At the start of 2020, the sober-curious movement seemed poised to be the beverage world’s biggest story. Refreshingly flavorful nonalcoholic beers, spirits, and cocktails were arriving in bars, restaurants, and grocery stores across the country, helping to remove the stigma of removing alcohol.
Then COVID-19 hit, which seemed likely to squelch the zero-proof momentum. In today’s tense nation, which has been engulfed by wildfires, racial injustice, and a pandemic, would consumers really be reaching for a nonalcoholic IPA?
It turns out they are. In the first six months of the pandemic, off-premise alcohol sales have grown by more than 20 percent, according to Nielsen, but sales of nonalcoholic beer increased by nearly 38 percent. Sales of Athletic Brewing’s nonalcoholic beers, for example, are growing more than 400 percent monthly. “Demand was so pent-up,” founder Bill Shufelt says, adding that the “pandemic has been a really important discovery phase for the alcohol-free category.”
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
The burgeoning new category of zero-proof spirits and alcohol-free wines have experienced similar boosts. Sales of the Fre family of alcohol-removed wines have increased 31 percent, according to Nielsen. And For Bitter For Worse, which makes ready-to-drink alcohol-free cocktails in Portland, Oregon, has quadrupled production to fulfill a waiting list of 600 people. “There’s a quaran-tini fatigue,” reports Shelley Elkovich, a founder.
After years of watching its low-proof spirits gain momentum, Amsterdam’s Lucas Bols launched Damrak Virgin 0.0 in August, the result of a long development process to achieve a texture and flavor that resembles (as closely as possible) Damrak gin. According to U.S. managing director, Brett Dunne, early sales have been so strong that Virgin 0.0 sales numbers will soon match those of the original gin.
Although the much-documented pandemic trend of people pouring stiff drinks is real, there’s a countermovement afoot as well, says Julia Bainbridge, author of the just-published Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason. People have been understandably “looking for anything to help us escape from the reality of what is happening right now,” she says, but for many others, quarantine has provided an opportunity to explore sobriety due to a lack of social encounters and work-related happy hours.
When Health Becomes a Selling Point
Health is top of mind for many consumers, and drinking too much alcohol can weaken the immune system.
“There’s a hyperfocus on health right now,” says Tammer Zein-El-Abedein, a founder of Surreal Brewing Company, in Campbell, California. Sales of the company’s low-calorie nonalcoholic beers such as Natural Bridges, a 17-calorie kölsch-style ale, typically spike in the New Year, buoyed by Dry January and fitness-minded resolutions.
As the pandemic stretched into June and July, Surreal saw a different sales spike―and it was new consumers fueling it. “We saw a shift with 85 percent new customers week-over-week,” Zein-El-Abedein says. “I’m bullish on the trajectory toward health.”
John Wiseman is the founder of Curious Elixirs, a line of alcohol-free cocktails inspired by such drinks as the Aperol spritz and Negroni. Based in New York’s Hudson Valley, the company offers a monthly subscription for its bottled 12-ounce mixed drinks. Since the pandemic started, sales for the cocktail club have increased 600 percent, Wiseman says.
“In the nonalcoholic space, it’s just been up, up, up,” Wiseman notes. “There’s no slowing down. Health and wellness are a huge draw.” Wiseman reads the company’s reviews, and “there are more and more people who are like, ‘I just decided during quarantine that I’m not going to drink anything because I want to keep my immunity strong.’”
New Zealand’s Giesen Wines had planned to roll out its alcohol-removed Sauvignon Blanc, the first of its kind, in the U.S. in April. COVID delayed the debut. “Our thought was, ‘Yeah, this thing is dead in the water,’” recalls Angela Slade, the vice president of communications for importer Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits.
Yet when Pacific Highway’s sales team began shopping Giesen 0% directly to retail buyers, they discovered there was huge demand for a health-minded wine. Whole Foods Market took nearly the entire allocation, committing to a nationwide program slated for Dry January 2021. “It opens up a whole new world when you can treat a zero-alcohol wine as a beverage or food item,” Slade says. “You’re not limited to the alcohol space.”
In the wine category, it’s younger consumers behind this trend, observes Brie Wohld, vice president of marketing for Trinchero Family Estates, which produces Fre. “Younger consumers appear to be driving this shift, as millennials drink less alcohol than Gen X, and Gen Z drinks less alcohol than millennials; the sober-curious movement that emerged prior to the start of the pandemic has only accelerated.”
Seizing Ecommerce Opportunities
The pandemic also sped up many preexisting shopping trends. Ecommerce became essential, and nonalcoholic beers and cocktails benefit from the ability to be shipped nationwide because they’re not subject to the state-by-state regulatory framework for alcohol. “Almost overnight, online sales grew almost fivefold,” reports Surreal’s Zein-El-Abedein.
Athletic, which opened in Stratford, Connecticut, in 2018, launched with a robust direct-to-consumer model for its nonalcoholic beers, including Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn golden ale. “We feel superfortunate that we’ve been iterating on our ecommerce platform for two years before COVID hit,” says Shufelt, who notes that the brewery’s limited releases often sell out within 15 minutes online.
The brewery maxed out its 15,000-barrel capacity in Connecticut and bought a former Ballast Point brewery in San Diego in March, which allowed it to augment production capacity by an additional 150,000 barrels to accommodate the company’s astonishing 400 percent growth per month. “There’s less discovery shopping going on at off-premise, so it’s on the brewer to be actively marketing,” Shufelt says.
Prior to the pandemic, the multinational Japanese brewery and distillery Suntory relied on events and in-store samplings to introduce customers to its products. But as Suntory prepared to roll out the sparkling All-Free, a zero-calorie beer-like beverage made with hops and barley, it switched to influencer partnerships to spread the word. Moreover, Suntory’s website and Instagram page direct customers to Amazon to buy the product using one-click purchasing.
“We are trying to make it easier to get people to try our products in the comforts of their homes,” says Takeharu Nakai, the U.S. director of sales and marketing for All-Free.
Initially, Miracle Seltzer, which launched last year to create a more engaging seltzer option for alcohol-abstaining diners, targeted the on-premise sector. “I noticed there were many alcohol-free beverages, but nothing to reward the sober-curious consumer in the water space,” says cofounder Jason Wright. “We focus on the ‘curious’ part, appealing to consumers who would take a one-way ticket to a new dimension without the need of chemical input.” (Miracle’s logo is “Open Your Eyes Really Wide,” and it’s supported by “mental adventure” experiences like Dreamland with Yowie, an astral water park powered by carbonated water.)
At the start of the pandemic, the company quickly switched to a subscription-based ecommerce mode. It’s been so successful that Wright plans to launch all new products with “an ecommerce-first approach.”
The Sober-Curious Bar Pivot
Sober-curious bars and pop-ups such as Brooklyn’s Getaway Bar and Sans Bar, in Austin, Texas, fueled the sober-curious movement by normalizing the idea that people would happily pay $10 or $15 for an intricate alcohol-free cocktail. Although many bars are shuttered, there’s continued demand for bar-quality nonalcoholic cocktails, and people are making them at home.
Sans Bar founder Chris Marshall temporarily closed his bar and canceled the remaining dates of his nationwide tour, a partnership with “botanical bubbly” Dry Soda. Now he’s created an interactive online event series called Sans Bar Where You Are. People order Dry Soda drink kits, which include ingredients and recipes, plus a custom playlist, then join Marshall on Facebook Live to make the signature cocktail alongside him. (Dry Soda is donating 100 percent of the proceeds to support the staff at Sans Bar.)
“The digital experience is keeping people engaged,” says Marshall, who is hoping to reopen his bar sometime in 2021.
Prior to the pandemic, the Australian brand Lyre’s Non-Alcoholic Spirits hired about 20 global brand ambassadors to educate bartenders and members of the trade about the company’s products, which range from rum to bourbon to gin. Instead of furloughing the ambassadors, the company turned them into virtual mixology trainers. Customers who purchase bottles on Lyre’s website receive a free 15-minute cocktail-making lesson via Zoom to help them create quality cocktails at home. “It’s helped people adjust to the lack of their favorite bar,” says Lyre’s founder, Mark Livings.
Mélanie Masarin planned to launch her pleasantly bitter nonalcoholic aperitif, Ghia, at restaurants and bars. But when the pandemic arrived, the company pivoted to a direct-to-consumer model. Each order includes a recipe book that “plays an important part in the home-bartending experience,” Masarin says. “We wanted to share ideas for how to utilize Ghia and inspire people to create their own cocktails or mocktails at home.”
Mindful alcohol-free celebration during a time of isolation has taken hold, says Good Drinks’ author Bainbridge. “For those who are not consuming alcohol for whatever reason, making these drinks can be fun,” and a fancy booze-free drink creates “a chicer kind of evening, which is something that lockdown has taken from us all.”
The pandemic has canceled many drinking rituals, but the silver lining is that a fractured world can open people up to new routines. “What’s important to note is the shift in mentality over the course of quarantine,” Masarin says. “Many now want to take a break from booze and are looking for healthier alternatives to wind down at the end of the day.”
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.