But, in the past few years, that's started to change. With the rise of interest in "sober" drinking, non-alcoholic beer is becoming a true craft specialty, with new companies focused solely on it. Leading the charge are Athletic Brewing, WellBeing Brewing, and Partake Brewing. "For decades, major brewers pretty much had a non-alcoholic beer option just so they could have a designated driver program," WellBeing founder Jeff Stevens says. "But they didn't care if it was any good—and it showed. It was incredibly stale."
Fortunately, the latest options are the opposite of stale. Keep reading to see how the industry is changing, and why the wellness world, in particular, is taking note.
Making it a craft specialty
For Athletic Brewing co-founder Bill Shufelt, launching a non-alcoholic beer company came from an authentic need in his own life. "A lot of my life is geared toward being as healthy as possible," he says. "I eat primarily plant-based and consider myself a weekend warrior." Back in 2016, he decided to stop drinking alcohol for a month while training for an ultra marathon. After experiencing the positive effects it had on his sleep and energy levels, he decided to keep it up. But it didn't exactly make social situations easy.
"At barbecues, restaurants, and sporting events, there wasn't anything being offered that I wanted to drink," he says. "I'm a big foodie and I didn't want to pair a nice meal with, like, a soda." He started looking into non-alcoholic beer and saw that it was an industry that hadn't experienced much change in over 25 years. Shufelt quit his job in finance to see if he could reinvent the category, partnering with a friend, John Walker (Athletic's co-founder). Together, they spent nine months perfecting the recipe while simultaneously figuring out how to make it an actual business they could scale.
When they set out, Shufelt says it wasn't easy to overcome non-alcoholic beer's stigma. "At first, no brewers or distributors wanted to even try it," Shufelt says. But as more people did, their minds were changed. "The company grew 1,000 percent in 2019 and we're up about 500 percent in 2020," he says.
The key was creating a non-alcoholic beer that was truly a craft beer. "We make [several] changes in the natural process of brewing traditional beer, tweaking the fermentation process and ingredients," he says. This allows them to make brews in various styles including IPAs, golden ales, and even seasonal varieties, like Oktoberfests.
Partake Brewing founder Ted Fleming says craft brews are the key to their success too. While major beer companies made their non-alcoholic beer by simply brewing a 5 percent alcoholic beer and then de-alkalizing it, the craft method involves what's called "arrested fermentation," which means stopping the fermentation process early. "Partake is essentially a hybrid of these two methods," he explains.
Fleming also became interested in non-alcoholic beer out of an authentic need. He has Crohn's disease and says drinking alcohol made his symptoms worse. So, as much as he liked the taste of beer, he had to give it up. "I loved all the cool stuff that was happening with craft beer and no longer being part of that community was really a struggle for me," he says. He started experimenting with making his own non-alcoholic craft beer in 2016 and launched it on Kickstarter in 2017. This year, the Canadian brand raised $4 million in funding and has expanded distribution into Whole Foods and Total Wine & More stores.
Quenching a thirst in the wellness world
Stevens says his Wellbeing brand has also seen growing interest over the past four years. "When we launched in 2016, retailers and customers just couldn't wrap their head around it," he says. But he saw that change in the following years as sober curiosity and non-alcoholic beverages became trendy.
"More people started seeking out non-alcoholic beer as a way to complement a healthy lifestyle," he says. "It's not an all or nothing thing either. A lot of people will choose to start with beer and then switch over to a non-alcoholic one when they're ready for their second or third."
Shufelt says Athletic Brewing is especially popular among run clubs. "There's a running club in New York City that meets at a craft beer bar afterward and we've been a fixture there for the last two years," he says.
As we're collectively spending more time at home during the pandemic, Stevens says he believes this has also led to an increased interest in seeking out non-alcoholic beer. There's a legit need to somehow separate the workday from the non-workday when you're living the WFH life. "At the end of the day, you want something that you can unwind with to help settle into an evening routine, but not everyone wants it to be an alcoholic beverage," he says. "This is something that still feels special and meets that need, without interfering with your sleep."
Another time to pop open a can? Listen to Stevens, who brings up an excellent point: "Because of its carb content and electrolytes, beer is actually a great recovery drink without the alcohol," he says. Hey, might as well have two.
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