Nonalcoholic beer is coming out from the back of the cooler.
As more people turn to buzz-free beverages for celebrations and nights out with friends, a new wave of no-alcohol brews with more flavor and panache is hitting the market.
Minneapolis craft brewers Paul Pirner and Jeff Hollander are among those pushing hard to meet rising demand.
Their company, Hairless Dog Brewing, rolled out its first batches of zero-alcohol brew at Murray’s steakhouse and a handful of Minneapolis liquor stores late last year. Within two months, they’d sold 1,000 cases.
“We were hand-stickering bottles, screen printing six-pack carriers and driving them around,” said Hollander, Hairless Dog’s chief executive. “Retailers were telling us they’d never seen product generate this much excitement.”
Now available across Minnesota, western Wisconsin and eastern South Dakota, Hairless Dog Black Ale and IPA soon will be on shelves at more than 200 Total Wine & More stores in 24 states.
Nonalcoholic beer remains a niche player, accounting for 5% of beer volume globally. But while sales of traditional beer have grown by 0.2% over the past five years, nonalcoholic beer has grown 3.9%, according to GlobalData.
Major players as well as Minnesota’s craft brewers recognize its potential.
InBev, which owns Budweiser, aims to generate one-fifth of global sales from zero- or low-alcohol beverages by 2026. Heineken, the largest player in the no-alcohol beer market, reports that sales of its Heineken 0.0 have grown by double-digits since launching in 2017.
The rise of ‘sober curious’
Part of the growth has come in countries where religious practices ban alcohol. But the turn toward temperance also has been driven by a younger generation of drinkers more mindful of the perils of alcohol and unashamed of mocktails and booze-free beverages. Adults of all ages are embracing a “sober curious” movement as part of a healthier lifestyle.
This cultural shift is disrupting the adult beverage industry by chipping away at the social pressure to drink, with more people abstaining permanently or for the night, some motivated by addiction issues or medical reasons, others simply because getting buzzed isn’t part of their plan.
Half a million Instagram users say #SoberIsSexy. A fifth of Americans said at the end of 2018 they planned to observe a Dry January in the new year, according to YouGov.com.
“The sober curious movement is coming out of a need for people to question what they are putting into their bodies,” said Hollander, who spoke about the trend at an Advertising Week panel in New York in September. “We drink kale smoothies, wear yoga pants, practice mindfulness and meditation. People are questioning all the choices they make.”
Not satisfied with traditional offerings, more people are demanding craft-beer taste from nonalcoholic brews.
“Everybody knows” the lousy reputation of nonalcoholic beer, said Patrick Frimat, one of three co-founders of St. Paul-based ABV Technology, which developed a machine now used by 30 Minnesota craft brewers to create nearly alcohol-free versions of their signature brews.
Bauhaus Brew Labs was the first to use ABV Technology, adding a nonalcoholic version of its Homeguys Helles Lager to its tap list late last year and claiming dibs as the state’s first brewery to produce a nonalcoholic beer since the end of Prohibition.
Fulton Brewing uses the system to make a nonalcoholic version of its popular Lonely Blonde ale, which it calls its Non-Blonde, and also contracts with smaller breweries to handle the de-alcoholization process.
The proprietary technology vacuums out the alcohol to 0.5% or lower, and then produces an equal amount of nonalcoholic beer and hard seltzer.
Other methods, such as cooking off the alcohol after brewing or stopping fermentation, change the beer’s chemistry and compromise the flavor, Frimat said.
By year’s end, ABV Technology plans to have deals in Canada, Colorado, Texas and California, and is working with Minnesota manufacturers to ramp up production of its machine. Interest comes amid a crowded marketplace for craft beer.
“Breweries want to keep offering products to people so they don’t start selling less and suffering,” said Ben Jordan, ABV’s technology chief. “They’re diversifying by offering nonalcoholic beverages, sugar-free beverages and other things in taprooms and product lines that they can sell to these growing markets of people who wouldn’t traditionally be served by the craft brewing industry.”
Formulating a better brew
The story of Hairless Dog Brewing began at a holiday party about five years ago. Old friends and ex-neighbors, Pirner and Hollander reconnected after years and found themselves among the few without drinks in their hands.
Hollander, a veteran in sales and marketing, made a life choice to stop drinking after the birth of his two children.
Pirner had left a job in marketing and copy writing to become a stay-at-home dad for his two children, now in college. Also a bass player in the punk band the 757’s and brother of Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner, he had decided to quit drinking alcohol to feel better.
“We stopped drinking, but we haven’t stopped living,” Pirner said.
Over coffee later, the two began mapping out a business plan. “There was no product out there for people like us who aren’t necessarily in recovery, but just people who don’t want the alcohol anymore,” said Pirner, who spent years making wine and beer at home before he quit alcohol. “Everything that was accessible in terms of a nonalcoholic beer product tasted watery to us and just didn’t provide a good, enjoyable experience.”
Pirner spent several years tweaking his recipe to develop a flavorful alcohol-free beer with a bubbly froth. Hairless Dog’s process doesn’t use yeast, so it never ferments and alcohol is never introduced into the beer.
Following the rapid sellout from word-of-mouth, Pirner and Hollander hired a contract brewer in Stevens Point, Wis., to ramp up production. They began working with Periscope, the Twin Cities’ largest independent advertising agency, which updated the Hairless Dog logo, designed a website and beefed up the company’s social media presence.
With the deal inked with Total Wine & More, Hairless Dog has boosted production 400% over the past month, Hollander said.
Matt Bardill, director of beer operations at Total Wine & More, said via e-mail that Hairless Dog is the first craft 0.0% ABV, or alcohol by volume, that Total Wine “felt had the quality and taste to carry nationwide.”
The nonalcoholic beer category has grown by triple digits year-over-year in recent years at Bethesda, Md.-based Total Wine, Bardill said, and a majority of stores have doubled the shelf space devoted to it.
With taglines such as “Party like there’s a tomorrow” and “0.0% regrets,” Pirner, 48, and Hollander, 45, see their beers as part of the trend to make sobriety cool. “We’ve heard from a lot of people saying, at last, there’s a product for me,” Pirner said.