Non-Alc Beer Is Rapidly Diversifying
In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe dive into the world of non-alcoholic beer. It’s a category that exploded during the 1990s and — thanks to a recent increase in innovation and quality — is making a comeback.
What better time to explore NA beer than during VinePair’s Mindful Drinking Month? Because it’s Dry January, join the hosts as they try a non-alcoholic IPA from Athletic Brewing Co. How does the brew differ from its alcoholic counterpart? And what lies in store for the NA wine and spirits categories going forward?
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast,” brought to you by Omicron.
Z: I’m glad we were able to nail that sponsorship down for 2022.
A: You’re welcome. That’s why I’m back in my apartment and Joanna is in hers, and we’re not in the office together.
J: We’re being safe.
A: We’re taking protective measures.
Z: I have been advised to keep at least 3,000 miles away from you guys.
A: Distance, Zach. Distance. Speaking of the Pacific Northwest, are you guys watching “Yellowjackets?”
J: I have not yet, but I want to. I heard very good things.
Z: I don’t even know what this is.
A: I started it over the holidays. It’s very creepy. It’s like this combination of “Alive” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets maybe “Lost.” I’m not going to be as happy if it’s also “Lost,” ‘cause I thought it got really dumb at the end.
Z: Yes, I will agree with that.
A: But it’s about a high school girls soccer team in the 1990s from New Jersey. Without giving anything away, they are supposed to be going to nationals in Seattle. And as they’re flying, they’re in a private plane because one of the girls on the soccer team’s dad is very wealthy, so he rents them a private plane to make them feel like they’re so special. It crashes in the middle of nowhere Ontario. It flashbacks to that time and flashes forward to now with some characters who survive. It’s really crazy and good. I highly recommend it.
Z: OK, what is this on?
A: Showtime. I never really watch Showtime anymore.
Z: Do you have all of the streaming services?
A: I don’t think I have all of them, but I have a good amount of them.
Z: It seems like it. Our numbers have been ticking up and up, mainly because Caitlin hears about shows and is like, “Let’s subscribe to this to watch just one show.”
A: I don’t have a Starz account or whatever. I have Showtime, HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, and Disney+. Oh, man, that got way too crazy. Anyways, it’s the Friday episode. It is the first Friday of Dry January and also of 2022. Do either of you do Dry January?
Z: I sure do.
A: I know you do.
J: No, but I’ve done it once before.
A: I’m going to try this year, which I mostly do every year. Which is just drinking on Fridays and Saturdays. We all know your go-to is sparkling water and bitters, Zach.
Z: Long time listeners will know that’s true.
A: It is interesting because there’s been this massive uptick in non-alcoholic beers, specifically. I’m wondering why it’s those more than anything else. I know that some people think non-alcoholic wine is coming. I don’t think I can ever drink non-alcoholic wine. It seems like some people are really enjoying non-alcoholic beers. Why do you think that is?
J: We have this article that was published this week from Joshua Bernstein about non-alcoholic beer, specifically about where it’s at in 2022. I didn’t realize that it’s a category that’s been around for a while. It had a really big explosion in the 1990s. So, the category has been growing since then. Or not growing, but there’s a lot more options, and the quality is much better now. I think that’s why there’s definitely an increase in demand for non-alcoholic beer, with the prominence of Dry January and people exploring with sobriety. I think beer producers and brewers are definitely creating more and better quality options in non-alcoholic beer.
Z: To that point that you made about the increased variety and improved quality is huge in discussing NA beer and why it is categorically different from a wine or spirit at this point. We’ll probably talk about this throughout this conversation, but the problem with the first iteration of any beer that I encountered professionally was that all of them were basically one way or another a macro lager-style NA beer. That was fine if you wanted an NA beer and the other beer you either still drank or had drunk previously before deciding to stop drinking alcohol was macro lager. This was a replacement for that. But as we’ve seen over the last 30 years, the kinds and styles of beers that people want to drink are ever evolving and ever expanding. And it’s only very recently that NA beer has entered the market. Even an NA IPA was almost impossible to find until a couple of years ago. You would see nothing of a hazy, sour, Berliner Weisse — all the many kinds of beer that you could drink as a beer drinker. If you were someone who liked to have a lot of different options, then the category was a nonstarter for you until very recently. I also think that because of some of the mechanisms of how beer is made, and what we expect out of beer, it has translated into the NA format more cleanly and without as much sacrifice as the few wines that I have tried over my career where you’re really missing a lot there. You’re missing the texture that alcohol gives wine and beer. But you can find other ways to have the right texture to beer, in part because the alcohol content is much lower typically. You’re not expecting the same body as you would with a spirit or with wine. But also with wine, and spirits to some extent, the problem is that NA wine clocks in at much lower price points. It’s usually made, understandably, from pretty homogenous wine and isn’t very interesting. So the kind of person who enjoys drinking wine, like me, and who does Dry January, like me, NA wine that I’ve tried to this point is a nonstarter. It’s just not very good. It doesn’t taste like the wine that I normally drink. Whereas some of the beers that I’ve had are very reasonable facsimiles of beer that has alcohol in it. That, to me, has been the biggest selling point for the category as a whole. You maybe sacrifice a little something in the NA space, but way less than you do with wine or with spirits. .
A: I have a hot take here. If you read Josh’s article, there’s always been a non-alcoholic market. Historically, actually, it’s been a lot larger than it is today. Social media that’s fueling traditional media has helped make it seem like it’s the biggest it’s ever been. But if you look at 1992, there were 2.4 million barrels of non-alcoholic beer brewed in the United States and consumed. In 2020, there were barely 1 million. So we’re sitting here saying, “Oh my gosh, everyone’s running to non-alc.” And I actually don’t think that’s the case. There are non-alcoholic drinkers who are now like, “Oh my gosh, I was always prone to want to drink non-alc every once in a while, but now there’s something with actual flavor that I will gladly drink instead.” But then there are other people who are sitting here saying, “Well, when I choose to abstain from drinking, I choose to drink something a little bit healthier for myself. When I’m doing Dry January, obviously I am not, because I’m only drinking two days a week, so I still am drinking. But if I’m in the pool trying to get my laps faster, I’m trying to think about my calorie intake, I’m eating healthier. And I’m staring at the beer we’re going to drink later, and it’s got 70 calories in it. I’d rather drink water. I’ve said this last year, I said this the year before. But that’s why I think that it’s this interesting category that gets a lot of hype, but when you start looking at the numbers, a lot of it is just noise. It’s a specific category that’s interesting, and I’m glad it’s there for people who don’t mind those other things. But if you’re choosing not to drink alcohol, for a lot of people it’s not related to substance moderation, it’s related to health, there’s nothing that healthy about them. It’s still sugar. It’s still calories. I’d rather drink things that are healthy for me, if that makes sense. It’s interesting where we are as a culture that we’re acting like it’s the great replacement. I don’t really think that it is.
Z: There’s something to disentangle here, in my eyes. As you said, Adam, there are a lot of different reasons why people might want to drink a non-alcoholic product. One of them that you mentioned, I think it’s important to note but is also not hyper-relevant to this exact discussion, are people for whom alcohol is a substance, that is problematic for them. It’s important that people in that category have a range of beverage options, whatever they are. Whether they’re classically without alcohol or are NA versions of alcoholic beverages. But the unhealthy element of beer or wine or alcohol is the calories. But a bigger part of it is literally the alcohol. I mean, alcohol is not good for you.
A: No, it’s not.
Z: I don’t think it’s a sham that people think that drinking NA beer is more healthy than drinking beer. It may not be the healthiest thing you could drink, but people drink a lot of unhealthy stuff. You may be comfortable replacing all of your beverage intake with water, but an NA beer is undoubtedly better for you than soda.
A: Totally. Well, do we know that?
Z: Yes. Calorically but also the sugar, I guess. You’re not getting a lot of simple sugars in beer. Beer is going to convey a lot of nutrients, too. There’s a reason why it’s called liquid bread, and bread isn’t the healthiest thing for you, but it’s healthier for you than just cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup or whatever you’re going to get.
A: Right. In this country, it’s especially high-fructose corn syrup.
Z: I don’t mean to say that NA beer is super healthy and you should only drink it. But it fits into the same category of smoothies and stuff like that. They are things that people drink where they may think it has more health benefits than it really, truly does. And obviously, with things like smoothies, sometimes people are consuming a lot more calories than they realize in that format. But I agree with you that it is also a little bit of a canard that these things are ultra healthy and some of the brand’s definitely attach themselves to that mindset. It’s marketing, and it’s not to say that it’s unhealthy per se. I’m curious about Joanna’s take on this in particular, because you and I have discussed this before, Adam. One of the other things that comes up with this category is not just Dry January, right? You’re not drinking at all. But it’s more like what you were talking about, Adam. It’s for the person who maybe wants to not drink every night or wants to drink alcohol sparingly but still wants to have something interesting to drink. Is that a persuasive argument for you, Joanna?
J: Yeah, I feel like the people I know who actually drink non-alcoholic beer or non-alcoholic wine are those who drink it more because they like the experience of drinking something. Or they like the routine of coming home after work and having a glass of wine but they don’t want to be drinking at that time or having alcohol at that time. I’ve never really sought out non-alcoholic beverages myself for that purpose. Now that we have these non-alcoholic beers in front of us, this is pretty interesting to me. Maybe I would versus just not drinking, which is what I tend to do instead. But I guess I get the experience of it, wanting to unwind or whatever it is that you do with a beer. Or you go out with friends and you don’t want to be drinking, but you can have this as an option. I get that appeal.
A: One of the ways that I’ve heard some people choose to do it, which I could sort of see the appeal for, is using non-alcoholic beer as every other drink when you’re out. You want to go out and watch football, and you want to have a beer each quarter. You make two of those non-alcoholic beers. So you didn’t waste your entire Sunday or Saturday, or whenever you choose to watch football, drinking lots of beer and then not being able to do other things afterwards. That is where the excitement does lie in non-alcoholic beer currently. That is definitely not the person who drank O’Douls, because it didn’t even have a lot of flavor. But there are people who can go and have two higher gravity New England IPAs that are 6 to 9 percent. But I can feel OK about that because that can be my first quarter and third quarter beer, and my second and fourth quarter beers are Athletic’s Run Wild. That is definitely interesting to me. I have never done that. But that’s also because I have never had any Athletic beers before. Maybe I will become a convert at the end of this episode and tell you that I will, but it’s just never been something that I like. I’m like you, Joanna. This quarter, I’m just going to have water or order an iced tea or something. So I don’t know. It’s interesting, though. This is definitely where we’re heading. There’s two segments of non-alcohol, right? The one that I think is the largest, and that beverage professionals that should be the most aware of, is the actual abstention category. That’s the category that’s going to be the largest consumers of non-alc for the foreseeable future. Whether you’re saying because of substance, because of health or pregnancy, and other things like that. There is a smaller subset of it that bleeds into the lower-alcohol movement that is looking for sessionability. Meaning, the ability to drink a few more than they normally would, but temper their alcohol blood level so that they don’t get too intoxicated. That’s the appeal of seltzers, that you can have more of them over the course of the time you’re hanging out with friends and not feel completely wasted. That can be the appeal of drinking non-alcoholic beers between alcoholic beers or other alcoholic drinks. That’s how you’re seeing one subset use them, for that sessionability, which is interesting.
J: Yeah, I agree. Adam, I know you question the non-alcoholic wine category, but I think we’re kind of seeing it across all categories, and in spirits as well. There are a lot of options out there for people to try.
Z: As I said before, I remain mildly skeptical of some of these other attempts at NA options because I have yet to have an experience that seems believable. Beer is, in some ways, an easier category to get right. Part of it, too, is the price point. If the NA beer that you’re choosing to consume is priced similarly to the alcoholic beer you would normally drink, that is less of an issue for people. A pint at a bar could be at $6 or $7, a 6-pack might be $12 or $13. But a $35 bottle of NA gin is a harder sell. Especially for the kind of person who’s in that moderation category. That’s when they’re going to say, “I’ll have one less drink and I’ll drink water,” not, “I’m going to spend the same amount on an NA cocktail.” So that’s tricky.
A: I think I’ve told the story years ago, so it’s like I never told it. That time I was at a bar and Seedlip had just come to the U.S. market, so I really wanted to try it. And the bartender looks at me and goes, “Get ready for the most expensive flavored water you’ve ever had.” That is a lot of people’s attitude with some of those spirits because they’re priced at a premium spirit level. As you’re saying, Zach, it’s harder to achieve that viscosity and that weight that you get with true spirit that has alcohol in it, if it’s truly been distilled. I could say I was kind of tasting gin, but it is a more watery liquid. At the end of the day, could you have made that non-alcoholic cocktail for me with some interesting fruit juices and maybe some tea you steeped yourself? Would it have been just as interesting? But then again, would you still charge me $15 for it? Which is also why people are like, I’ll take iced tea that’s $2. And I think that that point is really a strong one that you’re making about the fact that beer as a whole is more affordable, which is why it’s probably taking off as a non-alcoholic category more than others. People who are aware of that, it’d be good to listen to that. Don’t think that just because non-alcoholic beer is taking off, there’s going to be a massive future for non-alcoholic spirits or non-alcoholic wine. Also remember that beer is “taking off,” but then let’s remember that it’s nowhere near where it used to be.
Z: One last point on that, and then I think we should probably try our beers. The other thing about beer, which is literally a volume issue in terms of like the amount of liquid you get, is it’s particularly well suited even in an alcoholic format as the drink that you nurse. For the person who wants to go out with their buddies, their friends, or on a date, but is uncomfortable for whatever reason with alcohol — or they just want to have less — you can blend in extremely easily. No one has to know you’re not drinking if you don’t want them to with some of these NA beers, unless they’re very familiar with the brands. In which case, they probably also drink them and don’t, aren’t going to judge you. As you mentioned, Adam, there’s that category of people who are pregnant. There are people who have health reasons for not wanting to drink and may not want that to be widely known to everyone they’re socializing with. So NA beers are a really good way to have that disguise, without having it be a big deal. You don’t have to make a whole thing about, “Oh no, I won’t have any wine.” You can be in the background quietly and have a thing that looks like what everyone else is drinking. That is actually a big selling point for some of this market, obviously. Maybe not the largest part of it.
A: Yep, I agree. So am I trying my first-ever Athletic?
J: Me too.
A: Oh, you too?
J: I told you! I don’t go for non-alcoholic beer. Actually one time I ordered O’Douls at a deli or a diner when I was a kid. They wouldn’t sell it to me. I thought I was funny and cool.
Z: You were funny and cool. I want to validate that.
A: I only brought Run Wild into the studio with me, i.e., the room that I’m told to go to when I work from home. So I’m going to get the other one, too. But I figured the Run Wild was the one that everyone has. It’s the oldest; it’s the OG. What do you have, Joanna?
A: I got hazy, too, but it’s in the fridge.
A: Let’s start with the Run Wild and then maybe open the second.
J: It smells very hoppy.
A: It smells like an IPA; it definitely does. It says on the can: Athletic Brewing Co., non-alcoholic, 70 calories, 16 grams of carbs. The ingredients are water, organic Vienna malt, malted barley, oats, hops, yeast, and less than .5 percent alcohol. Let me try this.
Z: We need a drum roll sound effect here.
A: It tastes like a watery IPA.
J: Yeah, I get vague tea vibes from it. There’s a slight sweetness to it. It’s not too bitter, which is nice. I like it.
A: I like it. I don’t know why, but it’s bringing back memories of some of the early craft breweries I used to go to, where there was something a little off about the IPA. It had a little bit of a weird sweetness to it at the end. It’s fine.
J: Yeah, I get it.
A: If this was an IPA, I don’t think I would be able to say I thought this was as good as the IPAs I like. We’re in the classic IPA world, so Bell’s Two Hearted or Racer 5 and stuff like that. It’s fine. Am I being too hard on it?
Z: The few times I’ve tried them, there are some things that are hard to escape. When you know it’s an NA beer, your brain is immediately like, “How can I tell that something is different about it?” In a blind taste test, you might say, “This isn’t my favorite.” I don’t know. This is to Athletic’s credit, I don’t think that I would necessarily be able to say, “Ah, this beer doesn’t have any alcohol in it.” If I drank it for a while, I’d be like, “Wait, what’s going on here?” But on first impression, it isn’t obviously lacking in alcohol. Again, to its credit — in a way that’s very different from some of the other products I’ve tried — it also isn’t covering up the lack of alcohol with abundant sweetness. I agree that there’s a little sweetness to it, but oh my God, some of the NA wines I’ve tried, the only way they’re going to get body in the thing is to just add juice, and then you’re dealing with an unquestionably sweet product. Which is just fine for some people, but not what I want in wine, generally. What I appreciated about this is that if I don’t come into it with the notion or the knowledge that it’s an NA beer, and I don’t focus on it too much, it’s a fine IPA. It’s not the greatest beer I’ve ever had. I will be curious to try at some of the other beers that they make. They and others are constantly trying to push as many options out there with creativity. Brooklyn Brewery, as I read in Josh’s article, is putting a whole NA mixed case out there in the market now. There’s obviously a lot of interest in this. And I think that it’s a category where increased attention and increased experimentation will yield some interesting results. My analog for this, as I describe to people, it’s like the IPA you get in a can on an airplane. It’s fine; it’s probably not the greatest IPA you’re going to have. But for the context in which you are having it, I think it does a pretty good job.
J: Yeah, I think so. If you’re going for a non-alcoholic beer, then this is a good option.
Z: Also to note, 70 calories for an IPA is very low.https://5cec0931ed14781bb4a66bdfe09bcab1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
A: That’s true. I’ll be curious to see how long the other 11 in my fridge last. Ask me at the end of the month, did I drink any more of them? Was there a Wednesday night that I made something for dinner and wanted to have beer but I’m not drinking on the weeknights, so I’ll have an Athletic? I’m curious to see if I do reach for it. I’m gonna have Naomi try and see if she would drink them instead, although she’s not really that much of a beer drinker anyways.
J: I think Evan will drink these.
A: You do?
J: Yeah, I think so. We’re trying to do the same thing as you, Adam. We’re not drinking during the week, but I think that this could be something he would reach for.
A: Like, you’ll have it with whatever you’re having. Do you want to try the hazy, Joanna?
Z: My other thing in favor of this category in general is, almost at Joanna’s throwaway joke earlier, you do feel like an adult when you drink it. Which I also appreciate. It is an adult beverage, even if it’s non-alcoholic. It’s bitter. I will give my son a taste of it, and he will not like it. He does not like beer. He likes wine; doesn’t like beer.https://5cec0931ed14781bb4a66bdfe09bcab1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
A: I took another sip of it while you guys were talking. It’s not unpleasant; it is good. I’m being too hard on it.
Z: They’re going to put that on the ad copy; VinePair’s CEO Adam Teeter says “it’s not unpleasant.”
A: You’re right. It is very, very similar to beer. And I’ve never felt that with any other non-alcoholic drink that I’ve had that’s trying to be something. With the non-alc bourbons we got sent, I was like, “Get this sh*t out of here; this isn’t bourbon.” Or the non-alc wines that are really, really hard to taste like what you expect from wine. This is giving me all the vibes of having an IPA. I just don’t have the alcohol.
Z: Well, that is what they’re aiming for. So you have the hazy, right Joanna? I’m very curious to hear how it is.
J: It has some of the hoppiness. It doesn’t have the juiciness that I would have expected from a hazy. It’s got a little bit of a funk to it, though.
A: Like a bad funk or a good funk?
A: These are the two highest rated, this one and their hazy. And I wonder if the hazy is highly rated just because hazies are so popular right now. But I do wonder if the bitterness of the IPA helps it. Trying to create that really fruity, hazy style might be harder to do.
J: Yeah, I think it’s a little harder to do. It’s also not unpleasant.
Z: Now they’ve got two ringing endorsements.
A: Athletic: Not unpleasant.
J: For these and other great non-alcoholic beer options, check out our list that was published this week.
Z: That’s a roundup of some of our favorite NA beers?
A: Yes. They were tasted by other people on the team, not Joanna and I. But check them out. And if you have a favorite NA spirit, wine, or beer, let us know. We’d love to hear about it. All right, I will talk to you both on Monday.
J: See you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.