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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt