While American publications herald the arrival of “the New Sobriety” on the backs of part-time teetotalers and alcohol-free bars, Spaniards have been drinking low and zero-alcohol beer since the 1970s.
According to the Asociación de Cerveceros de España, the country’s brewers association, these beers account for 13 percent of total beer sales. Today, Spaniards are the world’s largest consumers of alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer.
“In our country, beer is consumed cold with friends and family, in hospitality, during the whole week and almost always with something to eat,” Cristina de Aguirre, director of public affairs at the brewers association, says. “These moderate consumption patterns explain that non-alcoholic beer, while maintaining the flavor of the traditional variety, is considered by Spanish consumers as an excellent alternative when, due to different circumstances, they cannot, should not, or do not want to consume beverages with alcohol content.”
And there are plenty of places to do just that. Spain has the highest concentration of bars in the E.U., according to a study done by La Caixa Economic Yearbook. With over 280,000 bars, it shakes out to one bar for every 165 people. Bar culture in Spain differs significantly from the U.S., though. Bars are popular destinations for long lunches, and many close mid-afternoon for siesta.
While brewing in Spain is 5,000 years old, non-alcoholic beers, called sin beers (sin means “without” in Spanish), have been around since the 1970s. The category was not officially recognized by the Spanish government until 1995, when it was voted a Royal Decree-Law.
Cervesas Ambar, a brewery owned by Grupo Agora in Zaragoza in northeast Spain, is said to have released the first sin beer. According to Antonio Fumanal Sopena, master brewer at Ambar, the decision to make a low-alcohol beer was inspired by customer demand.
“For a beer with a traditional alcohol content much lower than wine, it looked like a less attractive proposition, but alcohol risk awareness was becoming stronger even for beer,” Sopena says. “The company decided to add its non-alcoholic beer to expand beer culture to these new values.”
Stricter drunk driving laws also had an impact on category growth. A zero-tolerance policy for offending drivers, one of the toughest laws in the E.U., and national campaigns to promote safe driving, all create the market for Spaniards to partake without consuming alcohol.
Despite its name, a beer labeled “sin” is not necessarily 100 percent alcohol-free. “A beer can be named ‘sin’ when the alcohol level is under 1 percent alcohol volume,” Sopena says. “Since alcohol is a potent flavoring agent, this less-than-1-percent level allows a better matching to regular beer taste.”
Beers with no trace of alcohol are labeled “0.0.,” which is not an official designation but is increasing in popularity. While some breweries will produce both sin and 0.0., Ambar has committed to releasing 0.0 beers and has phased out sin beer entirely.
In the autonomous community of Galicia in northwest Spain, Estrella Galicia, owned by Hijos de Rivera, is focused on the brewery’s expansion into America to capitalize on the interest in healthy-seeming options and non-alcoholic drinks. “We have a lot of expertise in 0.0 lagers. So, we believe we have a great product to offer to the U.S. market,” Gonzalo Brey Canedo, international brand manager, says.
The team at Estrella Galicia Rams, which will launch its 0.0 in the U.S. in January 2020, believes motivation to drink less alcohol is different for Spaniards and Americans.
“The feeling that I have is that the trends are toward healthier options,” Xabier Cubillo, Estrella Galicia’s master brewer, says. “I think light beers in America are [popular], and this here is a category with even lower calories, [for a] healthier and a different lifestyle.”
What’s next for 0.0 beers? As craft beer is expanding in Spain, many brewers see a market for different types of sin. “On the one hand, [consumers] are looking for a real beer taste; but they like to have some new taste choices,” Sopena says. “It is common to see flavored alcohol-free beers and beer styles beyond traditional lagers.”
Meanwhile, Ambar is looking beyond beers being alcohol-free, but also gluten-free, and is focused on accommodating the evolving needs of the Spanish drinker.
“We were able to prove that our 0.0 percent beer, full of slow absorption carbohydrates, can improve insulin resistance among sensitive consumers that suffer T2 diabetes or are close to it,” Sopena adds. “Society is getting older, and its nourishment should address these emerging needs quickly.”
Brewers see growth within the category as well. “People are starting to launch 0.0 dark lagers into the market,” Estrella Galicia’s Cubillo says. “So it’s evolving and getting more complex. It’s growing because everyone is investing in it.”