Taking the big drop
Ferment catches up with Rob Fink and James Kindred from The Big Drop
Tuesday 11 February 2020
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One of the big surprises of 2019 was the meteoric growth of the low/no alcohol segment, with big, flavoursome, booze-free beers occupying not only shelf space, but also the conversations of beer pundits up and down the country. Founded by Rob Fink and James Kindred in 2016, Big Drop has been at the very crest of this wave, rapidly overturning the bad PR from decades of awful, chemical-tasting alcohol-free macro lagers.
Unlike these shoddy pretenders, Big Drop’s beers have never been a compromise, matching or even exceeding their boozy peers on the taste front. Rob puts this down to the fact the brewery’s more natural brewing techniques don’t involve artificially removing alcohol after fermentation.
“Big Drop does not extract the alcohol after the beer is brewed, nor does it limit the fermentation period,” he says. “This avoids the often-displeasing tastes and aromas which have blighted non-alcoholic beer for so long. Instead through a combination of specific yeast selection, recipe formulation and downright clever brewing, we brew our beer to strength. In other words, it never gets above 0.5% but we fully ferment the beer so all the taste and aroma you expect from great beer is still there.”
Rob’s previous career establishing a successful and disruptive law firm may have informed his next move. In 2016, aged 38 and having just become a father, Rob found himself turned off by the boozy lunch culture of his city peers and reaching for an alcohol-free option. Sadly, he was disappointed by the anaemic brews tucked at the back of the fridge, but it also made him wonder whether there might be a gap in the market.
The craft beer 'revolution' seemed to have completely ignored alcohol-free beer
“Being a bit of a craft beer fan, I realised that the craft beer ‘revolution’ seemed to have completely ignored alcohol-free beer. The question I asked myself was: what if we could do for alcohol-free beer what craft beer had done for....beer?”
With zero experience of brewing or the beer industry, Rob had no preconceived ideas about what may or may not be possible. He teamed up with co-founder James Kindred – a designer and technologist – to work the problem in ways an old hand may not even have considered.
The beers speak for themselves. Each of the eight core styles is perfectly balanced, despite the lack of alcohol, with body and real depth and complexity of flavour. We’re particular fans of the Sour and multi award-winning Citra IPA. Big Drop is also becoming a prolific collaborator, harnessing the creativity of some of the UK’s best ‘regular’ craft breweries for a low-alcohol market. It’s latest project was the first of a planned series, working with beer and food guru Melissa Cole, as well as Harbour Brewing, Fyne Ales, Salt Beer Factory and Fourpure on a box of four pretty adventurous 440ml cans. Our standout was the ‘Going Swimmingly’ hibiscus saison, with Harbour.
Being low-alcohol has also given the brewery access to some very interesting opportunities. Take for example its relationships with Holland & Barrett, and with Milk & More (beer deliveries with your morning pint, anyone?). Big Drop has even participated in a successful project with residential dementia patients, designed to tackle the ‘sundowning’ anxiety that often manifests in the evening. Replicating comfortable environments from the patients’ early lives, one hospital has built an on-site ‘pub’ serving alcohol free beer. The experiment has reportedly been such a success that it has reduced the need for medication.
As it moves into the next stage of its international growth, Big Drop is launching a new look for its bottles and cans as well as going through a crowdfunding round. To date the company has already raised £1.3m from a small number of private investors including the founders of Camden Town Brewery. The brewery isn’t profit-making yet, with all revenue going back into growth and moving the business closer to break-even and eventual profitability. According to Big Drop’s Nick Heath, this approach certainly seems to be working, with the team having expanded from 2 to 14 in the past 12 months, and beer being brewed in the UK, Sweden and Australia.
As well as a gradual move to cans (some 60% of Big Drop’s small pack volume is now canned) the team is really pushing to get more keg lines.
“In my view, 2020 will be the year of AF on draft,” says Rob. “Sales of our kegged Citra IPA are increasing exponentially. Forward-thinking licensees will attract more trade by offering more lo/no options because the target is not necessarily the person who isn't drinking - it's all the people they are with who are drinking.”
Nick continues: “Being front and centre on tap is so much better than being on the back bar. A lot of pubs are taking a keg for dry January and then being amazed how well it sells, so deciding to keep it on. We’re now on tap all year round in some places, and making real inroads with a lot of the big chains. As we’re the first to really do this, it’s a bit of a push, but this year you’re going to see the market really open up for low and no alcohol beers on draft, and we’re proud to be at the forefront of that.”
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