“I think it’s only positive” – listening to publicans’ views on alcohol-free drinks

Andrew Misell | April 2024 | 9 minutes

Alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks are more popular than ever but what do the people running pubs think about them? Our team in Wales has been finding out.

One thing we like to do at Alcohol Change UK is get out and find out what people think about alcohol. One example of this is our annual drinks stall at the Newport Food Festival in south-east Wales. Over the years, it’s been a great opportunity to introduce hundreds of festivalgoers to alcohol-free and low-alcohol options and to hear their views on them.

The views we hear are mostly favourable, but we do get some complaints – not about the drinks themselves, but about the trouble people have finding them on a night out. People tell us that, whilst their local supermarket shelves are well-stocked with beers, ciders, wines, spirits and cocktails at 0% and 0.5%, they’re not so impressed by the selection in their local pub.

The good folk of Newport are not alone in this. In 2022, when we surveyed nearly 1,500 people across the UK who were trying to cut back on their drinking, 59% said that they thought the range of alcohol-free drinks in supermarkets was “good”, compared with just 14% who said that about pubs and bars.

Being a charity that aims to base our work on evidence, we wanted to find out more. Was there some reason the low-ABV offer seemed to be worse in pubs than shops? Were publicans reluctant to stock these drinks? Did they have difficulty sourcing them? Or did pub customers not ask for them often enough to make them worth stocking?

What the interviewees told us was genuinely interesting, and not quite what we expected.

We commissioned Opinion Research Services in Swansea to conduct in-depth interviews with eleven Welsh publicans and bar managers. The aim of this kind of qualitative research with a small sample is not to get big numbers we can crunch and extrapolate percentages from but to properly understand how people are thinking, feeling, and behaving. What the interviewees told us was genuinely interesting, and not quite what we expected.

Given what people had told us about their difficulties finding alcohol-free options in the pub, we’d thought we’d hear from publicans that they were sceptical about stocking them. In reality, the researchers found that people running pubs had “overwhelmingly positive views of alcohol-free drinks” and had become more positive about them in the last few years. They thought that the variety and quality of these drinks had improved. They were selling more of them, and more customers were asking for them. They expected to sell even more of them in the future.

There was a sense that a new type of pubgoer was emerging (albeit not yet in huge numbers) who were health-conscious and looking to socialise without alcohol. But the group mentioned most often as seeking out non-alcoholic options was drivers, and it’s worth asking whether rural pubs in particular may be missing a trick by not doing more to cater for those of us who need to get behind the wheel after an evening out.

When asked whether anything affected the demand for alcohol-free drinks during the year, publicans said that it tended to fluctuate in the same ways as sales of alcoholic drinks: people drank more of them during big sports events, hot weather, at Christmas, and on Bank Holidays.

Publicans reported quite a bit of variation between different drinks categories. As one interviewee put it, bluntly, “We got rid of the [alcohol-free] gin because nobody wanted it. But the beer, we’re flying through it”. That’s a bit of a sweeping statement but there’s a grain of truth in it, and we’ve heard it from other publicans in the past. Having reviewed around 450 drinks on our website, we know that there are a lot more 0% and 0.5% beers and ciders than spirits and wines, and the quality is better overall. There are some great alcohol-free spirits out there – we partnered with Lyre’s during our annual Dry January® campaign – but making a 0% alternative to a 35% or 40% whisky is much more challenging than taking a beer down from 3.5% to 0.5%.

Even with beers and ciders, it’s not always possible for pubs to give customers exactly what they want. Interviewees acknowledged that people preferred drinks on tap rather than in bottles, but they had struggled to offer this cost-effectively. Serving draught alcohol-free drinks requires substantial investment in new kit and, without alcohol as a preservative, anything that’s not sold quickly will spoil in the barrel.

That said, one pub manager was trying hard to get Guinness Zero on draught in time for the Six Nations – recognising that it has become synonymous with the tournament but that many rugby fans want to stay sober enough to appreciate the whole game.

In terms of volume of sales, although all the interviewees saw some value in alcohol-free drinks, they saw them as a small part of their trade. This generally led to them not marketing them very energetically, believing that the minority of customers who wanted them would ask for them. That said, when such drinks had been promoted, publicans said that customers had reacted well.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. Licensees aren’t pushing alcohol-free drinks because they don’t believe there’s much call for them. But would there be more demand for them if they were more obviously promoted in pubs and bars? Would more people who are not drinking alcohol go to the pub if they thought it would be more worth their while?

We do need to be realistic about the potential role of alcohol-free drinks in pubs. Pubs are businesses. Publicans may well have an interest in their customers’ wellbeing, but the main aim of running a pub is to create an attractive venue in which people will want to buy drinks. As one interviewee put it, pragmatically, “Hopefully, [alcohol-free drinks] will grow and encourage people to spend money. Even one drink helps in the grand scheme of things”. As another said, “I think it’s only positive. If you’re still hitting your markets by selling the alcohol-free drinks, then you’re still making the money and keeping the business”.

The challenge for those of us who want to reduce alcohol harm is to channel that pragmatic positivity and make the business case for improving the alcohol-free options in pubs. If we can do that, it could be a win-win for publicans and their customers.

Read the report