Well-intentioned New Years' resolutions may find you sipping green juice in overcrowded gyms and teetotalling in the name of "Dry January." If you find yourself doing the latter, the thought of cracking open a non-alcoholic cold one may cross your mind.
Or not. More often than not, non-alcoholic beer is, well, lackluster. Watered-down, party-free, and sugar-laden, offering up not much more than something to hold while your friends sip something stronger.
A new wave of non-alcoholic brews is hoping to shift this stigma. And it’s not just the Dry January partakers, the sober or the designated drivers that are cracking open these cold ones: it's a new slate of health-minded millennials.
As Brooklyn Brewery geared up for the launch of the brand’s first non-alcoholic option this winter, they "found there is a fundamental shift in consumer drinking habits and consumer behavior,” says Brooklyn Brewery president Robin Ottaway. “Non-alcoholic beverages are no longer just for people who can't or don't want to drink alcohol, full stop.”
Their research found that 52 percent of beer drinkers are making a conscious effort to cut back their drinking, citing a desire for a "healthier lifestyle" as the reason for doing so. “Especially within younger generations,” explains Ottaway, “Whether they’re thinking more about their health, or whether they don’t have the same preconceptions about NA beverages that older generations had, drinkers want more beverage options.”
Broader industry research has found that non-alcoholic beer sales are expected to pass $25 billion in the next five years. Brands big and small are catching on, crafting beers for the sober-curious.
Heineken has it’s ‘0.0’, and Pabst has both Pabst Blue Ribbon Non-Alc, and a lower-ABV PBR Easy. On the craft side, Bell's Brewery launched a Light-Hearted IPA, and Dogfish Head has a Slightly Mighty IPA. Entirely NA brand Athletic Brewery made waves in the last few years making sober craft beer for the young professional.
Their oeuvre includes an IPA (winner of the 2018 International Beer Challenge in the NA category), a golden ale, a gose, and a Mexican-style Cerveza. They had to pause operations and double their production facilities to keep up with the demand.
Brooklyn Brewery has been working on Special Effects, the brand’s first NA option, for years. "The number one priority—and why it took so long to get to market—when making Special Effects was that it tasted great,” describes Ottoway. They wanted to keep the same slick branding and craft mentality the brewery is known for, just subtract the booze.
“[We found] consumers' biggest concern around non-alcoholic has been that none of the beers taste good and are therefore unenjoyable to drink. They're too sweet, have a metallic-like finish. It makes you feel like you're compromising."
Special Effects does nothing of the sort: the dry-hopped ‘lager-style brew’—legally, they can’t call it a beer—sips with rich breadiness and light zestiness you’d expect from any pint pulled at the brewery. After the success of Special Effects’ launch in the EU earlier this year, the brand will be introducing new flavors by year’s end.
This shift to the sober is mirrored in the spirits world. Non-alcoholic spirits brand Seedlip, seen on the back bars of the country’s top cocktail haunts, was scooped up by Diageo this summer after annual profits rose ten percent. New York's Existing Conditions has an entire page of the menu dedicated to no-proof cocktails, and Williamsburg's Listen Bar is a full-on booze-free bar.
Non-alcoholic drinks have always felt sub-par. Sodas, lemon water, "virgin" this or "mocktail" that, or a host of other asinine adjectives that say your non-alcoholic drink is lacking flavor. Now, NA options are starting to feel less like a consolation prize and more like a top pick.
“It used to be so black and white: you’re someone who drinks alcohol, or you aren’t,” muses Ottaway, “Now, people who like drinking alcohol are in situations where they want something more flavorful than water or seltzer but aren’t looking for a buzz at that moment.”