Good Beer Hunting

Zero Tolerance, Pt. 2 — Non-Alcoholic Beer Moves Toward a Flavorful Future


If it’s clear that non-alcoholic beer (NAB) has a future with drinkers, how can it succeed? In order to move beyond its place with consumers mindful of lifestyle or health choices, it’s about capturing occasions. Jeff Stevens, co-founder of non-alcoholic beer producer WellBeing Brewing Company, acknowledges that his products aren’t meant to replace beer, but hopes to capture consumers who might consider NABs as a replacement for soda or sugary drinks.

Part of what makes his brands unique is the process of making them, which leaves them more “beer” than what past NAB customers may expect. To produce WellBeing's Heavenly Body Golden Wheat and Hellraiser Dark Amber, Stevens is contract brewing at St. Louis’ O’Fallon Brewery, where a vacuum distillation process allows for the removal of ethanol at what is essentially room temperature, but maintains flavor. Stevens’ hope is to attract shoppers at more health-conscious grocers as well as traditional beer or liquor stores. WellBeing is already placed in nearly 30 locations in St. Louis and the broader Denver metro area, plus about 20 bars and restaurants in St. Louis.

About 1,600 cases of NAB made by WellBeing were sold in January, its first month of sales, an equivalent of about 115 barrels of beer. The hope is that as more retailers agree to sell the non-alcoholic beer, production will end up between 3,000 and 5,000 barrels for 2018. Stevens is eyeing a canned blood orange Wheat Ale as a summer seasonal release, a Stout for the fall, and something “crazy hopped up” as a future version of NAB IPA.

“I know this isn’t for everyone, but I think there are enough people who would be interested in the thought of mindful drinking,” Stevens tells GBH. “To me, it’s not about drinking alcohol, but being mindful of consumption, which is a place that more people can get behind a brand—we’re at the forefront of that.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the nature of British drinking culture and its standard 20-ounce imperial pint measure have long dictated that lower alcohol styles such as Bitters, Milds, and Pale Ales be among the most popular options available. But the country’s U.S.-inspired craft revolution has seen stronger styles like American IPAs and Imperial Stouts thrust into greater prominence—at least among the category’s biggest enthusiasts. This has created the potential for a new generation to break from tradition as British drinkers widen their horizons.

Lower alcohol styles still rule the UK however, with Session IPAs and Table Beers—the latter style being popularized by London’s The Kernel Brewery—featuring in many a modern brewery’s core range. Their popularity and prevalence seems to be on the increase, too. Manchester’s Cloudwater recently released the first in its range of so-called “Small Beers,” which sit at under 3% ABV. Brixton Brewery in South London also just produced a 2.8% ABV “desk beer” for London bar Big Chill.

This new version of an old trend for lower alcohol beers runs deeper than this, though, as British drinkers have become increasingly conscientious of their alcohol intake. London now counts three breweries specializing in the production of low- (beer under 1.2% ABV is officially classified as “low alcohol” in the UK) and no-alcohol beer. Nirvana Brewery and Big Drop Brew Co. are exclusively brewing beers under a 0.5% ABV threshold. By comparison, the beers produced by the aptly named Small Beer Brewing Co.—a 2.1% Lager and a 1% Dark Lager—seem positively gargantuan by comparison.

“We set out on a mission to find a beer which we personally wanted to drink. One that had all the flavor and enjoyment, but that didn't slow us down,” Small Beer’s co-founder Felix James tells GBH. “It's early days for us, but we're seeing a huge demand from like-minded people who enjoy the taste and social aspects of drinking beer but who equally want to partake in a fast-paced, active lifestyle.”

According to data compiled by Nielsen and reported in The Grocer, sales of beers below the 1.2% low-alcohol threshold grew by £5.9 million (about $8.3 million) to £34.7 million (about $48.6 million) between August 2016 and July 2017. By comparison, high-alcohol beers (those over 7.5%) saw a decline of £8.9 million (about $12.5 million) to £68 million ($95.2 million). One in five British adults reportedly now identifies as a teetotaler, showing that the trend for lower ABV beers in the UK may be of significance as modern drinkers adjust their alcohol intake to suit their lifestyles. For comparison, around a third of the U.S. population has consistently avoided alcohol for generations.

“There is no doubt that today's drinker is more health conscious,” Small Beer’s James says. “It's a huge selling point for us. As yet, we haven't had a single person ask us why we're not offering anything stronger!”

The perspective and work being by WellBeing, Small Beer, and others reflects a subtle change in what happened in the non-alcoholic beer space from 20 or 30 years ago. Both then and now, companies identified their audiences as current beer drinkers who wanted a substitute for particular occasions. Judging by dollar sales alone, there is a definable level of success to that accomplishment.

The question is now whether—in the U.S. and elsewhere—there will be enough continued support in tangible ways. That is, actually buying these products with regularity. In America, the market is relatively miniscule, and the entries so sparse any consistent traction is hard to determine. To call non-alcoholic beer a “trend” at this point would be based more on the arrival of new products, less so a cultural shift.

But still, these brands wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t opportunity, and as the beer industry grows and evolves, chances for success are changing, too. Even without the alcohol.

—Bryan Roth and Matthew Curtis