The rise in popularity in alcohol-free beer is reflected in the latest data from Stats NZ, which saw the category jump by 177 per cent after a 100 per cent increase the previous year.

In New Zealand, alcohol-free is defined as less than 1.15 per cent ABV. The beers might be small but the growth is huge.

Two years ago, Stats NZ data shows, there was less than 500,000 litres of sub-1.15 per cent beer available for consumption. That doubled to just over 1 million litres available in 2021 and last year jumped again to 2.775m litres.

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Total beer consumption in 2021 was similar to 2020, sitting at 292 million litres.

At the other end of the scale, beer in the 4.35-5 per cent range grew 10 per cent and the above 5 per cent category was up 4.7 per cent.

The move to the two ends of the spectrum was at the expense of beer in what’s best described as the “mainstream” category — beers with ABV between 2.5 per cent and 4.35 per cent. Most New Zealand draught styles (Speight’s, Tui, Lion Red, DB Draught etc) sit at 4 per cent ABV. This category dropped 16 per cent, or nearly 20 million litres, last year continuing a huge decline in the past six years.

The drop in 2021 could be, in part, due to bars being closed in Auckland (and limits on numbers in other areas) because of Covid-19 late in the last quarter of the year. But it also continues a free-fall that’s been going on for some time.

In 2015 this mid-band of beer accounted for nearly half the beer sold in New Zealand at 135 million litres but it has plummeted to 96 million litres in 2021.

In contrast, the volume of beer above 4.35 per cent has more than doubled in six years, increasing from 137 million litres to 288 million.

This move, to what the industry calls “premium”, naturally captures the booming craft category. That premiumization is also reflected in the rise of spirit-based drinks (13 per cent) and fortified wine (up 39 per cent) while wine consumption fell 5 per cent.

Some of the growth in spirits and fortified wine is a result of Covid-19 and the halt of international travel. What used to be captured in duty free sales is now being captured in the domestic data.

In all this, one thing stayed almost constant — we drank the same amount of pure alcohol (just over 36 million litres of ethanol) as last year. And on a per-person (over-18) basis we each drank 9 litres of pure alcohol, down 1 litre from 10 years ago.

What has changed in the past two years is that we’ve been drinking more at home rather than in bars, and we’re making different choices at both the high and low ABV end of the spectrum.

What does it all mean? People are definitely moving into craft (thank-you hazy IPA!) and choosing premium products with higher ABVs, but they are offsetting that by drinking less overall — this is because beer volumes have been steady or declining for quite some time despite population increases.  And now they are adding non-alcoholic beers to the mix we well.

So, you could argue we are, as a nation, drinking a little more responsibly in the past two years.

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