At this time of year a significant proportion of adults will be trying to be more abstemious in an effort to balance out December's indulgences.
However, the British public's alcohol consumption is not under scrutiny only in these dark January days; our relationship with drinking is a complex one. The most recent headlines have focused on calls to ban alcohol advertising (Marketing, 13 January) and the government's recommendation that parents should wait until children reach 15 before introducing them to it but this is just the latest of many pieces of official advice. From the concern about the alcohol content of specific drinks, to the problems of middle-class binge drinking, alcohol consumption has become a national obsession.
'Lager lout' was once the common shorthand for the evils resulting from excessive alcohol drinking among young men, but the sector's sales have fallen into sharp decline recently. Lager penetration has dropped from 53% to 50% over the past five years.
This fall is, in part, due to people cutting back on their drinking - despite the negative headlines, alcohol consumption as a whole is declining in the UK as people try to achieve healthier lifestyles - and the recession has also had an impact. However, another key factor is that lager manufacturers have failed to extend lager's appeal beyond its core 18- to 34-year-old male audience.
Sales dropped 10% between 2004 and 2009, but lager is still a significant sector. It had a value of £11.4bn last year, making it the biggest drink market of any type, according to Mintel.
There has been considerable consolidation among the leading brewers. Heineken is the market-leader, following its acquisition of Scottish & Newcastle's UK business in 2008. InBev merged with Anheuser-Busch (AB) in the same year.
There are some very strong brands in this market: the two bestsellers, Carling (which is owned by Molson Coors) and Foster's (Heineken), are standard lagers. Although premium lager sales grew considerably in the 90s, standard lager has enjoyed a resurgence and now accounts for 60% of total volume sales. Despite its declining share in the on-trade, AB InBev's Stella Artois remains the bestselling lager in the off-trade.
One trend has been for premium brands to introduce lower ABV versions to move into the standard lager territory, such as Artois 4% and Beck's Vier. This 'premium standard' sector is expected to perform well over the next 10 years.
Low-alcohol lagers have had a chequered history and levels of NPD in this category are far lower than those seen among premium lines.
Since 2008 the government has introduced above-inflation duty rises as a way to help curb excessive drinking. Duty on lager rose 18% in 2008, particularly affecting on-trade prices.
In the years ahead, the government is expected to introduce a mandatory code on alcohol sales as part of efforts to deal with alcohol-related problems. These are likely to limit on-trade promotions such as 'all you can drink for £10'. Minimum pricing has also been discussed, particularly in Scotland, but so far rejected by the Prime Minister.
Women and other consumers over 35 remain less likely to drink lager than young men, creating an opportunity for the brewers - if they can find a way to extend the appeal of their drinks. They have the potential to increase penetration if they can replicate the cider producers' success in attracting women to the sector.
Research from BMRB shows the attributes that motivate women to drink particular alcoholic beverages include a lower calorie content, a suitable complement to food and fruitier tastes - all things they associate with wine-drinking. Men are more likely to change their drinking habits in the home to fit in with partners and friends, which means they tend to switch to wine. This is a major issue for brewers, because it is predicted that volume sales in the off-trade will outstrip on-trade sales for the first time by 2013.
The value of the market is expected to be £10.8bn by 2014. This is a 5% decline on 2009, according to Mintel, and equates to a 7% drop over the next five years when inflation is taken into account. Volumes will also fall by 8%.
This article was first published on Marketing