The global figures come as something of a surprise, given increased health awareness, concerns about binge drinking, and the rise of non-alcoholic beers. But craft beer often has a high ABV, making high strength beer ‘acceptable, trendy and sophisticated,’ according to the market research company.
However, a backlash against high strength beer is ‘almost inevitable,’ predicts Mintel.
IPAs and Imperial Stouts
At the beginning of the millennium, high strength beer accounted for one in 15 launches a year. In 2011-2012, these beverages made up one in seven launches.
In 2013, 25% of beer launches were high strength and in 2014 this figure was 23%.
Mintel says the statistics can be explained by craft beer: at the beginning of the millennium craft beer was a relatively small market, and in 2011 and 2012 it was still confined mainly to the US. Now, craft beer has expanded across the globe.
Craft beers often have a high ABV to create a more intense bite and more complex flavour. Mintel defines high strength as an ABV over 6.5%.
“Higher ABV beer tends to taste more intense, richer and complex – all premium taste cues that drinkers are increasingly seeking,” said Jonny Forsyth, global drinks analyst, Mintel.
“A rich irony in the emergency of high ABV beer is that America was – for decades – known as a place of low strength beer, typically criticised as ‘watery’ by European beer fans. Yet now the country has huge influence over craft beer innovation in Europe and elsewhere, particularly through its re-invention of IPAs.
“The IPA is comfortably the most popular craft beer style in the US and is characterised by very high ABV levels (usually 6-10%) as well as extreme hoppiness. Another style of beer growing in stature in the US is imperial stouts, often hovering at around 10% ABV.”
In January, Carlsberg UK said it was reviewing 500ml cans of 9% ABV Special Brew, having set a maximum number of alcohol units for any single serve can.
But conversely, UK microbrewer Brewdog has produced limited edition series of what they call ‘crazy high ABV beers,’ such as The End of History (55% ABV) and Sink the Bismarck! (41%).
“You could argue that stronger craft beer has merely made beer more like wine – a lower volume drink to be sipped and savoured rather than gulped. However, while craft beer drinkers are likely to drink less beer volume, the beverage remains primarily about refreshment and volume, particularly in the summer months,” added Forsyth.
The almost inevitable backlash
In Europe and America, stronger beers appeal mostly to 18-25 year old cohort.
A 500ml glass of 8% craft beer equates to four units, the daily alcohol limit for men (as per guidelines from the UK’s National Health Service).
“A potential backlash against this [high strength] trend is almost inevitable because there is far too much high ABV innovation happening,” said Forsyth. “Beer remains fundamentally a volume and refreshment beverage and high ABV beers quickly take modern health-conscious consumers over the recommended limit.
“The result is that, in many Western countries and especially the ones with an established beer culture, the preference for high strength beers is weakening fast among the 18-24 year old age group.”
European data for 2015 shows a declining preference for high ABV beers among this cohort, which have a strong awareness of health.
The greatest decline in preference for high ABV beers has been seen in Germany, balanced out by a rapid rise in non-alcoholic beer sales. France and Spain have also seen a considerable drop in high ABV beers.
The exception is Italy, where high-strength beers continue to be popular. Italy is seeing a surge of local, higher ABV craft style beer innovation, and the ABV levels of such beer still pales in comparison to Italian wines, says Mintel.