You may have heard the term “sober curious” going around. Trying out or flat-out choosing an alcohol-free lifestyle has been trending for a few years now.
Now, beverage companies are taking notice.
There are a multitude of reasons why people choose not to drink alcohol. There are, of course, recovering alcoholics and pregnant women, but there are also people who don’t drink due to a conflict with medication they’re on, their religion, athletic training or wellness goals.
Whatever the reason, recent trends have been very clear: People want non-alcoholic drink options that aren’t just soda, juice or the basic light, alcohol-free beers that have been available for years.
And now a Regina brewery is going all-in on non-alcoholic craft beer that they say tastes just like the real thing.
Meghan Trenholm, director of marketing and communications at District Brewing, says the company started making its first non-alcoholic Hero beer, a pale ale, two years ago.
“We heard what our customers were saying,” she said. “We saw the gap in the market, and our friends and family were all looking for additional non-alcoholic options. And so we thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got a brewery, we can make it.’ So we did!”
Trenholm says District Brewing has seen a shift in the beer market, especially among millennials and gen Z. However, not any old alcohol-free beer will do. They want craft beer.
“We use the same ingredients in our non-alcoholic beer as we do in our regular, award-winning beer and use great Saskatchewan ingredients,” Trenholm said.
Honing their ‘craft’
So what’s the secret to a truly great non-alcoholic craft beer?
District Brewery brewmaster Mbaku Hamidu Admau says it’s all about respecting classic brewing techniques.
“The hygienic conditions, ingredients and everything. I’m not going to get into the recipe though, because that’s a secret,” Admau said with a laugh.
District Brewery just launched their second non-alcoholic beer, a milk stout.
“It’s nice and rich and a little bit roasty, and has those chocolate flavors. It’s so nice around the fireplace,” Trenholm said.
District thinks they’re on the ground floor of the non-alcohol trend, and will be offering a non-alcoholic IPA in the new year. There will be a surprise release in the spring, and then a variety pack for grocery stores later in 2023.
“In the last eight months we’ve seen the sales of Hero just really start to jump up,” Trenholm said, “so we are happy to be there first.”
Tyler Harlton, owner and winemaker at Ones+ Non-Alcoholic Wine, manufactures zero-sugar, alcohol-free wines. This is a rarity in the non-alcoholic wine space, as most are packed with sugar.
Harlton, who is originally from Pense, Sask., was the owner and winemaker for TH Wines in British Columbia’s Okanagan region. He says his attitude about his craft changed when he became a father.
“Accountability is definitely an issue and for me personally, especially waking up early in the morning with a young son, I want to be accountable.”
As Harlton jumped into a healthier lifestyle, he says he noticed the lack of locally made, sugar-free, non-alcoholic wines. Suddenly, he was a man on a mission.
“I started to have a look at my life and, as a farmer and a winemaker, I really appreciate having a set table featuring the the beautiful food from my farmer friends, nice bottles of BC wine. Then once alcohol no longer fit our lifestyle and once it was time to cut it out, it created a challenge.”
Harlton loves red wines that are bright, dry and delicious, so the goal of Ones+ is to produce that as much as possible.
“I took some lessons from TH Wines. When I was the winemaker there, it was ultimately the quality of the inputs that determined the end product. So I knew that if I found beautiful grapes — healthy, ripe grapes — they were going to turn into beautiful wine.”
That is how Harlton approaches making his alcohol-free wines now. Ones+ reduces the alcohol to one per cent, and Harlton says that a tiny amount provides enough flavor and texture that they don’t need alterations such as adding sugar.
“Our sparkling red is modeled after a Lambrusco from Italy. It’s a beautiful bottle that you crack at the start of dinner. Our sparkling rosé is made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And that is modeled after champagne,” Harlton said.
Joshua McLean, owner of Homestead Bar À Vin in Regina, says his customers enjoy Harlton’s non-alcoholic wines.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the demand for non-alcoholic wines and especially, in the last year, we’ve seen a huge influx of people choosing not to drink for health reasons,” McLean said.
While non-alcoholic wines are much lighter than regular wine and don’t have the same mouth-feel, McLean says there is a big future for innovation in the non-alcoholic wine space.
“The sky’s the limit basically. I think wine is going to be something that would be quite difficult to mimic… but I’m sure people like Tyler will figure it out.”
Free spirited cocktails
Dalia Kohen, originally from Saskatoon, makes “free-spirited” botanical cocktails at her company, Wild Folk. The beverages are currently sold at 70 locations across Canada, including restaurants, liquor stores and grocery stores.
Kohen, who owned and operated a vegetarian restaurant in Calgary for 15 years, said she “noticed more and more people not drinking, and so I started playing with these recipes at the bar.”
The drinks were so well received that when she sold the restaurant, Kohen took the recipes with her.
“Then cue all of the COVID stuff and people discussing how much they had drank and wanted to to slow down. And I thought, ‘Geez, that must have been why I took the recipes without even thinking about it,'” Kohen said.
She launched Wild Folk in November 2021, and the brand currently makes a non-alcoholic sparkling negroni, bee’s knees and vermouth spritz.
Kohen says she finds it discouraging that non-drinkers have few beverage options, such as sodas, at restaurants.
“I think when you’re an adult, you have a little bit more of a refined palate, and you still feel like a kid when you have something like that,” she said. “And so my focus was really on creating those flavors that hit your palate in a different way.”
Kohen tries to use every part of the plants for her drinks, from the flowers to the stems to the roots.
“There’ll be a lot of familiar botanicals in them,” she said, “and then some unique ones as well. But one would be rose hips and juniper, calendula and chamomile — things that grow really well without needing a lot of care or maintenance.
As for the future of non-alcoholic products, Kohen says the market is going keep growing: “I think it is a trend, not a fad. I definitely think that there’s steep competition.”