from Tesco alone where sales have soared by 47 per cent. The stunning rise has been attributed to an increasing product range and improving taste as well as a changing target market: a health–conscious population, constantly subjected to graphic NHS campaigns, are more inclined to give up alcohol to gain a few years. This is all against the backdrop of a world where the consumption of alcohol is diminishing - UK beer sales fell by 4.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2013 alone – which makes the feat only more impressive.

However, the viewpoint of this article is that marketing gurus are missing a key group of London’s population: Muslims. The 2011 census Office for National Statistics showed that the proportion of Muslims in London had risen to 12.4 per cent of the population, with young British Asians increasingly flocking to the capital. Islam condemns the act of drinking alcohol as haram (forbidden) but, according to The Economist, several significant Saudi and Egyptian Ayatollahs have issued fatwas allowing Muslims to shake of their shackles and fill their glasses with the non-alcoholic stuff. The product has now swept across the Arab world.

The Middle East has already seen sales of non-alcoholic beer booming. Figures released by Euromonitor reveal last year 2.2 billion litres were downed with almost a third landing in the sin-free stomachs of middle-eastern Muslims. Even in Iran, where the state laments Western decadence, Iranians are drinking five times as much as they did four years ago.

What’s the draw? In the Gulf States, young Islamic socialites yearn for a taste of the west’s glamorous lifestyle without compensating their faith. Meanwhile it allows conservatives to drink in Saudia Arabia and UAE – countries infamous for their strict Islamic laws banning alcohol – without irking the authorities.  

So, big business can definitely be made by targeting London’s Islamic minority. The trick is tapping into it. Taybeh - a Palestinian brewer - have successfully done that by emphasising the Islamic side of their product: their label is coloured green, the colour of Islam, and on every bottle the word Halal (permissible) is inscribed in Arabic. A similar product is yet to launch here. In the UK, the British Heart Foundation has found that the number of shisha bars, which British Asian Muslims relish, has rocketed by 210 per cent in the past five years. A launch of a perfectly halal partnership between shisha and non-alcoholic beer could prove fruitful.   

Aside from the money, introducing non-alcoholic beer would have a significant cultural impact. Alcohol is embedded in society’s social gatherings from apéritif cocktails to Friday night pub trips. Faced with this conundrum, Muslims retreat into packs: Prevention is better than cure. Non-alcoholic beer could help bridge the gap between Muslims and their counterparts in a society which is increasingly worried about their social marginalisation. With the hate towards ‘radical Islam’ only rising following the brutal killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby, it’s a desperately needed step to Islamic integration.

Non-alcoholic beer is causing a stir. Photograph: Getty Images
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times