One step at a time by Ann Elliott

One step at a time by Ann Elliott

I’ve been thinking about Christmas this week, of course, but also considering the start of 2020. Like most of those I talk to about new year, I always start off well in terms of resolutions. They are always specific (reach 8st 7lbs by the end of January), measurable (the scales don’t lie), achievable (when I’m not hung over and have had more than six hours sleep for four consecutive nights), and realistic (I’ve done this before – many times).

For once, however, I’m thinking my new year resolutions should be more about eating and drinking healthily and less about trying to fruitlessly reach my pre-wedding size. I’ve whittled the options down to two – incorporating more plant-based dishes into my diet and joining the four million or so who commit to Dry January. Actually, it’s not simply a question of “going dry” – giving up alcohol can’t be that hard can it? – and more about finding low and no-alcohol options that aren’t boring, full of sugar or make me feel like a six-year-old when I order them.

Of course the “free-from” movement has steadily made its way into the mainstream, producing a permanent cultural shift as consumers, including me, seek alternative food. This trend is making headway in the drinks market too. Indeed, CGA reported alcohol-free beer volume was up 28% in the year to February 2019.

This may be a fraction of overall beer sales but clearly the low and no-alcohol segment is making strides. For restaurants, pubs and bars, increasing their range of low or no-alcohol drinks is a no-brainer – it improves customer satisfaction, builds on a rapidly growing trend, improves profits, and creates a more inclusive dining experience that embraces this social change.

This is where brands such as Seedlip come in, distilling non-alcoholic spirits to invent, among others, the nogroni and martino. They’re not alone – some of the top trends for 2020 include premium alcohol-free and fruit beer. With bold flavours, the newest low and no-alcohol drinks can provide an appealing alternative to alcohol. With all those options, I shouldn’t become bored.

If I do fall off the wagon, however, I might hit the spirits rather than my favoured white wine. There has been a revival in the dark spirits market. Go to any event this season and it will be brimming with young spirit brands, notably rum. I’ve seen a plethora of speciality rums springing up that focus on the experience rather than ABV, combining with inventive mixers and emphasising the origin of quality ingredients. Given the wave of success that swept the gin market a couple of years ago, it was only a matter of time before producers saw potential to add another spirit to the mix – but this time with moderation and experience to the fore.

Food and drink pairing isn’t new, of course, but I’ve also seen an increasing interest in pairing food with low and no-alcohol drinks and a number of operators have told me this trend will feature in their menu planning next year. The flavours produced in aperitifs and fermented drinks brewed with superior loose-leaf tea, for example, are ripe for matching with complementary dishes. It’s not just about removing the alcohol but adding value. Producers are looking at the isotonic properties of potential ingredients or the positives consumers can derive from the addition of quality botanicals such as chamomile, narrowing the gap between food and drink.

In a number of focus groups I facilitated this week enthusiasm for the low-and-no trend seems to come down to three key things – a dedication to well-being and cutting back on alcohol, a focus on memorable experiences rather than booze-fuelled nights out, and genuine curiosity to try new flavours.

All this has helped create the biggest opportunity in the drinks industry right now. Rather than having to fill up with a pint of sugar-laden fizzy drink or quenching my thirst with a jug of free tap water during Dry January, I’m looking forward to experiencing real creativity in the market place and not being bored by the options.

I think there’s so much creativity in plant-based/vegan menus nowadays my resolution to eat healthily should hold firm – for January at least. I just hope there are some really fabulous low and no-alcohol options to keep me off wine (and gin and rum and whisky) throughout January and perhaps beyond – but one step at a time.