Brewers toast non-alcohol bonanza
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but increasingly there is such a thing as an alcohol-free beer over lunch.
Brewing giants AB InBev and Heineken, global competitors on many fronts, are now also facing off in SA in the lucrative zero-alcohol category.
Since last month, Castle Free - launched with fanfare two years ago - has had to contend with Heineken 0.0.
And though it takes longer and is more complex to brew zero-alcohol drinks, they have one distinct advantage for brewers: no excise duties, which could pad profits.
AB InBev, the world's largest brewer, has the global ambition to grow the low- and no-alcohol category to 20% of its total volume by 2025.
One of the brewer's first big moves in the South African market, after taking over SABMiller more than three years ago, was to launch Castle Free in 2017. It was the country's first locally brewed alcohol-free beer.
It was a runaway success from the start.
"The response has been extremely encouraging. During 2018, we received orders for exactly double our brewing capacity, which led us to invest in increasing capacity threefold," said Castle Lager brand director Vaughan Croeser.
The company now has enough to supply current demand, but it is on the rise.
Castle Free retails for around R70 a six- pack in a bottle store, and Castle Lite and Lager go for about R65 and R60 respectively.
"Because this is a relatively new brand to SA it represents a small but growing share of our total volumes," said Croeser.
Zero-alcohol drinks are aimed not so much at curious teetotallers, but more at existing drinkers who want more options when it comes to consumption. Castle Free is being punted as a "pacer" to use in between other drinks to encourage moderation.
Heineken is also very much in the game. The brewer's global CFO, Laurence Debroux, used the example of having a beer over lunch on a regular day of work in a presentation to analysts last month.
Boozy lunches are commonplace in period dramas such as Mad Men, but are not easy to justify in the 21st century. And that is where the alcohol-free option comes in.
Though AB InBev, through its subsidiary SA Breweries (SAB), still dominates the South African beer market, Heineken has made it clear it intends to capture a larger share of the market. Its Sedibeng brewery has been running for nearly a decade and it has worked hard on both marketing and distribution, gnawing away at SAB's share of South African throats.
And Castle Free's success strengthened its resolve to launch Heineken 0.0 last month, as the company puts it, to: "[open] up new drinking occasions outside of traditional beer consumption moments."
"While the low- and no-alcohol category is still in its infancy in SA, it holds great promise as seen by the strong growth globally. Consumers are making healthier lifestyle choices and moderation becomes the new socially accepted norm," said Heineken SA's marketing manager, Lauren Muller.
Though Heineken does not break out a number the way AB InBev does for the volumes of low- and no-alcohol beers it is targeting, it does see it as a lucrative category: SA is only one of 16 markets where it is offering Heineken 0.0.
Less than a week after Heineken 0.0 hit the shelves, Distell launched an alcohol-free version of its Savanna cider. Positioned as an April fool's joke initially, the company came out on April 2, saying that the product really exists - it was tried out in Namibia last year - and it is now pushing it in the no-alcohol category.
The absence of excise duties on alcohol-free products gives producers a much larger slice of the selling price and increases profit margins, said Distell spokesperson Frank Ford.
Though no-alcohol is very much in vogue, brewers are still keeping at it with low-alcohol options too. SAB launched its low-alcohol Hansa Golden Crisp in October last year. Modelled on products that have worked well for AB InBev in Latin America, the beer is positioned to also appeal to women.
"In the first few months there has been good take-up of the product and our plan is to build at this, focusing on its core target audience in the short to medium term," said Hansa Pilsner brand campaign manager Aletta Eksteen.