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Rod Byers: Sober curious

 

Declining levels of alcohol consumption has been an evolving story over the last several decades. It has heated up into a trend over the last ten years. Now sober curious can be classified as a thing.

Dranuary or Dry January is the poster child for the sober curious. Last year reportedly 15% of eligible Americans participated in the sober month.

That has created a market niche for low and no alcohol beverages that is different now than it has ever been before. I wondered, how did we get to here?



Back in 1917, President Wilson proposed limiting the alcohol content of malt beverages to 2.75% to try to appease prohibitionists. It didn’t work. Congress set the level at .05%.

Coming out of Prohibition individual states had the right to regulate alcohol and 3.2% beer was an unhappy compromise. Limited to about 4% alcohol by volume, the prohibitionists thought it too much. Drinkers deemed it too little. Besides it tasted awful, like watered-down beer.



Fast forward to the 1970s. Miller Lite hit the market in 1973. You may remember. Great taste. Less filling. It was pitched as less calories, not less alcohol which it was as well.

In an attempt to create a low-calorie wine, San Martin Winery succeeded in getting Federal wine regulators to lower the definition of wine from 10% alcohol to 7% but were unsuccessful in launching their line of low alcohol ‘soft’ wines.

In the meantime, spirits had no interest in the conversation. That was what Shirley Temples and Virgin Marys were for.

The conversation shifted in 1980 when Mothers Against Drunk Drivers created a heightened level of alcohol awareness forcing states across the nation into action, decreasing legal driving limits.

Riding that wave, Ariel, a non-alcoholic wine launched in 1985 with Budweiser’s non-alcoholic O’Douls following a few years later. Both products are still in the market. The difference between then and now is who’s drinking them and why.

Back then people who already didn’t drink were not interested in non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic beverages. With no interest in the latter they had even less interest in the former.

People with alcohol issues often find that a non-alcoholic version of a product they had problems with in the first place is not a good idea. Basically, you’re left with designated drivers and people who want to drink but cannot because of health issues.

Now all of that has changed. In the 1980s O’Douls and Ariel were products in search of a market. In the 2020s, the market is in search of a product.

Increasingly, millennials are putting alcohol in the general category of health and wellness. From calories to hangovers and all the potential behavior in between, millennials are making drinking decisions with a strong eye towards wellness including simply drinking less.

At the other end of the spectrum, Boomers are still a huge force but they too are looking at no/low options as they discover they can’t metabolize alcohol like they used to.

Drinking less tops many a resolution list, been saying it for years. We might actually mean it this time.

Millennials still want to go out, have drinks, hang out, they are just more leery of the actual alcohol part of it. It’s not an abstinence movement. It is more of an enlargement of the category of what might generally be considered acceptable adult beverages.

It didn’t start with White Claw but White Claw demonstrated that there is a market just waiting for low alcohol (and lower calorie) options. Non-alcoholic choices are not far behind. As a point of interest, the non-alcoholic but cannabis-infused beverage market is on the verge of exploding as well.

This is America. Market opportunities are seized quickly. Beer was already in the non-alcoholic game but now a cascade of breweries is jumping in. From Euro-traditionalists like Heinekens and Becks to American craft breweries like BrewDog or Athletic, the depth and quality of non-alcoholic beer is really good and getting better. They taste like beer, but with no alcohol and less calories, which is exactly what we want.

Interest sparked in the spirit industry as well. Alcohol-free booze is no longer an oxymoron. Again, pretty good, and getting better. Ritual Zero and Seedlips take different approaches in the production of their non-alcoholic spirit brands but both succeed. The idea is not to knock back a shot but to create a craft cocktail experience where flavor rather than potency is the goal.

As consumers we think because there is no alcohol, the product should be less expensive. Not so. Producers first make a traditional beer or wine, then using vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis filtration they remove the alcohol, a costly extra step, so actually it’s more expensive to produce.

Whether it is non-alcoholic spirits, beer, or wine, unless you are totally top shelf, expect to pay the same or more than whatever you are paying now for your adult beverage of choice.

So far, I have mostly left wine out of this conversation. When non-alcoholic wine was first introduced it was widely dismissed as awful. That was what Welch’s grape juice and Martinelli’s sparkling cider were for.

Non-alcoholic beer and booze have both gotten better. Has wine?

I did some online shopping at BetterRhodes.com and purchased two whites, two reds, a rosé, and a sparkler. See the side bar for my comments.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at rodbyers@pinehillwineworks.com or 530-802-7172

Dry January is the poster child for the sober curious. Last year reportedly 15% of eligible Americans participated in the sober month. That has created a market niche for low and no alcohol beverages that is different now than it has ever been before.
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