Middle East: Sin Free Ale

The Economist/Beirut and Cairo

Non-alcoholic beer is taking off among Muslim consumers

20130803_WBP003_0DEDICATED drinkers may struggle to see the point of non-alcoholic beer, but it is growing in popularity around the world. Last year 2.2 billion litres was downed, 80% more than five years earlier. In the rich world it is mainly consumed by a health-conscious minority. But in the Middle East, which now accounts for almost a third of worldwide sales, the target market is the teetotal majority. In 2012 Iranians quaffed nearly four times as much as in 2007. Consumers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also have a growing taste for it (though across the region, alcoholic beer still outsells it).

Delster, brewed by an Iranian company, Behnoush, turned alcohol-free in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution. After Hamas, an Islamist movement, won a landslide election victory in Gaza in 2005, a Palestinian brewer, Taybeh, launched an alcohol-free “Halal”version of its ale. Its label is green, the colour of Islam.

More recent sales growth is the result of growing consumer aspirations, says Maii Abdul-Rahmen, a Dubai-based analyst for Euromonitor, a research firm. Drinking beer, even the non-alcoholic variety, taps into a popular desire for a globalised lifestyle that neither fruit juice nor even Coca-Cola can offer, argues Guilda Saber, the brand manager of Laziza, a Lebanese non-alcoholic beer. This glamorous image is helping brewers to increase their sales in bars and restaurants of a product that has so far mainly been consumed at home.

There are still some sizeable independent brewers in the region, such as Behnoush, and Aujun of Saudi Arabia, which has recently jazzed up the packaging of its popular Barbican beer. Others are owned by global giants: Heineken gained the Birell and Fayrouz brands of non-alcoholic beer when it bought Egypt’s Al-Ahram Beverages, which also produces the alcoholic variety. Likewise, when Carlsberg bought Feldschlössen, a Swiss brewer, it took on Moussy, a no-alcohol brand that is popular in the Middle East.

As the field becomes more crowded, brewers of alcohol-free beers are seeking out different target markets. Moussy, for example, is aimed at trendy young men and women—one of its advertisements shows a mixed group drinking together at a beach resort. Birell has a more blokey image: an ad features a bunch of football-watching men having their heads turned by a passing blonde (ogling women is apparently less sinful than swigging alcohol).

Some brewers are optimistic that the current wave of religiosity in the region will increase demand. One such is Efes, a Turkish brewer of alcoholic beer, which launched Efes Zero in 2011. Others worry that if consumers become more overt in expressing their faith, that might make them turn away from anything that even hints at Western decadence.

However, prominent Saudi and Egyptian clerics have issued fatwas declaring it permissible for Muslims to drink zero-alcohol beers. The Saudi ruling said the key issue was whether one could get intoxicated by consuming a large amount of the drink (thereby ruling out low-alcohol beers). Laziza’s owner, Almaza, a Lebanese brewery, is taking no chances. Although it is marketed as a beer, Laziza is not fermented, since the process of removing the alcohol afterwards can leave traces of it. Its bottles declare it to be “0.00%” alcohol, to distinguish it from the fermented brands, which only promise to be “0.0%”.