“Lager or Bitter?” That used to be the question that greeted patrons up and down the UK when they entered a pub. Anyone who’s ever worked in such an establishment will have been reliably informed by customers that Britain’s golden drinking age is far behind us.
Indeed, the poor unfortunate drinkers of the present day have to navigate such a vast range of products that consumer alcohol exhibitions have started to spring up all over the country, just to help them cope with the strain.
There are even events dedicated to low- and non-alcohol drinks, which the ‘golden age’ customers would presumably find extremely sacrilegious.
The alcohol industry, like every other, is constantly evolving. Factors such as stricter drink-driving laws, health concerns and changing attitudes have all had an impact on the sector.
While these changes may well be having a negative effect on pubs and bars – indeed, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) reports 29 pubs are closing each week across the UK – the changing face of the alcohol industry could well represent an opportunity for exhibition organisers.
“What we’re seeing across the country is that customers want to try different things, they want to try unusual things and they want to try beers that have different flavours,” Nik Antona, CAMRA national director, tells EN.
CAMRA was founded by a small number of real ale enthusiasts in 1971, and has grown into a hugely successful consumer campaign with over 187,00 members around the world.
The organisation runs 200 events across the UK including its flagship event the Great British Beer Festival, which is held each year in London.
“When we first produced The Great British Beer Festival in the 1970s, there were less than three or four hundred breweries in the country,” continues Antona. “Practically every brewery that produced real ale was represented at the festival. Now, we’ve got around 1,700, and clearly we cannot accommodate all of them at the festival.
“There’s been a massive explosion, ranging from small breweries to breweries that are supplying over 40,000 pubs.”
Clearly too many exhibitors isn’t a terrible problem for an organiser to have, and Antona tries to approach the problem fairly by ensuring even representation from all UK counties and where possible trying to reduce the number of repeat exhibitors year-on-year.
So what has prompted this explosion in UK breweries? One simple answer, says Antona, is a generational shift in tastes.
“They say you never drink what your parents drink, so it goes in cycles,” he laughs. “Real ale was popular, then the big global breweries came in the 1970s pushing lager brands, so people jumped on the bandwagon and started drinking those. Now their children don’t want to be seen drinking the same sorts of beers so they’re trying something different.
“At the moment everyone is associating themselves with beer because it’s seen as a good-quality, trendy drink.”
Of course, beer is only a small part of the alcohol indsutry, but it has been affected by a trend that has had an impact on all providers, namely a growing consumer interest in the taste, ingredients and origins of what they’re drinking.
Shows centred around wine in particular have become increasingly popular as customers seek to become more knowledgeable about what they drink.
The thinking behind the City Wine Show, the inaugural edition of which takes place on 22-23 September at London’s Stationer’s Hall, is to educate consumers about wine in an interesting, informative and – importantly – non-patronising way.
“With this show we want to make the wines more accessible,” explains event director Chloé Beral. “We all work in the trade, so we know how it can be intimidating to speak to producers. We have a section for producers and retailers, but we are also there to talk about the wine and to educate consumers.”
“We’re not there to sell. It’s just about finding out more about wine in a relaxed environment.”
For exhibitors at the show the emphasis will be on marketing their product, not selling; consumers can try the wines and learn about them without being pressured to buy. The show will feature free masterclasses where visitors can sample quality wines and learn more about them from wine connoisseurs.
For the London Greek Wine Festival, which takes place on 11-14 October at West Handyside Canopy in King’s Cross, the emphasis is also on educating visitors. However, while the festival does have a focus on tasting specific wines, it also immerses visitors in Greek wine culture.
“The London Greek Wine Festival is an independent festival devoted to unearthing the dazzling array of wines from my native country,” says Theodore Kyriakou, founder of the The Greek Larder, which runs the festival. “We immerse guests in all things Greek wine – everything from understanding the origins, indigenous grapes and their characteristics; an influence of terroir; through to life’s simpler and divine pleasures: exemplary food and a jubilant atmosphere.”
Since the festival launched in 2015, says Kyriakou, the audience has become more and more varied.
“Today, visitors’ Greek wine knowledge has gone beyond that of the cheap and cheerful Retsina or Mayrodafni,” he tells EN. “Lots of our visitors have already met Greece through its vines, vineyards and history. Greek wine has definitely become more accessible – through more restaurants opening, supermarkets and the media educating readers on lesser-known wine regions.”
At both the City Wine Show and London Greek Wine Festival, visitors have a desire to understand the wine that they’re drinking. Drinking to get drunk is (on the whole) replaced with a genuine appreciation of the craft behind each product.
One way in which this manifests is in the growing interest in organic wines. “It’s really booming,” says Beral. “You can hardly find a normal wine here, they’re all organic or biodynamic. I think it’s the same for food, people really want to know where what they’re eating or drinking has come from.”
Increased ethical and social responsibility has become a running theme throughout alcohol-based consumer shows. Whether it’s visitors at the Great British Beer Festival looking to support small breweries, City Wine Show customers preferring organic products or London Greek Wine Festival attendees taking the time to learn more about the culture surrounding Greek wine, consumers are becoming ever more canny about the kinds of drinks they consume. Nowhere is that clearer than in the logical extension of that ethical, health-oriented approach to drinking: the alcohol-free consumer show.
“Club Soda is a mindful drinking movement,” says Laura Willoughby MBE. “Our aim is for no one to feel out of place if they’re not drinking.”
Willoughby is not only the mind behind Club Soda, a movement for people who want to cut down on, or quit, drinking alcohol, she is also the director of the inaugural Mindful Drinking Festival, which took place at Bermondsey Square on 13 August.
“It turned out to be far busier than we anticipated,” she tells EN. “We were hoping for about 1,500 visitors and we got over 2,500. So, yeah, it was fantastic. We’ve got to know all the producers who are interested in both on and off trade, and this event was one way to bring all that together on one beautiful sunny day in Bermondsey.”
The Mindful Drinking Festival brought together a range of low (less than 0.5 per cent ABV) and non-alcoholic drinking options for visitors. While the title of the event was not her first choice (“I wanted to call it ‘The Pub Guide for Healthier Drinkers’, but you can’t use ‘healthy’ in relation to alcohol.”), Willoughby acknowledges that the idea of ‘mindfulness’ is something of a zeitgeist at the moment.
In the image-conscious age of Instagram, mindfulness has become a byword for everything from eating healthily to reducing stress to paying more attention to the world around us. This means that the Mindful Drinking Festival has been able to appeal to an extraordinarily varied range of visitors.
“Mindful became the compromise word, but actually it works really well,” muses Willoughby. “What we’ve discovered is that customers see their own goals within that, whether it’s a fitness goal or a moderation goal, it encapsulates everyone’s personal goal and doesn’t sound like anyone is telling anyone else what to do, which for us is really important. We want to support people to make the changes they want to make. We don’t tell people not to drink.
“There were people at the festival who don’t drink for religious reasons, there were lots of health-conscious people, there were people who have had to change their drinking habits for health reasons,” explains Willoughby. “It was a very diverse crowd, and everyone was really excited to find drinks they liked.”
The world of low and non alcoholic drinks has arguably been undergoing a similar explosion to craft ales in recent years, having gone from a relatively niche industry to one with hundreds of brands. Willoughby goes one step further and sees alcohol free beer as a movement that’s thriving while the mainstream industry struggles.
“It definitely piggybacks off the craft movement,” she explains. “But it’s also part of a general shift in people’s behaviour around alcohol. Alcohol drink sales have stagnated; they’re not in growth. It’s the sale of alcohol free drinks that is growing. All the beer producers are now looking at their low and no alcohol offering.
“I think it’s a permanent shift that’s happening, and I think it’s partly to do with the improvement in production methods. When you used to have an alcohol free beer, the way of producing it didn’t produce a very nice drink. Now technology means that you can produce a really good drink.”
The attraction of the show, according to Willoughby, is partly due to the fact that it has provided a safe and friendly space for people who often feel maligned in pubs and bars.
“We had feedback from our surveys where people say they feel like a second-0class customer when they ask for a non-alcoholic drink,” she explains.
The power of face-to-face
Coming to the show and finding not only a wide range of like-minded people, but also hundreds of non-alcoholic drinks options can be a really positive experience for visitors.
“Feeling like you’ve found something that can be ‘your drink’ is special,” continues Willoughby. “Clearly they felt that the way we had sold the event to them as customers made them feel comfortable to come along. They didn’t feel like they were walking into some AA meeting, which it absolutely wasn’t.”
Like so many industries, the alcoholic beverages industry is embracing the exhibition as an effective marketing channel. As with many food and beverage industries, alcohol providers see the chance for the customers to speak to the retailers face-to-face and sample their product in person as invaluable.
Recognising this, organiser Media 10 extended the food and drink section of the Ideal Home Show for 2017 into its very own distinct event: The Eat & Drink Festival.
“The ‘drink’ part of the festival is crucial,” says Giles Perry, event director of the Ideal Home Show. “Not only is it a chance to socialise with friends and family over a drink or two, but it also provides new and quirky brands with a chance to showcase their products to a wider audience.”
The benefits of exhibitions to drinks brands, continues Perry, are numerous.
“Exhibitions are the perfect platform, not only for existing drink brands to showcase new products, or old favourites to engage to a larger audience, but the ideal place for smaller, upcoming companies to bring their new products to the market,” he explains. “They provide a springboard for both the vendor to meet a variety of consumers, and the visitors to discover something new to take home.”
After talking to event professionals organising young events, old events, beer events and wine events, it’s clear that the alcohol consumer show industry has never been in better shape. Organisers are continuing to innovate, experiment and – most importantly – listen to the changing wants and interests of their customers. Even what seemed like the biggest hurdle of all, a growing population of people who don’t drink alcohol, has given rise to a whole new thriving sector in the industry.
As far as EN is concerned, that concludes our investigation into the alcohol industry but, fear not, the research will continue…
Editor’s note: This is the cover featured of the September issue. The digital edition is available now.