January 21, 2022

Rethink your drinks

By Jonathan Howard, Product Developer – Delicious Food Team

I’m responsible for developing all drink and drink ingredients, apart from beers, wines and spirits (BWS). I’ve also jointly worked on the programme for food and drink pairings for going-on five years now, which is a major passion of mine. The best part of my role is bringing drinks to life across our different customer needs throughout the day.

As a testament to the innovative and award-winning Co-op products we’ve introduced into the marketplace, we were once again approached to appear on The Apprentice and invited to send two teams to London to be part of and film the candidates’ ‘pitching session’ for developing a ‘no/low alcohol’ drink. I attended alongside Senior Product Developer, Leah Ellis, and commercial colleagues: Buying Director for Ambient and BWS – Adele Balmforth and Category Buying Manager for Drinks – Jonathan Buckley.

An explosion of ‘no/low alcohol’ product innovation

Just to give you a bit of anecdotal data as to why developing a ‘no/low alcoholic’ drink is a fantastic idea – we’ve seen an increase from a £70m ‘no/low alcoholic’ market in the UK per year back in 2016, to a market worth £171m today, which is forecasted to grow up to £286m. We’ve definitely seen an explosion in new product development from some of the major brands as well as seeing really novel and small brands also playing in this area. There are now a lot of products out there which are effectively soft drinks, or are fermentation products – where you’re still getting some of the deeper, rich and complex flavour profiles which come through fermentation, but without the alcohol.

Changing customer habits

Interestingly, it’s not ‘Dry January’ that’s the biggest retail opportunity for ‘no/low alcohol’ products. We actually see the biggest trade-up during the festive period as people want to have an alcohol-esque product, but still be able to see family and still drive afterwards.

For some, turning to ‘no/low alcohol’ drinks is about having an alternative to moderation and cutting back on the booze. Instead of a mid-week drink, ‘no/low alcohol’ products are seen as an alternative way to relax and enjoy a great drink. People are also now making changes when they’re out and about drinking – I know I have. I’m very much into beer, but I’ve recently off-set some of the quite strong beers which have high alcohol content with some low alcohol drinks.

There is also the sober-curious movement, which is a fantastic community of people making changes to positively impact their mental and physical well-being via their drink choices. A community I’ve found to be really inviting, supportive and creative, in their approach to their repertoire of drinks, flavours and textures.

‘The Apprentice’ experience

So, back to The Apprentice… our role on the show was to give feedback on the products pitched by the programme’s candidates. I’m not going to give anything away, other than to say I witnessed the magic of great TV being made right in front of my eyes – you can check it out on BBC iPlayer.

It was a good day and great fun – if a little surreal! It was great to see the candidates get insight in terms of the pitching process and experience the challenges we all see and feel first-hand as retailers and product developers.

I will say that, having personally worked in both manufacturing and retail – the pitching process is very similar to a product submission and it reminded me of a lot of the scenarios I historically found myself in. I could appreciate the nervousness and trepidation the candidates were probably feeling, pitching to industry experts. You can’t underestimate ‘positive nerves’ – I always used to thrive off them. You definitely see someone who shines under that spotlight, and some go into a bit of a meltdown.

What we’re doing in this space

At Co-op, we’ve got a fantastic range of soft drinks, tonics and presses which offer our customers an alternative to alcohol.

I’m going to get a bit scientific here… we also have wines which are ‘single varietal’ grape juices (so zero alcohol content), and wines which are low in alcohol such as our Co-op Low Alcohol Sauvignon Blanc, Co-op Low Alcohol Cabernet Tempranillo and Co-op Low Alcohol Garnacha Rose – where we’ve effectively produced a wine and then stripped-back the alcohol content though ‘reverse osmosis’ and a centrifugal process where we strip out the alcohol layers with gravitational force, and blend it together.

We’ve also just launched our fruity and aromatic Irresistible Non-Alcoholic Botanical Drink, inspired by seedlip (a plant-based liquor substitute), and it’s in our shops now. We’ve also introduced an Irresistible Low Calorie Tonic Water which is infused with Sicilian orange – perfect on its own, but also a great companion to our botanical drink.

For me, being part of The Apprentice reinforced that the product is key – it’s got to be really good. It must deliver at the end of the day, and that’s on flavour, aesthetic and shelf-edge appeal. Unless you tick those three boxes, you’re not going to get the customer to pick up the product in the first place and then buy it again. Then you build repeat purchase through the product’s story, and sourcing commitments. All of which is what my colleagues within the Delicious Food Team focus on daily.