Rise of alcoholic lemonade takes froth off beer

Britain and booze: Pub trend is latest innovation by brewers fighting to maintain profits as a nation's drinking habits shift
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The Independent Online
The latest trend in British drinking habits is enough to make the hardened real ale drinker choke on his pint. Bass, the country's second-biggest brewer, yesterday disclosed that it is selling more than 2.5 million bottles a week of the Hooper's Hooch brand of alcoholic lemonade it launched in June.

Put in context, the 2.5 million half-pint bottles equates to 5,000 barrels - roughly twice the output of a medium-sized regional brewer like Fuller, Smith & Turner in London.

Hooper's Hooch, launched to compete with the Merrydown cider group's Australian Two Dogs lemonade, has surpassed all expectations.

Alcoholic lemonade has become a fashionable drink among City dealers and young males who, as their macho image demands, top off the 4.7 per cent alcoholic strength with chasers of neat double vodkas.

"Since Hooper's Hooch arrived in June it has done nothing but grow. It may be a fad, I don't know," said Sir Ian Prosser, chairman and chief executive of Bass.

Fad or not, the success of Hooper's Hooch and Two Dogs speaks volumes for the changes in drinking habits. All drinks have their day - witness the rise and fall of Babycham - but the current trends indicate that higher strength, and higher priced drinks, will continue to grow in popularity.

Drinks manufacturers have reacted not only to the changing demands of consumers, but also to pressure from shareholders to increase profits. Given that the beer market is mature, the need to innovate has become paramount.

However, changes really started back in the 1950s when an increasing number of women started using pubs and demanded more than their usual tipple of port and lemon.

The advent of commercial television in 1955, and the increasing introduction of lager beers, accelerated the innovation process sharply as viewers were blitzed with commercials for drinks such as Martini, Advocaat and Tia Maria.

Real ales were hit hard, and brewers tried unsuccessfully to stop the rot by producing keg beers such as Red Barrel.

The depressing signs for beer became even more ominous in the 1970s with the decline of employment in heavy industries whose workers were among the nation's heaviest drinkers. Moreover, the drinks industry has been further hit by the lowering of customs barriers across Europe, allowing the importation of cheap beer on so-called booze cruisers. The clamp down on drink-driving has also affected beer sales.

Managing the profit margin has become the name of the game. The profit margin on a can of alcoholic lemonade, selling for pounds 2.12 a half-pint can in some City pubs, is significantly greater than on a standard pint of bitter selling for pounds 1.50.

Many traditional beers have been rejuvenated, mainly courtesy of the widget that helps make a canned, or bottled beer pour and taste like its draught equivalent. The widget has enabled Whitbread to take Boddington's from a relatively sheltered existence to one of the country's biggest selling beers.

Consumers, it seems, are willingly walking down the road to the bar of expensively priced branded drinks. Something has to give, and it is. "A pint of best bitter please", is a request that is being be heard less and less in pubs.

Bass results, page 24