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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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.