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Non-Alcoholic Beer Is for Everyone Now—Yes, Even You

Esquire logo Esquire 7/18/2019 Eve Peyser
a can of soda: Now that a new generation of American millennials are dabbling with sobriety, alcohol-free beer is finally inching toward something resembling fashionable. © Hearst Owned Now that a new generation of American millennials are dabbling with sobriety, alcohol-free beer is finally inching toward something resembling fashionable.

For a while, the only establishment where I was sure to find non-alcoholic beer was a casino. I still remember my first one. It was 2017, and I was dining in the steakhouse of the Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nevada, one month after celebrating my one-year anniversary of quitting drinking. I’d chosen to give up booze for good on my twenty-third birthday, after acknowledging that my binge-drinking habit was amplifying my depression and anxiety to an unbearable pitch. Swearing off alcohol was hands-down the smartest decision I’ve ever made, but I nevertheless craved the refreshing sensation of gulping down a cold beer.

I hadn’t really considered becoming a non-alcoholic (NA) beer person; I was worried it would feel like cheating, especially since various recovery centers warn that it’s a gateway to falling off the wagon. But I was deep in Reno vacation mode and game to try it out at least once. The waiter brought over a couple of chilled O’Doul’s, America’s number one NA brew, and I was instantly hooked.

I soon got into the habit of drinking precisely one O’Doul’s every night, something I still do today. Though I had once considered myself a craft beer aficionado, now I gravitate toward O’Doul’s because I enjoy its lightness—how it’s almost a crossover between a beer and a seltzer (my other preferred beverage). I can barely remember what a beer with alcohol even tastes like. Still, it’s uncommon to find NA beer at bars and restaurants outside of casinos, where they're presumably trying to cater to an older demographic more familiar with alcohol-free beer. I’ve observed that the trendier the locale, the less likely it is to stock NA beer. On a recent trip to New Orleans, I got a rather brusque response when I asked a bartender if her establishment carried it.

“Does NA mean no alcohol?”

“Yes.”

“Then we don’t have it,” she snapped. (I suppose that’s what I get for requesting it on Bourbon Street, of all places.)

a close up of a bottle: O’Doul’s is the NA beer everyone knows. © Hearst Owned O’Doul’s is the NA beer everyone knows.

As millennials continue to reject the alcohol-centric culture of our forefathers, sobriety is having a moment. And some people aren’t giving up booze entirely, but rather, becoming “sober-curious.” Per Vox, “Nearly 40 percent of global consumers reported a desire to decrease alcohol consumption for health reasons.” It’s clear my generation is craving alcohol alternatives, so it comes as little surprise that businesses are looking to cash in.

Booklyn's first alcohol-free bar, Getaway, opened in April, offering a wide variety of bourgie mocktails, and Listen Bar, a booze-free pop-up venue, recently appeared in Manhattan with the goal of “rewriting nightlife beyond alcohol.” But those mocktails only really appeal to sober New Yorkers who have $12 to squander on an alcohol-free drink. It wasn’t until last month, when I started seeing ads for Heineken 0.0 at my subway stop, that I knew sober culture was ascending to a new level of mainstream. The Heineken poster read: “Meet someone for a drink at the gym,” and, “Make barre class feel like a bar." It boasted that the NA Heineken had “great taste” and only contained a mere 69 calories. (Nice.)

Jonnie Cahill, Heineken’s chief marketing officer, told me the company decided to introduce Heineken 0.0 to the U.S. in January of this year because he saw “a growing trend toward health and wellness, particularly with the younger cohort.”

a close up of a bottle: Heineken launched 0.0 this year for NA drinkers. © Hearst Owned Heineken launched 0.0 this year for NA drinkers.

“There are tons of moments in your life where you would absolutely love a beer, but don’t necessarily want the alcohol,” Cahill said, noting the product isn’t meant for someone having a bachelorette weekend in Vegas, but rather, the average Joe with a 9-to-5 job who wants to throw back a couple of cold ones during Monday Night Football, without being hungover at work the next day.

“In the U.S., 30 percent of people between 21 and 30 haven’t had a beer in the last month,” he told me. “The non-alcoholic beer market in the U.S. is relatively underdeveloped.” After our conversation, Cahill sent me a six-pack of Heineken’s new brew, and I was delighted to discover that it was light, crisp, and totally refreshing, a middle-brow alternative to an O’Doul’s.

Non-alcoholic beer emerged during the Prohibition Era but didn’t enter the American market in a serious way until 1990, when Anheuser-Busch began rolling out O'Doul's nationwide with the slogan “The Taste Will Win You O'ver." Around the same time, Miller introduced an NA brew called Sharp’s, which had the tagline, “Keep Your Edge.” Sharp’s never achieved the same popularity as O’Doul’s, which remains the top-selling NA brew in America, but it's still on the market today. (My first and sole encounter with Sharp’s was on that same trip to New Orleans, when I managed to find perhaps the only venue in the city selling NA beer: Harrah’s Casino.)

Alcohol-free brews have enjoyed greater popularity outside the U.S. According to the New York Times, German beer companies marketed NA beer as a "car driver’s beer" starting in the '70s, and it is now particularly well-liked by German athletes. NA beer consumption in Germany increased by 43 percent between 2011 and 2016, even though beer consumption altogether shrunk. NA beer is also popular in Middle Eastern countries where alcohol is outlawed, or where large swaths of the population teetotal due to religious beliefs—per the Economist, that region is now responsible for one-third of worldwide sales.

a close up of a bottle: Sharp’s never caught on like O’Doul’s. © Hearst Owned Sharp’s never caught on like O’Doul’s.

O’Doul’s certainly found a niche demographic upon its debut three decades ago, but it didn’t make the biggest splash. In the U.S., NA beer has earned a reputation as the preferred beverage of retired cops, suburban dads, and reformed alcoholics. Famous fuddy-duddy George W. Bush—who, as you might recall, was the presidential candidate who voters most wanted to have a beer with—is fond of drinking what he’s dubbed “non-beer.” Notable square Mike Pence is also known to partake in a risqué Friday night routine of enjoying an O’Doul’s with a slice of pizza.

Now that a new generation of American adults are dabbling with sobriety, NA beer is finally inching toward something resembling fashionable. (A GlobalData report from earlier this year found that it's the fastest growing product in the beer industry.)

And it’s not just the macrobreweries. In 2017, Bill Shufelt, a former hedge fund trader, left the world of finance to found Athletic Brewing Company, which makes craft NA beer that, according to a Boston.com beer columnist, “represents a departure from my grandfather’s tasteless O’Doul’s.” (As a longtime fan of the lightness of O’Doul’s, I found Athletic’s IPA satisfying in a different way—it’s a heavier beer that’s best enjoyed on a rainy day.)

Shufelt was inspired to found the brewery shortly before his thirtieth birthday. “I was six months from getting married and really just evaluating my health, what I was eating, my personal life, and as I got healthier, alcohol didn’t really fit into any of those elements,” he said. When he decided to quit drinking, he was astounded by the lack of beverage options for the sober crowd. “I still liked going to bars and restaurants, and hanging out with friends and going to weddings, and there were really no beverages that fit into so many of life’s occasions,” he said.

a close up of a logo: Athletic’s IPA is a heavier NA beer. © Hearst Owned Athletic’s IPA is a heavier NA beer.

Shufelt set out to cater to a new demographic of non-drinkers like himself. “We wanted Athletic to be something that people made a proactive, positive choice to drink,” he said. Unlike O’Doul’s, which traditionally has appealed to an older crowd, Athletic’s target audience is “25- to 45-year-old healthy and active adults who have serious day jobs, but pride themselves on being a weekend warrior,” he said. Fifty percent of the company’s sales come from online, and its products are also carried by specialty beer shops. According to Shufelt, Athletic is also available on tap at a “bunch of really cool bars and restaurants,” one of which has a Michelin star. In other words, Shufelt is brewing an alcohol-free craft beer for the wellness-minded yuppie.

As microbreweries continue to carve out their space in the NA beer market, targeting millennial consumers, O’Doul’s is also flirting with a rebrand. This summer, Anheuser-Busch is rolling out three new O’Doul’s cans in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, each designed by a local artist. “Low ABV beer is having a moment. And O'Doul's is ready for it,” the company blazoned in its press release. This new iteration of the classic NA beer positively oozes with cutesy millennial aesthetics; it would fit in perfectly at your local Urban Outfitters.

O’Doul’s NA beer cans got an updated look this summer. © Hearst Owned O’Doul’s NA beer cans got an updated look this summer.

When O’Doul’s was first introduced, its target demo was men between the ages of 35 and 50. “Think white-collar jobs, golf course, that sort of thing. That’s really where the marketing was focused,” Adam Warrington, VP of corporate social responsibility at Anheuser-Busch, told me. “[Younger people] might know O’Doul’s because they saw it in their uncle’s fridge.”

Since O’Doul’s already has market dominance, these limited-edition cans are meant to “spark a conversation about the brand,” he explained. “There are a lot of women and men in their twenties and thirties who most likely have not considered non-alcoholic beer.”

Unlike Heineken 0.0, O’Doul’s isn’t doing any major advertising yet, but rather, hoping its product will find a new, younger audience through word-of-mouth. Anheuser-Busch itself is just beginning to expand its alcohol-free product range, with a goal of eventually getting 20 percent of its sales come from NA beers, Warrington said.

Not drinking alcohol radically changed my social life—virtually every event I’m invited to takes place at a bar, and attending as a sober person can feel alienating. But no longer is the market for NA beer restricted to prominent Republican stuffed shirts and Midwestern uncles. As it turns out, beer without alcohol can still be an absolute delight, and as millennials continue to reevaluate their relationship with booze, the era of NA beer is just getting started. And so I look forward to the day when I’ll finally be able to order a non-alcoholic beer with confidence somewhere other than a casino.

Related video: The Dark and Stormy is a Great Drink with a Weird Legal History

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