Changing tastes

How adult soft drinks went mainstream. By William Fugard

The soft drinks category has historically been focused on delivering drinks that are child focused, however 2019 felt like a tipping point in the growth of the non-alcoholic drinks category. Today ‘No and Low’ feels like it has found its place, its voice and its purpose – it has even spawned an annual conference (the Lo & No Beverage Summit) and a new trade show in 2020 in London (Low2NoBev) backed by industry giants The Grocer and The Morning Advertiser.

As more and more adults embrace a more mindful approach to their relationship with alcohol, it is clear that the needs of the consumer have changed. The statistics are out there and identify a generational shift away from heavy drinking young adults and a maturation of drinking patterns with older consumers. Data from the Office of National Statistics from 2017 indicated 20 per cent of adults are teetotal with the 16 to 24-year-old category less likely to drink than any other.

Recognising an adult soft drinks category, and creating debate and engagement around this space, has been liberating and exciting for both consumers and drinks brands. Choice is back on the menu, with increasing numbers of brands developing soft drink propositions for the adult palate.

Adult soft drinks mean that the usual rules for flavour profiles have changed, and as a result we’re seeing sour and bitter flavours, more unusual citrus, and fermentation and acidulation with vinegar, all of which are creating engaging tastes that provide very compelling alternatives to wine, beer and long drinks.

Health and ethics have their role, too. Anecdotal research tells us that our customers are drinking less and drinking better; they want plant-based, they don’t want weird chemicals, and they are running a mile from artificial sweeteners. Better-crafted, higher-price point soft drinks have the potential to invigorate a stagnant soft drinks fixture in grocery stores and give bars, pubs and restaurants unique products with high cash margins that help deliver alternate revenue streams as alcohol sales decline.

Using our Gusto Organic Real Cola as an example – we’ve created an unashamedly premium take on the world’s best-selling sparkling soft drink. We strip out phosphoric acid, linked to reduced bone mass, and swap it with organic lemon juice, we remove synthetic caffeine, found in mainstream cola and energy products, and replace with African cola nut that is used ceremonially in East Africa and is a potent source of the stimulant ‘theobromine’. We sweeten with Fairtrade agave, and we add depth and warmth with Fairtrade organic Madagascan vanilla. Our Real Cola is our best seller, and it’s also the most expensive cola on the market at nearly £2 a 275ml bottle.

Better choices
Gusto Organic isn’t the only innovative company keen to introduce a new range of flavours to adults looking for alternatives to the booze. Referring back to the Lo & No Beverage Summit that I mentioned in the first paragraph – October 2019 saw two days of speakers and delegates from Diageo, Fever Tree, Seedlip, Pernod Ricard and a clutch of brands to watch such as Ceder’s, Caleno, us at Gusto Organic, Big Drop, Botanic Lab and Real Kombucha all get together and discuss the future. What was particularly exciting at the summit was witnessing how a room of alcohol and alcohol-free brands could be brought together to talk about better drinks choices for the adult consumer. When we bought back and relaunched the Gusto Organic brand back in 2012 our adult soft drinks proposition was something of a lone voice, but now the debate has matured into a more inclusive space where non-drinkers and alcohol consumers can explore ways to re-shape the drinks offer. Cutting back on alcohol should not exclude customers from great nights out and delicious drinks!

Mindful drinking is becoming more popular, with organisations such as The Club Soda movement attracting 50,000 members to take a non-judgemental and supportive tack on the issue of alcohol, and helping members across the spectrum, from those seeking to reduce alcohol consumption to those who have completely cut it out. Founder Laura Willoughby and her team are highly vocal fans of adult soft drinks and campaign for better choices in bars and restaurants, and they have helped re-position the perception of alcohol-free and are working with large chains and multiples are steering buyers in to this fast expanding sector.

There is no doubting the heat in the no and low sector with more new additions on the agenda – 2020 will see a raft of new CBD drinks launching in the UK, despite the current legal grey area around this ingredient. We’ll see functional beverages continuing to grow and push the envelope on ingredients, and by looking over at the US where drinks containing THC in place of alcohol are being developed, we can see a direction of travel with adult drinks that challenge conventional perceptions and push at the borders of legality. Spin forward 15 or 20 years and will we be drinking beverages that contain micro doses of psychoactive plants and mushrooms? I think we probably will.

Alcohol will always have its place – I don’t subscribe to the view that the last orders bell has sounded on alcohol consumption, however it may have serious competition from the forests, orchards and hedgerows as ancient plant medicines are re-discovered and re-imagined.

William Fugard is co-founder and chief flavour-smith at Gusto Organic, where the customer has always been regarded as an adult. Gusto Organic now has a range of eight drinks, all of which include fine organic ingredients, a focus on ethical sourcing and flavour profiles that are complex and layered. Focusing on the adult consumer has been incredibly liberating to formulation and design and has enabled the brand to nearly double in turnover every year for the last three years. Gusto Organic Drinks can be found in ten different countries, from Holland to Japan, in over 200 UK stockists nationwide, and in pride of place at the UK’s Tate Galleries.