Bionade: The health drink that looks like beer

When Bionade launches in the UK next month, the makers of the German health drink may be thankful that we are a nation of beer-drinkers: that way, at least they won't have to explain what fermentation is.

That fermentation has anything at all to do with a health drink may take some explaining, as might the fact that Bionade is made by a brewery. "We have had people assume that Bionade must be some low-alcohol beer, especially because it comes in what looks like a beer bottle," concedes Peter Kowalsky, the company's managing director. "And in Germany we do have a lot of beer drinkers that drink Bionade when they can't drink beer, because it has that similar malty, tangy taste they recognise. But it is a health drink."

And something of an unexpected hit. When Bionade was relaunched in 2005, first year sales were just 20 million bottles. Last year it sold 70 million. This year, with distribution having rolled out to Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, it will sell 250 million bottles, and that is before it launches in the US, where health drinks are a boom market.

Indeed, Bionade might well claim to have invented the market, given that the drink was first sold in 1995. It was also the product of desperation. The Peter brewery was a small Bavarian family business that was being squeezed towards closure by major beer brands. Dieter Leipold, Kowalsky's step-father, was its master brewer and he spent five years, and almost the company's last pfennig, finding a way in which the fermentation process with which he was so familiar could be used to turn sugars into something drinkable but alchohol-free. The breakthrough came when he experimented with the bacterium kombucha, using it to convert sugars into gluconic acid. The result was Bionade, a naturally-flavoured soft drink made to the same ancient and exacting purity laws as German beer.

The whole idea was ahead of its time, never mind the method – there was no health drinks market, consumers were used only to big taste, high-sugar products and more educated attitudes to nutrition and diet were yet to develop. Now Bionade could hardly be more timely: last year juices, fruit and health drinks accounted for nearly 41 per cent of the entire soft drinks market, having grown some 31 per cent over the past four years alone, according to Key Note, the market research company. The health drink market is worth £2.8bn a year.
And no wonder, perhaps: last year a study by the Federal Drugs Administration in the US found some soft drinks containing benzene above the safe limits for tap water, while in Britain irritability in children has been attributed to their fondness for fizzy drinks."

"When we launched we didn't think there was a market for a health drink at all. You already had water, juices, mixtures of the two, products that came out of nature. And then you had typical sugary soft drinks that so many people liked. But nothing in between," says Kowalsky. "Even now launching a health drink is a high-risk venture which is why most play safe and tend not to have either a distinctive taste or content."

That certainly couldn't be said of Bionade. Its premise was a health drink in the sense that nothing unhealthy went into it, but one that was closer in taste and impact to a can of pop. This was a radical new take on what a soft drink could be. Many soft drinks are packed with stabilising and flavour-enhancing chemicals. Bionade has none. It is very low in sugar but because gluconic acid shares a similar molecular structure to glucose, drinkers are fooled into tasting sweetness. And while soft drinks are often loaded with cheap, aggressive acids, Bionade's is a product of natural micro-organisms at work. "And the presence of micro-organisms is a good indication of a healthy product," suggests Kowalsky. "Put these in a cola and they'd die."

Source - Independent

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