Known in Europe as Hoegaarden 0.0, the non-alcoholic brew is already firmly established in Europe (no and low alcohol versions now make up half of Hoegaarden's Belgian retail volumes) and is expanding globally (such as with its launch in India earlier this year).
The brand is now looking to the US: with the current pilot helping it understand what American consumers want from the alcohol-free category.
It’s already seen interest from soft drink consumers looking for something new and healthier; while also opening up drinking occasions outside the traditional beer space.
Hoegaarden: Traditional history, modern consumers
The brand's history goes back some 600 years, with the Belgian wheat beer Hoegaarden White initially brewed by monks in the town of Hoegaarden.
Hoegaarden White (4.9% ABV) is widely available in the US: but Hoegaarden Soft Brew is the first non-alcoholic version to be introduced in the country.
Hoegaarden White: 4.9% ABV, 147 calories per 330ml
Hoegarden Soft Brew: 0.5% ABV, 95 calories per 330ml
It is using the same recipe as Hoegaarden 0.0 in Europe, but with a different name and different packaging for the US audience.
Described as a naturally brewed, non-alcoholic wheat-based beverage infused with fruit juice for ‘subtle color and slightly sweet taste’, Hoegaarden Soft Brew is currently available in the two US test markets of Rochester, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The brand is launching with paid media, retail displays, sampling and digital activations.
With an ABV of less than 0.5%, Hoegaarden Soft Brew comes in two flavors in the US: Rosé (with notes of raspberry and 95 calories) and Citrus (with notes of lemon and a calorie count of 76 calories).
It uses the same basic brewing process as other Hoegaarden brews. The beer is double fermented and unfiltered; but then the alcohol is removed and fruit juice infused as the final step.
The brews are packaged in 330ml cans. But while the European packaging is dominated by the colour blue, which is associated with the non-alcoholic beer category, Hoegaarden Soft Brew instead draws on fruity summer cues.
Harry Lewis, VP New Brands, Premium and Super Premium at Anheuser-Busch, says Hoegaarden Soft Brew is an example of how Anheuser-Busch (the US arm of the world's largest brewer AB InBev) is using its brewing expertise to innovate in the relatively new no/low alcohol space - one that is growing fast as consumers seek out healthier options.
“The non-alcoholic beer segment accounts for around 10% of the market in developed markets like Germany,” said Lewis. “Across Europe we’ve been observing a change in consumer behaviour and a growing trend in a healthy lifestyle and mindful drinking, and its rapidly developing.
“The US will catch up to that trend. In the US that same segment is less than 1%, so we see an opportunity to fill this gap as health and wellness trends continue to evolve.”
'A 12-ounce can of soda has 39g of sugar. Hoegaarden Soft Brew has 10g of sugar'
And Lewis believes Hoegaarden Soft Brew is more than simply a non-alcoholic beer: it believes it can hit the bullseye when it comes to numerous US beverage trends such as premiumization, bold fruit flavors, ready-to-drink options and portability.
“We have seen a rapidly growing trend in health and wellness as well as consumers choosing more premium products,” he said. “These are macro trends driving the growth of the beverage industry.
“We saw a big opportunity for Hoegaarden Soft Brew because it tackles both trends. Soft Brew is a “better for you, grown up soda.”
Pilot in progress
While big corporations are not associated with speed and agility when it comes to innovation, Lewis believes Hoegaarden Soft Brew is ready to take advantage of the opportunities in the no and low alcohol category in the US. It’s also boosted by AB InBev’s global ambitions: the company wants to see no/low products representing at least 20% of global beer volumes by the end of 2025.
“At Anheuser-Busch, we have implemented a heightened focus on innovation and speed to market to develop and launch new products in as short a timeframe as possible to be able to learn from consumers interacting with products in real retailer shelves or bars, instead of months of internal testing,” said Lewis.
Hoegaarden Soft Brew was introduced in Philadelphia and Rochester in August, and the 16-week pilot will finish in November. It has chosen two different markets so it can compare any similarities and differences on how and when consumers chose to drink Hoegaarden Soft Brew.
One of the key lessons it hopes to learn from the trial is what other beverage categories Hoegaarden Soft Brew can attract consumers from.
“So far, we have observed a lot of excitement coming from soft drinks consumers looking for healthier alternatives,” said Lewis.
“A 12-ounce can (355ml) of soda has between 125 and 180 calories. Hoegaarden Soft Brew has 73-95 calories. A 12-ounce can of soda has 39 grams of sugar. Hoegaarden Soft Brew has 10 grams of sugar.
“Also, we’ve seen success with existing beer drinkers at new occasions, such as lunch. We see people drinking a Soft Brew anytime they might want something refreshing and a quick pick me up – the product fits many occasions well beyond the traditional beer space.”
With falling alcohol consumption, more mindful drinking and a trend towards premiumisation, the stage is set for a bright future for the low and no drinks sector.
The Low 2 No Bev Show is a brand new - and unique - dedicated trade event which will be held at The Old Truman Brewery in London in June, 2020. Find out more at low2nobev.com