Photo by Josh Dobay Productions
A cocktail from Cloak & Dagger's spring menu
During a recent birthday bar crawl stop on Tremont Taphouse's patio, I happened to notice, only because a good friend stopped drinking last year and had been exploring N/A brands, that when two of the folks in our group ordered Brewdog’s Stout AF, they had ordered non-alcoholic beers.
One, I later gathered from context, was sober. The other, who had a burly IPA at the previous stop at Edison's, was not. But in both cases, for whatever reason they wanted one, Taphouse was there for them.
And not only did they have the option to order an N/A beer (and a quite good one) instead of being relegated to a water or soft drink, they weren't limited to one option or a single style. They could have alternately scored a dry-hopped Euro pale lager from Clausthaler or the Weihenstephaner hefewissbier, two other N/A options on Taphouse's menu.
“It used to be just O’Douls, and it was, don’t get me wrong, fine, but it’s a fizzy yellow lager, and that was the only flavor," says Chris Lieb, owner and partner of the Taphouse and the Butcher and the Brewer. "It's important because not everyone drinks but you still want to have a beverage with friends. And now, there's just really good selection and variety with more breweries making N/A beers."
And they got to order the beers by name off the menu, which sounded like any other beer, and not invite questions about why they weren't drinking.
Lieb says that's a side benefit of the growing roster of non-alc brews.
“A friend of mine quit drinking, for medical reasons, but for him, it was still a social thing to have a drink, and he orders the Weihenstephaner," he says. "You still have a bottle of beer in your hand, and it sounds like you're just ordering a beer, so no one pays attention. You don’t want to say, well, I’m not drinking because my pancreas will shut down.”
Where Tremont Taphouse might have a few years ago been an outlier, it's now part of a growing trend of Cleveland bars and restaurants that boast robust non-alcoholic beverage menus and cocktail programs to serve patrons who aren't drinking, for whatever reason.
Those reasons have always existed, whether someone's moderating their intake, serving as a designated driver, on a medication that's contraindicated for alcohol, pregnant, in recovery, watching their calories, or simply more comfortable with something that's not going to affect their decision-making or behavior in the moment.
Those people still want something flavorful, something that signals they're relaxing at dinner or a concert or a post-work coworker happy hour. Something special. And, in many cases, something worth drinking that doesn't make them stand out.
It’s obviously not universal, but for many, it’s uncomfortable and dispiriting to say, “I’ll just take a water,” or, “I’ll just take a Diet Coke.” And you know it’s both uncomfortable and dispiriting because they almost always say “just.” It’s a linguistic tic that means there’s nothing for me here. “Just” means they’re a lesser customer or will get a lesser experience. “Just” is an apology, to the server for not ordering something more expensive, to whoever they’re with for not drinking and maybe being less fun, and to themselves for being different, for making an order that might as well be a big neon sign alerting everyone to take notice.
For a long time, “just” is what was available.
But the market is now finally catching up and offering better low-alcohol or alcohol-free options – stouts that taste like stouts, IPAs that taste like IPAs, wheats that taste like wheats. After decades of O’Douls, the snozberries are finally tasting like snozberries.
In recent years, the customer base has expanded from those who simply aren’t drinking to include those who are drinking less, those who are adding N/A beers into their rotation because of fitness or lifestyle choices, not to mention those reckoning with and course correcting on overconsumption during the pandemic. Trends like Sober September and Dry January have also introduced so-called ‘sober-curious” drinkers into the market in larger numbers.
Worldwide N/A beer sales grew 39% in 2019, another 38% in 2020, and is forecasted to be a $1.4 trillion market by 2025.
Demand, largely ignored or vastly underrated in previous years, drove supply, with craft brewers like Brewdog branching out into non-alcoholic brews, entire breweries dedicated solely to non-alcoholic offerings such as Well Being and Athletic Brewing Co. forming and quickly expanding, and all the big names frantically attempting to carve out a slice of the growing market.
Some are brewed to be non-alcoholic (technically less than 0.05%), and are generally lower in calories, while others are dealcoholized after brewing, which naturally leads to a slightly bigger caloric punch. Either way, you’re looking at something packing flavor and no boozy effects.
“Consumer trends around health and wellness, as well as drinkers seeking more mindful drinking occasions, are fueling the increasing popularity of non-alcoholic beer,” Danelle Kosmal, vice president of beverage alcohol practice for NielsenIQ, said in March. “The large-scale launch of a few new national brands is fueling growth, but smaller non-alcoholic craft beer brands are also growing in popularity. While still small, non-alcoholic craft beer grew by 278 percent in the 52 weeks ending Oct. 24, 2020.”
Now, those craft N/A options are dotting Cleveland menus (though not enough) and even your friendly corner bar is likely to stock at least Heineken 0.0, which the company launched in 2019.
“There’s been a massive trend in the N/A business going into bars," says Rita Gaertner, director of marketing for Beverage Distributors. "Heineken 0.0 was a big focus for them this year. They brought it in, it was killing in the U.K., and we were like, ‘…Oh okay,’ but we’re having great success in our territory.”
In the last 90 days, Gaertner says, they have a 45% distribution rate across their 2,500 alcohol-buying accounts in Cuyahoga County for Heineken 0.0. One year ago, maybe 300 accounts were stocking it.
"We were a bit taken aback," she says. "A non-alcoholic is your main focus? But we’ve more than doubled our distribution. They’re asking for it, we get emails asking if we distribute it."
Jason Edwards of Superior Beverage Group is seeing the same trends.
“I can tell you it’s growing significantly, and at a much higher rate than the industry as a whole even though it’s still a very small base," he says.
And in off-premise sales too: According to IRI, which tracks data in the beer market, Ohio is on pace to do $7 million in N/A beer sales this year at a growth rate of 26%, according to stats captured from retail and grocery store sales.
“I think part of the reason that the category is growing is because there are more offerings and there are more flavorful options than there were in the past. Before, you just thought of O’Douls," he says. And, in many ways, the U.S. is catching up to what was already a better, more vibrant scene across the Atlantic. "In Europe, it's a much larger portion of the business." (Which is why anyone on the hunt for diverse N/A beer selections has long known to head to Hansa Import Haus in Ohio City as opposed to the grocery store.)
Brewdog, the Scotland-based brewery that will soon open a brewpub in the Flats, might have made its first N/A beer, Nanny State, as a tongue-in-cheek jab at U.K officials who clamped down on a mega 17% imperial stout years ago. But Nanny State is now a top-five selling beer for the brand overseas and its striking success helped convince the brewery to expand its N/A offerings, which now include stouts, porters, hazy IPAs and seasonal one-offs.
“We’ve been making N/A beers since 2011," says James Mark, divisional sales director for Brewdog. "It’s not like it’s a new segment for us, but it’s a big category that continues to grow. The numbers are pretty staggering year over year. Month to date for July, we’re up over 80% for N/As.
E-commerce has also allowed Brewdog to experiment with N/As in ways that it can't easily do with its complete roster due to various laws governing the shipment of beer to states.
The brewery launched Brewdog and Friends, a monthly subscription service to send some of its N/A beers to customers along with N/A beers from other breweries. While some are standard offerings from other companies that might not just be available in a customer's area, the program also allows Brewdog to collaborate, which it will do with New Albion this year.
"New Albion is the icon of craft beer, they kind of started the revolution in the 1970s," Mark says of the OG craft beer with Cleveland ties. "It’s a partnership where we’re going to make the original New Albion Ale in September just in time for Cleveland Beer Week and adding a New Albion N/A beer that’s a different style.”
Internationally, culture differences and stricter drunk driving laws have spurred N/A sales for Brewdog. Domestically, Mark sees more health-conscious decisions propelling the market, and advertising campaigns that target the demographic.
“If you would have talked to a distributor when Heineken came out with Heineken 0.0, you’d be like, that’s nice, fine, kind of niche. But Heineken put a ton of marketing dollars behind it and it’s really what has made their business succeed over the last few years," he says. "You have Formula 1 drivers making ads saying I can go to the bar and still drive home. You’re making it cool to have. It's more of a lifestyle brand, like the way Michelob Ultra has done. Go for a run, hang for some beers. It’s about the experience, compared to O’Douls or those brands. It’s not the alcoholic’s beer. It’s looking for that health-conscious option but having a lot of flavor.”
That growing market of distance runners and fitness enthusiasts aside, the real boon of the growing selection and emphasis by bars and restaurants, Mark and just about everyone else Scene talked to, is a more welcoming experience for everyone who is for the moment or forever not having a drink.
“I think the stigma of non-alcoholic is going away," Mark says. "Before, if someone was having an O’Douls, you’d be like, are you in recovery? It’s that horrible stigma that’s going away. I think especially in a bar, you don’t want to be the person having a water when everyone else is having a drink. There’s an anxiety about being the one to stand out."
Social affairs are drinking affairs, be they work happy hours or birthday parties or a night out with pals. That's more true in Cleveland than most places, for better or worse. And there are few more anxiety-inducing situations than being someone who's not drinking surrounded by people who are drinking, offering you drinks, asking why you're not drinking.
"You have so many people now that aren’t drinking for so many individual reasons. And everything now is social. You want to fit in," says Rita Gaertner of Beverage Distributors. "You don’t want to answer questions.”
Having options clearly listed on the menu or displayed with the other beers at a bar alleviates the anxiety of having someone overhear you ask if there are N/A options available. It's why Bottlehouse Brewery, even though it sells just a few cans of N/A beers a week, has them listed and presented along with everything else on its menu. And it's why places like Market Garden will start doing so.
Sam McNulty's operations in the heart of Ohio City, one of Cleveland's biggest entertainment districts and prime territory for the social occasions in which non-drinkers might feel the greatest anxiety and pressure, have stocked Well Being N/A beers, he says. But anyone visiting Market Garden or Nano Brewery or Bar Cento has had to ask a server or bartender to discover that fact.
"Hearing about the experiences of others, we're adding them to our beer, wine and cocktails list now, so people don't have to ask," he tells Scene.
“It sucks there’s this weird stigma," says Eric Ho of LBM, which has not just offered but put an emphasis on non-alcoholic drinks since it opened in 2017.
"In any other city, if you have a serious cocktail program, you have N/A options too," he says. "A lot of these incredibly respected bars in Chicago or L.A. put just as much effort into their N/A programs.”
LBM currently stocks Untitled Art and Athletic beers, but it’s also taking advantage of a burgeoning alcohol-free spirit boom including varieties of tequila, rum, gin and liqueurs that allow bartenders to build flavorful drinks that go far beyond what you’d expect from a mocktail.
“It is more nuanced, and difficult to deal with making those drinks without the medium of alcohol. Trying to get those flavors and textures is a very interesting balance. But the flavor profile is great. The Ritual brand uses capsaicin so you also get that burn to it. Others are similar to gin, very botanical heavy, citruses and spices," he says. "And what I like on our menu is when we do N/A stuff, it's named. It sounds like any other drink and comes presentation-wise like any of the rest of them too."
Locally, LBM has been joined by places like Cloak & Dagger in Tremont that embody that commitment to spirit-free cocktails, which are appropriate in any number of situations.
Ho mentions moderation – he’s been moderating his own intake with Heineken 0.0 recently: “I buy it by the 12 pack. It tastes like beer; it does flavor wise what I’m looking for it to do. It actually tastes better than Heineken" — but also examples like first dates or Tinder dates, when someone wants to have their full wits about them while meeting a stranger or making decisions. "You can make responsible choices and be cognitive but still look like you're engaged."
People are paying attention: Non-alcoholic drinks are one of their biggest sellers, outpacing gin sales some weeks. But that’s a happy byproduct. The bottom line is actually creating an experience for everyone who happens to walk through the door.
"It's all about inclusivity," Ho says. "Just because someone isn't drinking doesn't mean they can't have a good time and have something delicious, something made with just as much care or effort."