I’ve been sober for more than 2 ½ years. That means more than 2 ½ years of toasting champagne flutes of water at weddings, cheersing highballs of iced tea after work, and 2 ½ years of new cavities carved from the 5 Ginger Ales I’ve been having each night out.
“Lime wedge please,” I tell bartenders so the drink resembles my ex: Whiskey Ginger.
“At least music venues are starting to have better options”, I lie to myself as I approach a bar selling $6 bottles of water and $8 Red Bulls. “Sheesh, did they not hear what Shannon Herber, Genre Manager at The Recording Academy, said at SXSW this year?”
That’s been my overall experience in the last quarter decade. An experience I’m not alone in. Beccy Rigden, one of the sober-identifying individuals interviewed for this piece, shared a parallel experience.
“I was on a work-sponsored event to a New Hampshire Brewery, and when I asked about non-alcoholic options I was given a tiny plastic cup to get water from the bathroom tap. I was devastated”.
To be fair though, Beccy has found non-alcoholic options in some distant places.
“Last fall I visited Brno in the Czech Republic and every single brewery had their own non-alcoholic option on tap. I tried them all and it made me so happy to go out with others and participate in the social part of beer!”
I’ve too found non-alcoholic options in some unique places. At a Diner in a southern Utah town with a population less than 270, at a Taqueria in San Diego, in a hidden hotel speakeasy in Belfast, and in a Ruins pub in Budapest. Reviews more appropriate for a Travel + Leisure special edition.
I wish I had found it at a brewery off the Katy Trail in Missouri, where I sought shelter for 3 hours during Tornado warnings on my cross-country ride, and I know in the years to come that menus will respond to the economic interests of carrying non-alcoholic options and complete the slow turn of their menus from port to starboard.
But there’s one category that concerns me. Better, one category I wish to speak directly to: The craft brewers of America.
Every aspect of my life has returned to a pre-sobriety normalcy: The drinking days. I’ve returned to networking events, I’ve returned to travel, I’ve returned to bachelor parties, the only place I’ve yet to return to is the brewery.
“Neither me nor my husband drink, however, we’re pretty social and we still like to go out and meet friends ‘for a drink’, this could be a game changer for us.” — Tyler Ferguson
I loved the craft brewery Saturday. A morning spent outdoors exercising in the mountains or on the beach, followed by an afternoon sipping on a flight of craft beers, at a shared picnic table with friends we just met playing life-sized chess, ordering food from that food truck. “The line looks long but it moves quickly,” our new friends tell us as they wipe aioli from their cheek, left there from the last bite of their vegan cauliflower tacos.
Breweries serve vegan cauliflower tacos yet still don’t carry non-alcoholic options, and hang invisible “keep out sobers” signs on their front door.
They don’t actually have these signs, but their menus, taps, flights, and fridges surely have no options for the non-drinker. In the 2 ½ years since changing my order, I’ve yet to come across a brewery that carries non-alcoholic options, nevermind a craft non-alcoholic option.
Nor has Glenn Broadley, a visitor of over 100 breweries.
“I have visited now well over 100 Craft Breweries, and not one of them carried non-alcoholic or alcohol-free beer, never mind one on tap. Most consider soft drinks, water, and kombucha to be adequate alternatives. I have also learned that even at a Craft Brewer, 25% of patrons are either not drinking alcohol or only drinking 1 or 2 beers with alcohol. Craft brewers, please start offering non-alcoholic or alcohol-free, you are beer people.”
Now, Glenn and I may share sentiments but we represent only 2 members of the 30% of Americans that haven’t had a drink in the past year. So I asked some others in the 30% about what they’d like to see.
In an independent poll conducted by the team at RICKiRICKi, 475 individuals that identify as sober or alcohol-free were asked one question: If your local breweries carried cans and bottles or even had a favorite non-alcoholic beer on tap, would you go?
98% (465) selected YES.
2% (10) selected NO.
In a parallel RICKiRICKi poll, 156 people who identify as drinkers were asked if the breweries they frequented had a non-alcoholic option on tap, would they try it?
78% (122) responded YES.
22% (34) responded NO.
Non-alcoholic beverages aren’t just for the sober or non-drinkers. For some the choice might be health reasons, others looking for a better recovery drink that day, or some even looking for superior taste.
“There are so many incentives for breweries to offer non-alcoholic options. Many people choose not to drink while training for an athletic event, for health reasons, when they’re in recovery, pregnant, etc. I could go on — it just makes good business sense to reach out to these customers.” — Sarah Ambrus
If consumers were so bullish about this, almost begging for it, what did craft breweries think about this?
Of the ones I spoke to several expressed concern over cultivating enough demand to update their menu, then when shown the numbers above, their interest was peaked and I read their faces: We should be brewing a non-alcoholic option.
“No! But, you should be carrying one.”
Despite the irresistible pressure to extend the equity of one’s brand and brew non-alcoholic options, especially after learning that Americans are drinking less during the pandemic, craft brewers should not brew their own.
Ted Fleming, CEO of Partake Brewing, told me “In most cases, it probably doesn’t make sense for a brewery to make their own NA beer. The majority craft brewers are small local operations and the costs and expertise needed to make a good non-alcoholic beer are likely prohibitive.”
Extending their line to brewing non-alcoholic options is not only expensive and difficult but it violates the law of extension. In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Reis and Jack Trout share that line extensions in parallel categories often cannibalize each other, rather than compliment.
Beyond the cumbersome barriers to entry of cost and time is regulation.
“While most brewers are regulated by the TTB & State liquor authorities, non-alcoholic beer is also regulated by the FDA & State food authorities.” — Bill Shufelt, Athletic Brewing Company
Then there is the task of taste, ABV reduction to be less than 0.5%, and shelf stability, which hopefully discourages the craft brewer from the challenge, not the solution.
The solution then is what Athletic Brewing Company is already doing: selling their beers to many breweries as taproom offerings.
Athletic founder Bill Shufelt told me “It’s an easy proposition for taprooms to buy from us at wholesale and make a nice margin on it rather than deal with the regulatory and process hurdles to distract from their core business. At the same time, it makes their taproom much more approachable for a wider net of customers.”
Craft beer taprooms could also make these selections rotational to further expand their offerings and satisfy their new patron's interest.
There is even the eventual opportunity to collaborate between a craft and non-alcoholic craft brewery on a future release Fleming acknowledged.
“I think there is. The right partnership opportunity just hasn't presented itself for us yet.”
We know the margins offer economic interest, we know these relationships bypass brand-damaging marketing law violations, and we know there is a mouth-watering demand for it. For centuries, nightlife and daylife have created a business model that caters to 70% of the population, leaving a massive void towards the 30%. Craft brewers can now pioneer menu reservations for non-alcoholic options and invite in a group that has been saving money while sober for decades. A move that Tyler Ferguson and husband call a game-changer.
“Neither me nor my husband drink, however, we’re pretty social and we still like to go out and meet friends ‘for a drink’. We pretty much don’t do that anymore because there are no drink options for us. We don’t drink soda or iced tea or caffeine except in the morning. We’ve begged some of our favorite places to have non-alcoholic options on tap but it has been pretty hit and miss. This could be a game changer for us.”
I too want to return to my brewery Saturdays. I want to eat vegan cauliflower tacos at a picnic table shared with friends I just met playing life-sized chess and I want to do it with a flight, or even a can of non-alcoholic beer while my friends enjoy theirs.
Let the games begin.
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