This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Sunday Times, May 6, 2018.
HOW much alcohol is in ‘alcohol free’ beer? You might think that, even after a few pints, this would be an easy one to answer. But thanks to complicated labelling laws and a disagreement between the UK and Europe over definitions of ‘non-alcoholic’ an increasing number of beers on the market are labelled ‘alcohol free’ when in fact they contain 0.5% ABV (alcohol by volume).
A ill-tempered row between different beer makers and charities has frothed over, ahead of a deadline this week for submissions to a Government consultation, which hopes to make alcohol labelling clearer.
The need for clarification has been prompted by a huge surge in non-alcoholic and low-alcohol drinks. Last month, Department of Health documents showed that in just 12 months to July 2017 sales of this category rose by 20.5 per cent, as Millennials increasingly embrace so-called ‘mindful drinking’ by cutting back on booze.
A large number of small, independent brewers catering to this market have set up over the last year, such as Infinite Session, Nirvana and Fitbeer. They make beers that contain 0.5% or 0.3% ABV – compared with traditional beer with an ABV of between 4% and 5%. Though they clearly state their ABV level, they also describe themselves as “alcohol free” on their labels. They claim at this level the alcohol is negligible and drinkers would find it impossible to become inebriated. Also, this is labelling practice followed in Germany, Europe’s biggest low-alcohol beer market.
“It’s widely accepted across the EU and America that 0.5% is alcohol free,” says Becky Kean, 27, co-founder of Fitbeer a 0.3% alcohol beer. “Because at that level it’s a trace amount of alcohol. You can’t get intoxicated on that amount of alcohol. It’s the same amount of alcohol as you’ll find in orange juice that’s been open for a bit, or a ripe banana.”
She, and her fellow small brewers producing 0.5% ‘alcohol free’ beer are, in part, backed by a leading alcohol charity. Dr James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at the charity formed by the merger of Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK said: “If you’re drinking a 0.5% ABV beer, your body will almost certainly process the alcohol faster than you can drink it. On top of that, it is almost impossible to produce a fermented product with no trace of alcohol at all.”
However, others say to call a 0.5% beer ‘alcohol free’ is misleading or even dangerous.
Steve Magnall, chief executive of St Peter’s, an upmarket brewery set up more than 20 years ago in Suffolk, says: “Fundamentally, it’s wrong. It’s like something labelled vegetarian or Kosher and you put a slither of ham in saying ‘oh, don’t worry, it’s only 0.5% ham so it doesn’t matter’. Just because they do in Europe doesn’t make it right. It’s ethically and morally completely wrong.”
His rivals say he is driven by commerce — St Peter’s launched a range of 0% beer in 2016.
Chris Hannaway, who started Infinite Session earlier this year, says: “Everyone knows this market is growing at a rapid pace. It’s purely St Peter’s trying to protect their niche, and stop the innovation and growth that is happening. They have a commercial interest in stopping this.”
Mr Magnall admits he would benefit from the rules being decided along more rigid lines but denies commerce is the main factor – merely a desire to help recovering alcoholics. He points out he is supported by the Salvation Army, which helps many alcoholics. Lee Ball at the charity says: “No matter the percentage of alcohol content within a drink, misinformation on labels has the potential for serious consequences for people like the men and women we support, who are fighting addictions.”
The current labelling laws state that any beer between 1.2% and 0.5% should call themselves ‘low alcohol’. Below 0.05% it can be called ‘alcohol-free’. The grey area is between 0.5% and 0.05%. The current laws say beer at this level should be called ‘de-alcoholised’, but this refers to a method of making beer or wine which involves stripping out the alcohol through a filtration process. The new generation of 0.5% beer mostly use brewing techniques to stop the fermentation process very early on; it has not be ‘de-alcoholised’.
“It’s a complete mess,” says Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, which organises low and no-alcohol events. “Speak to two lawyers and they’ll give you three answers as to what you can put on a label. But the government is running out of time to come up with a better system.”