UAE supermarkets are filling their shelves with alcohol-free beers and spirits to keep up with a surge in demand.
In some cases, the alcohol-free beers and spirits are outselling popular soft drinks as people look for healthier alternatives to their usual tipples.
Restaurants have started to advertise alcohol-free beer deals as part of their weekend brunch packages in Dubai.
The National spoke to retailers who said demand in the UAE was mirroring a worldwide move away from alcohol, especially among younger people.
“It is a global trend that younger generations are shunning alcohol, especially those who come from cultures in which alcohol is part of day-to-day life,” said Tom Harvey, commercial general manager for supermarket chain Spinneys.
“That trend is being reflected here because people want to be able to enjoy special occasions without alcohol being part of it but want an alternative to heavily sweetened carbonated soft drinks.
“The demand has been phenomenal. In the weeks running up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we were selling more drinks in our alcohol-free range than conventional soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.”
In 2020, the global non-alcoholic beer market was valued at close to $18 billion. It is expected to be worth $25bn by 2024.
Spinneys launched a wide range of non-alcoholic beers and spirits across its branches in the UAE, as well as in Waitrose supermarkets, which it also manages.
Mr Harvey said demand for alcohol-free beers and spirits was evolving from the time when a handful of malt-flavoured beverages were the only alternatives in the UAE.
Heineken launched its alcohol-free range in the UAE in late 2020, a move that Mr Harding expects to be the catalyst for alcohol-free drinks becoming widely available in bars, restaurants and supermarkets.
He expects other big-name brands to follow the Dutch brewing giants into the market here. One of the hurdles so far has been the fact that beers or spirits need to have an alcohol level of only 0.5 per cent to be deemed alcohol-free.
This is not an option in the Middle East, where the level of alcohol needs to be absolutely zero if drinks are to be labelled alcohol-free.
Mr Harvey said the number of people who are doing Dry January – giving up alcohol for the entire month – has made this a boom period for sales of the alcohol-free range.
“Consumer behaviour is changing, and this is a market that’s taking off and we expect it to continue growing for years,” he said.
Another business selling alcohol-free beers, spirits and wines in Dubai is the newly launched Drink Dry Store, which sells mostly alcohol-free craft drinks.
“We launched a month ago and the demand and feedback has been absolutely phenomenal,” said founder and managing director Erika Blazeviciute Doyle.
“The demand is 100 per cent there. We’ve signed deals to supply a wide range of restaurants in Dubai who want to give their customers something a little different.”
She said when she first started exploring the alcohol-free market in the region 18 months ago, she realised nobody else was doing it.
“We were hoping to buy from local suppliers and distributors but we had to reach out to the brands ourselves and build the business that way,” she said.
“It wasn’t just the case that nobody was doing it. Nobody wanted to do it either, but that’s all changed now.
“It’s not like five years ago when you would try a non-alcoholic beer and find it was disgusting,” she said.
“Nowadays there are premium non-alcoholic drinks that completely rival their alcoholic rivals in terms of taste and quality.”
Residents welcome rise in alcohol-free options
The move to embrace alcohol-free drinks was welcomed by Abu Dhabi resident Alex McRobert, who runs Sober Girls Yoga, which helps young women to change to a lifestyle not involving alcohol.
The Canadian, 28, gave up drinking alcohol in 2019 but said it has not always been easy to opt out of alcoholic drinks when socialising with friends.
“Having more alcohol-free options is going to make life easier for a lot of people who are trying to stay sober,” she said.
“There were a lot of times when I went out and been in company who were all drinking alcohol and I felt like I was sticking out a bit.
“There are a lot of events here, like ladies nights and brunches, that make you pay extra if you want to have non-alcoholic options.”
Ms McRobert said old attitudes were changing because alcohol-free beers and spirits had become “hip and trendy”.
Another Abu Dhabi resident who was delighted with the new range of alcohol-free options was teacher Jo Cathrine, 46, who adopted a completely sober lifestyle last year.
“There’s definitely a culture among expats of going out to alcohol-heavy brunches and there is a lot of pressure to join in,” the Englishwoman said.
“Opting for alcohol-free beers or spirits is not always easy because up until now they have been really hard to get.
“It’s like a revolution to have all these alcohol-free options available now.”