Zero and low-alcohol beers are creating a ton of industry buzz (well, in sales, that is).
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Not to sound like a creepy Supreme Court judge…but I love beer. That lunk-head admission, coupled with this being the hooch-heavy height of the holiday season, doesn't make being on the wagon easy.
But happily for those of us who want to avoid alcohol for various reasons yet miss the taste, non-alcoholic options have never seen such a buyer’s market. So if you missed out on the probably-Joe-Rogan-trademarked Sober October and would like a grocery list for Dry January, (and, per YouGov.com, a whopping fifth of all imbibing Americans plan to do just that after the ball drops), read on.
Cheers to non-alcoholic beers!
According to Nielsen, sales of domestic beer slipped 4.6% between October 2018 and October 2019 while the global NA beer market is expected to reach $5.91 billion by 2023. (That's not a typo.)
Anheuser-Busch InBev aims to generate one-fifth of its global sales from zero or low-alcohol beverages by 2026 while facing challenges by Heineken (which is now offering 50 alcohol-free labels) as well as Carlsberg, Asahi and Molson Coors.
“This year we intentionally took stock of our non-alcohol offerings within the Coors family of brands,” reports company rep Marty Maloney. “In the case of Coors Edge, we saw an opportunity to up our game in a booming space that isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.”
Indeed the influx of shockingly satisfying sober labels has caused some older stalwarts to re-think their marketing techniques.
“I have noticed O'Doul's is making a big push into sporting arenas,” notes spirits scribe and Gather Around Cocktails: Drinks to Celebrate Usual and Unusual Holidays author Aaron Goldfarb. “Since you can't serve beers in the fourth quarter they’re trying to convince drinkers to switch to NA beer at that point.”
Meet the new non-drinking demo
While renewed interest in beer-without-the-buzz arrives via our younger populace (millennials are drinking less booze than Gen X-ers and “OK Boomer” citizenry across the board), the complicated process of first brewing the product and then removing the alcohol was first popularized in prewar Germany (often billing their efforts as “driving beers”). That country’s breathalyzer-friendly brands now make up about 10% of their overall ale sales.
“I do think most of the best NA beers are mostly in Germany,” adds Goldfarb. “Their alkoholfrei stuff is pretty excellent.”
Indeed Deutschland’s super old breweries still boast some super tasty options (Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier, Clausthaler and — one of the author’s favorites — Einbecker), but selling them across the pond requires a somewhat different strategy.
“Alcohol enjoys a much higher ‘secretive value’ in the USA than in Europe,” laments Matthias Neidhart owner of B. United International and US importer of Einbecker. “Here it’s regulated and interpreted as a ‘drug’ while over there is a huge incentive for young people to explore this ‘hidden, secretive world’.”
As a result, the stateside sales team steers clear of any angle that might somehow make Einbecker look like a “gateway beer” for underage drinkers. As for angles that are acceptable: The wildly popular Athletic Brewing Company markets it’s Golden Ales and Run Wild NA IPAs to — wait for it — athletes.
“They make several styles and it's pretty good,” notes Goldfarb, “and it's the only NA beer my then-pregnant wife has ever claimed made her feel like she was having a real beer.”
Staying on the fitness tip, Surreal Brewing Company sells a Red IPA that has no sugar and weighs in at a belt-tightening 33 calories — which is roughly one-third of the other NAs — and people still seem to like it. Tammer Zein-El-Abedein who, along with his wife Donna Hockey, runs the Bay Area-based brewery (which won the “best pale low-alcohol beer” medal at this year’s World Beer Awards) say their current demo is 60% men and 40% women, mid-to-upper income, college-educated and between 21 to 55 years of age. Heavy equipment operators take note: Surreal also ships complementary care packages to special ops military personnel stationed in Afghanistan.
Adds Philip Brandes, founder of Bravus, (aka the country’s first NA-only brewery and awarded 2 out of 3 available medals at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival for their efforts): “Our clientele consists mainly of those in recovery, pregnant women, and boomers and seniors that are not drinking due to health reasons or medication that conflicts with alcohol.”
And let's face it, meeting your buddies at a bar and downing pints of seltzer isn't the most enjoyable thing for guys who are trying to stay dry.
“A huge reason many people drink NA beer is to get back the social inclusion they had with alcoholic beer,” says Philip. “This, along with my sober friends’ lack of quality choices, was the spark that ignited Bravus.”
Matthias notes that a lot of the consumer groups looking for NA brews are simply people at parties who don’t want a hangover yet are “tired of the current options — boring sodas, seltzers and juice”.
Bonus: Being that these beers are ferment free, you can totally order cases for delivery via the worldwide web.
While Big Beer has been taking the un-bombed bull by the hooch-free horns, the craft industry as a whole has made creative inroads over their corporate competition. Brooklyn Brewery just unveiled Special Effects (with the NA “F/X” being that it’s just as tasty as their buzzier brands!) Within two months of the Minneapolis-based Hairless Dog Brewing debuting in select local liquor stores, they sold 1,000 cases and have plans to go national.
“The quality and innovation of what is being created today is much better than what was in the domestic market for the last 30 years,” says Tammer of his Surreal Brewing success. “We are seeing now for the first time that U.S. craft beer producers are entering the market with a passion and vision for great non-alcoholic beer.”
Adds his co-owner/wife Donna Hockey: “We understand what it is like to feel excluded when it comes to alcohol centered occasions—whether someone wants to reduce their alcohol intake, have an anytime beer, has a sensitivity to sugar or gluten, or is at a TGIF, we have a non-alcoholic craft beer option for them.”
Overcoming the bad-taste bad rap
“The well-deserved stigma that NA beer tasted horrible really made it tough to sell our beer,” admits Philip of Bravus. “We quickly learned that instead of positioning our product as simply ‘NA beer’ we position it as ‘craft beer without the alcohol’.”
And that positioning is selling. With half a million Instagram users currently deploying the #SoberIsSexy hashtag, this much is clear: 2020 will be the year of non-alcoholic beer.