When Bionade launches in the UK next month, the makers of the German health drink may be thankful that we are a nation of beer-drinkers: that way, at least they won't have to explain what fermentation is. That fermentation has anything at all to do with a health drink may take some explaining, as might the fact that Bionade is made by a brewery. "We have had people assume that Bionade must be some low-alcohol beer, especially because it comes in what looks like a beer bottle," concedes Peter Kowalsky, the company's managing director. "And in Germany we do have a lot of beer drinkers that drink Bionade when they can't drink beer, because it has that similar malty, tangy taste they recognise. But it is a health drink."
And something of an unexpected hit. When Bionade was relaunched in 2005, first year sales were just 20 million bottles. Last year it sold 70 million. This year, with distribution having rolled out to Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, it will sell 250 million bottles, and that is before it launches in the US, where health drinks are a boom market.
Indeed, Bionade might well claim to have invented the market, given that the drink was first sold in 1995. It was also the product of desperation. The Peter brewery was a small Bavarian family business that was being squeezed towards closure by major beer brands. Dieter Leipold, Kowalsky's step-father, was its master brewer and he spent five years, and almost the company's last pfennig, finding a way in which the fermentation process with which he was so familiar could be used to turn sugars into something drinkable but alchohol-free. The breakthrough came when he experimented with the bacterium kombucha, using it to convert sugars into gluconic acid. The result was Bionade, a naturally-flavoured soft drink made to the same ancient and exacting purity laws as German beer.
The whole idea was ahead of its time, never mind the method – there was no health drinks market, consumers were used only to big taste, high-sugar products and more educated attitudes to nutrition and diet were yet to develop. Now Bionade could hardly be more timely: last year juices, fruit and health drinks accounted for nearly 41 per cent of the entire soft drinks market, having grown some 31 per cent over the past four years alone, according to Key Note, the market research company. The health drink market is worth £2.8bn a year.
And no wonder, perhaps: last year a study by the Federal Drugs Administration in the US found some soft drinks containing benzene above the safe limits for tap water, while in Britain irritability in children has been attributed to their fondness for fizzy drinks.
"When we launched we didn't think there was a market for a health drink at all. You already had water, juices, mixtures of the two, products that came out of nature. And then you had typical sugary soft drinks that so many people liked. But nothing in between," says Kowalsky. "Even now launching a health drink is a high-risk venture which is why most play safe and tend not to have either a distinctive taste or content."
That certainly couldn't be said of Bionade. Its premise was a health drink in the sense that nothing unhealthy went into it, but one that was closer in taste and impact to a can of pop. This was a radical new take on what a soft drink could be. Many soft drinks are packed with stabilising and flavour-enhancing chemicals. Bionade has none. It is very low in sugar but because gluconic acid shares a similar molecular structure to glucose, drinkers are fooled into tasting sweetness. And while soft drinks are often loaded with cheap, aggressive acids, Bionade's is a product of natural micro-organisms at work. "And the presence of micro-organisms is a good indication of a healthy product," suggests Kowalsky. "Put these in a cola and they'd die."
Bionade does have plenty of good stuff in it: calcium and magnesium, for instance. A litre of Bionade will supply half the daily requirements of these minerals. The drink contains the right balance of the two minerals so that one doesn't cancel out the other (magnesium uptake inhibits the body's uptake of calcium, and vice versa). They will even take effect faster than if delivered in tablet form because Bionade is isotonic, which is to say it has a chemical resemblance to blood and so can be easily absorbed. But Bionade is not one of the drinks in which lots of supposedly healthy things have been crammed. Instead it takes all the bad stuff out, so it's low in sodium and phosphorous-free.
Bionade was originally targeted at children, "who, unlike adults, have no lobby to influence the quality of the drinks they're given," Kowalsky notes, "most of which are created just to make a lot of money". Getting parents to buy a health drink from a brewery, or one made from the scary-sounding "gluconic acid", however, proved tricky. Explaining the science seemed to make matters more complicated. Sales improved when it was switched to health food stores but still there was difficulty in conveying just what Bionade was.
"We had to change our approach," says Kowalsky. "We sold it as a health drink and nobody understood it. The day we sold it simply as a distinctive-tasting drink made from the best raw materials – as the best soft drink ever – everyone got it. In the end the fact that it wasn't in any way bad for you became just a kind of insurance."
Ironically, perhaps, given the challenge in promoting the idea of a fermented drink that had nothing to do with alcohol, Bionade has recently rocketed in popularity thanks to being picked up by the more stylish bars as an urban sophisticate's alternative to some fizzy, syrup-based sugar rush or an unexciting alcohol-free beer. Unusually for a healthy drink, which tend to be strongly favoured by women, sales are evenly split between the sexes.
The market for healthy drinks that make all sorts of claims is certainly growing. But some of them aren't very healthy at all, says Kowalsky. "Many, for instance, are full of chemicals. I think the new market is simply for healthy products that are healthily made. People are increasingly looking for products of substance. Manufacturers need to watch out – these days people actually read the list of ingredients."
Drink up: healthy alternatives
* Smoothies and juices
Antioxidants in fruit juice appear to reduce free radicals, a major cause of disease and ageing. However, smoothies and juices are not as good as fresh, whole fruit because the molecules get broken down in the blending process.
"Tops up" friendly bacteria, such as Lactobacillus casei, which occur naturally in the body. Some studies have shown that drinks such as Yakult can help boost the immune system and shorten the effects of minor ailments.
Derived from fish oil, omega-3 is thought to have many health benefits. There are claims that it improves brain power and functionality, helps prevent heart attacks and strokes, and it is said to alleviate depression and help prevent breast, colon and prostrate cancer. Now available in special drinks but you can also get your omega-3 by eating two portions of oily fish a week.
Originally intended for endurance athletes, isotonic drinks are intended to replace some of the water lost through sweating. Studies have shown they are more effective at rehydrating than plain water.