78. It's Time for Every Brewery & Bar to Have Good NA Options
Businesses need to adapt and grow, not yell at people doing Dry January; plus tarot for exploring the world of NA beverages with enthusiasm and curiosity.
Want to Bring More Folks to Your Bar? Stock NA Options—Good NA Options
Last week, I wrote about a shift happening in which many people are drinking earlier and many bars and restaurants closing earlier, and one of the factors of this discussion is how it all affects what people are actually drinking and how much of it. The verdict? It’s complicated. There are multiple different scenarios—the same early shift could make some people drink lower-ABV drinks and other people choose something stronger. My takeaway for brands trying to guess how to react to this all was, well, don’t. Different people are doing different things for different reasons, and the best position is to have something for everyone if you can, or figure out which audience is most effective for you to speak to if you can’t.
This variety in preferences applies very much to the idea of zero alcohol versus any alcohol, too. I think that’s why you can read one article saying less people are doing Dry January and another saying the trend is growing stronger every year. The decision to do Dry January and what that even looks like—total abstention? More moderation? Ending on January 31 or carrying on?—will be totally different for different people in different areas, of different age ranges, with different lifestyles and priorities. And—again, as I’ve been looking at in past weeks here—there are contrasting trends afoot. On one hand, there’s a sort of nostalgia for glamour, and some people are embracing boozy af cocktails like martinis and the kind of bars you get dressed up to visit; on the other hand, we’ve never had a better awareness of health, wellness, and what we put into our bodies and how it makes us feel, and many people are adjusting their habits accordingly.
One of the things that frustrates me most as someone who works with/adjacent to beverage alcohol is how common it is for people to make grand, sweeping judgments, declaring something categorically good or categorically bad, all the time, no matter what, instead of realizing that every human must do what works for them and there’s no way to make that one-size-fits-all. Much of the American attitude toward alcohol is shame-based and that just breeds issues for people. There’s such an emphasis on not drinking during the week for so many people, who then go nuts on the weekend, as if binge-drinking doesn’t count because—god forbid—it’s not happening during the week, which, by the way, is when all of your being and time belong to your employer. Good, old-fashioned American capitalism strikes yet again!
I truly feel the only way to foster healthy relationships with alcohol is a greater acceptance of varied relationships—within the spectrum of safety and mental, physical, and emotional well-being—with it. That means being more mindful and in touch with what a problematic relationship with alcohol looks like, so that you know when and how to step in if someone in your life reaches that point, and, beyond that, not judging or shaming or questioning someone just doing their own version of health and moderation.
Giving someone any version of a hard time for not drinking is literally the lamest thing you can possibly do. It’s also weird, though for different reasons, to give your friend a hard time for having a beer in January just because they’re not abstaining like you are. Dry January can have wonderful benefits for some people, leading to a reduction in consumption even when they return to imbibing throughout the rest of the year. For others, it can set up an unhealthy challenge, where people feel they must deprive themselves, and then might drink more when they’re finally “allowed.” I can’t remember where now, but I recently read something discussing potential problematic links between Dry January and disordered eating, and that resonated really deeply with me. For me, mindfulness and moderation all year round are the only way. Am I beating myself up because last Friday, my friend was visiting and wow, did we do it up? No, that was a special and rare occasion. Am I rolling my eyes at two of my close friends who are doing Dry January and how it’s affecting the plans we make? I truly couldn’t fathom doing that, and I’m happy they’ve found something that works for them.
What I find honestly bizarre, then, is how increasingly common it’s become for businesses that revolve around selling alcohol to do a different kind of shaming, which is shaming consumers for doing Dry January or some other form of reduced consumption at this time because that means they’re not “supporting” bars, breweries, etc. Like, people. PEOPLE. Come on. This is simply not the way any business in any industry can be run! You cannot get weird and mad and passive aggressive at people for not snatching up your inventory year round, especially when you sell something that absolutely must be consumed in moderation. Imagine if candy companies made Instagram posts like, “Lollll ok cool guess everybody like CARES ABOUT THEIR TEETH NOW? Hahaha wow well let us just say thank you to the real ones still buying and eating candy every single day, who know that it’s better to #supportlocal than worry about being able to eat solid food!”
This issue is admittedly quite complicated. I cringe so hard when I see bars and breweries act like this, but at the same time, I also don’t want businesses to suffer and close. No one wants to see people out of work. No one wants to see our neighborhoods lose the great, unique bars and taprooms that define different areas. You absolutely cannot yell at your patrons for not buying your booze in January because they’re trying to not die/not feel like shit/not go into debt, but, yeah, the timing is total shit for businesses because January was already bad, but then again, of course January, right after the holidays, is when people feel the most urgent need to cut back on unhealthy stuff and on spending.
So, what is the solution? How can we protect and, yes, support these businesses while also protecting and supporting people doing what is best for them? Because both are necessary. What it comes down to is adaptability. If you own a bar or brewery, you just have to get with the times, friend. People aren’t drinking or going out the way they did 20, even 10 years ago. That does not mean they aren’t drinking or going out at all. But they’re doing it differently. There’s opportunity here, and you have to see it and seize it or, yeah, fail.
I’m sure businesses who get resourceful and, like I mentioned up top, figure out how to engage different people doing different things, still struggle this time of year, but I’m also sure they’re putting themselves in a markedly better position than the businesses who just continue to do what they’ve always done and then blame customers for changing. On the consumer end, it would be great if we could promote other approaches to abstention and moderation, like taking different months off so that this dip isn’t quite so concentrated. But, much more reliable than that, much better for all humans involved, and much smarter, I would think, is for businesses to stack their lineups with options that reflect no alcohol, low alcohol, medium alcohol, and high alcohol. The options are absolutely there. We’re in a golden age of no- and low-alcohol beer, spirits, and wine. At this point, there’s room to go beyond just stocking one or two options—get creative!
This past weekend, Finback had a “Not So Dry January Party” at their Brooklyn taproom. They had their own low-ABV beers as well as low- and no-alcohol cocktails with their distillery Halftone Spirits, and low-ABV beers from Good Word Brewing, Halfway Crooks, Human Robot, and Other Half. In addition to their regular pop-up Dumpling Up, there were oysters from Flatbush Oyster Co., and a collection of collab merch from Finback and Permanent Hangover was debuted. I found out about the whole shebang too late to change plans and make it—gutted, tbh—but what I really appreciate it about is that it attached the hype of craft beer to low- and no-alcohol options. We groan in the general direction of “hype,” I know, but think about what a part of modern craft beer it’s become, and how, when that hype is actually warranted, it can admittedly generate some excitement. In the past, that’s been applied toward higher-ABV beers like hazy IPAs and pastry stouts. I think an event saying, “let’s get pumped about 0-5% beers” really turns a corner, extending the “craft beer scene” as we know it to be more inclusive for those of us not drinking, drinking less, paying more attention to moderation, etc.
On that note, I’ve noticed breweries here in Brooklyn like Other Half, TALEA, and Wild East releasing their own non-alcoholic beers, another corner turned. This positions NA beer right alongside a brewery’s IPAs or sours or lagers or stouts as an option with just as much intention and care behind it, just as much worth trying. It tells people who aren’t drinking they are still absolutely welcome in the taproom and can have a good time. It says a brewery is actually paying attention and gives a shit about what people want and need now. On an earnest note, it’s inclusive. On a business note, it’s the sign of a brewery not too stuck in the mud for its own good.
I’m not sure what the long-term, big-picture financial viability of a brewery making its own NA beer is, like whether it’s worth a brewery trying to distribute it or if many actually will even try. As we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s large and ambitious operations dedicated entirely to NA beer, like Athletic Brewing, established with only that alcohol-free pursuit, that have enjoyed skyrocketing growth. But a taproom brewery making just enough NA beer to serve said taproom? That speaks to more people, and could help you through a patch like January. I can’t see a downside there, if you’ve got the budget—time and money—to invest in the non-alcoholic brewing process. If you don’t, all is not lost, far from it. Just stock NA options from other breweries or RTD brands.
“I can speak to a certain dilemma with draft non-alc options, and that is that they are perceived as risky since it is dedicating a line off a draft system,” an industry member currently employed a brewery told me in a Twitter DM chat (keeping both the person and the brewery anonymous here). “Hence why you see non-alc in more packaged formats at these establishments. I think rather than an added cost, you may find that it can be an added value.”
Besides, there’s another group here that breweries should be mindful of when thinking about non-alcoholic options for their taprooms: the staff. “It is a way to include those that still want to be a part of the camaraderie of something like a shift drink, but don’t want to drink just water or soda or cold brew after a shift,” this source explains. “We had a staff member that would take celebratory ‘beer shots’ with us using water, due to health reasons, and it is now something we embrace a bit more. Raise a glass to ones’ health by chugging a bit of water—makes more sense.” The brewery where this source works, by the way, just put their first NA beer on draft, which joins an existing selection of NA beers in cans plus other options that feel “craft” and don’t tell someone not drinking they’re an afterthought relegated to water only, like Fentimans lemonade and ginger beer.
Casey Pyle works at Wild East and weighs in on the importance of NA availability at a brewery for both staff and patrons. “In my opinion, offering some form of NA beverage year round is an absolute essential for any alcohol-based business, not just because of its value during Dry January, but because it helps to create a much more inclusive environment for all. The older I’ve gotten, the more folks in my life have chosen to go sober or have highly restrictive alcohol intake, and having a fully variety of not just alcohol-free options, but interesting and tasty ones, makes the environment much more inclusive. I am able to plan group hangs at bars and breweries knowing that the sober people in my life will have something.” Wild East just made its first NA beer, Shadowboxer, and Casey says it’s exciting because both sober and non-sober friends have come to the taproom just to try it. “We also cater to a very family-oriented clientele, being in Gowanus, and it’s awesome to be able to serve expecting and breastfeeding parents to our fullest capacity without the brewery feeling like some kind of den just for the dudes.”
Both people who spoke to me for this issue work at a brewery and name both their fellow staff as well as customers when they speak about who benefits from increased NA options. In general, it just creates much more, much needed inclusivity. And while having this for consumers is just good for the entire community, the added value pointed out here by these sources can also help a brewery survive both patches like Dry January as well as just the future in general, which in turn is good for staff! I don’t think it can be understated, though, too, that it’s really important for breweries to have a decent NA option or four on hand for staff culture. This section of the 2023 industry predictions Doug Veliky wrote on Beer Crunchers made me start thinking about all of this in the first place.
“You’ve probably already heard the obvious benefits to introducing an NA product into a craft brewery’s portfolio, but allow me to present one that you may not have heard yet: Internal Culture. When you work at a brewery you’re presented with an overwhelming number of situations involving drinking that can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle, or much worse. Many are moving on to other industries as a result. The presence of an alternative to alcohol that’s woven into the company’s objectives will help promote restraint, social acceptance, and reduce burnout from your team.”
This is something that comes up time and time again, and not even just in beverage alcohol. It’s a societal oversight at large. So much of the networking and connecting and relationship-building that too many industries require for career growth happens at happy hour, at parties, at shift drinks, at festivals, etc. If you don’t drink and there are no options for you, you don’t want to go, and then Linda gets promoted because she was able to go round for round with the boss, or Frank gets to work on that new cool project because leadership had such a blast getting to know him over four pints. Even if and when networking happens in a bar or taproom, which is basically guaranteed when you work in beverage alcohol or hospitality, alcohol and the feeling of pressure to consume it needs to be decentered. It should just be one of the many options, which would include alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike, with no difference in quality, so that any person feels completely at ease choosing whatever they want. (It stands to reason that more staff bonding time happening in situations completely removed from booze all together would benefit all, too.) This would mean more people feeling comfortable to participate in happenings that can not only help their jobs, but can help them build valuable friendships, too.
I think some folks are having a hard time wrapping their heads around the growing demand for non-alcoholic options within the alcohol industry, but this is just a sign of growth and moving forward. People are understanding what’s good for them and how to live their lives accordingly in a way that makes them feel happy and well. And they’re also understanding that the same flavors and levels of craft we use to make the alcoholic beverages many of us love can also be applied to make non-alcoholic beverages we can love, too, so why wouldn’t we want that? An industry built on good beer learning how to make good beer without alcohol as another option is an industry that’s growing. People’s relationships with alcohol and what they want in a night out or a beverage or a work mixer, it’s all changing, and the craft beer industry has the tools to keep up—anyone who ignores this entirely runs the risk of getting left in the dust.
This week, I pulled the Six of Cups.
Cups is the sign of love, relationships, and emotions, and the Six of Cups in particular speaks to your past, childhood, innocence, and a sort of pure happiness. There are two routes this message could take, depending on your situation. One, it could mean you are revisiting your past, and your youth in some way. That could be visiting your hometown and/or family, reuniting with or reaching back out to old friends, even just coming across boxes of old photos while moving or cleaning. Or two, it could mean spending time around children—I’m assuming (and hoping) ones you know.
In either case, there is much there to learn about what makes us happy, which can be applied to our current lives. Maybe we forgot how much we loved an old hobby. Maybe life got in the way of a fulfilling friendship. Maybe witnessing a kid be totally honest or experience the world with fresh, unbiased eyes is a wake-up call. Be open to what these situations and walks down memory lane are showing you. Like, yeah, we all grow up and out of certain things. But there are pieces of who you are in your childhood, too, and maybe some of them actually don’t need to be left behind. Maybe making friendship bracelets is a hobby that would calm you down when you’re feeling anxious. Maybe it’s a bit late to be an astronaut now, but perhaps there is something behind those sky’s-the-limit dreams that makes you want to change careers. The Six of Cups tells us that we can experience positive growth and peace in our relationships and lives with some of this revisiting the past or getting inspired by kiddos.
Channeling this card’s energy, I would encourage you to explore the ever-expanding world of non-alcoholic options out there with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a kid. (This conveniently feels more appropriate than talking about alcohol alongside a tarot card about childhood, too!) There’s so much out there already, which is honestly pretty exciting. Like, no jabroni can ever tell you again you’re boring for not drinking—that was idiotic before, and now there’s another level of that just not being true. Whether it’s for your business or your own personal fridge, get into it. Craft NA beers are getting more prolific; try something new—Industrial Arts is doing a great IPA as well as a pilsner. And if you haven’t yet had a non-alcoholic beer that scratched the itch, venture out into spirits and cocktails. Personally, more than beer, I find myself reaching for the Phony Negroni and Falso Amaro from St. Agrestis, and the sparkling wine from Sovi. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
One of the most simply enjoyable things I read all week was Rachel Signer’s “Still Life in Drinks — A Liquid Diary through France and Italy” for Pellicle. Beautifully written, honest, thoughtful…and vivid snapshots of drinks that make the moment or just make for lovely background music. I want more diaries like this.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
I am moving, which is actually a two-month process (that’s not including time spent unpacking and settling into the new place) because moving in NYC is an unholy nightmare that will entirely ruin your life, and also because I’ve made the grave mistake of becoming a person who collects small, incredibly fragile things that would really upset me if they broke, like daguerrotypes in delicate compacts and Victorian-era surgical tools, so I spend hours at a time just rolling things in bubble wrap. So, I really appreciated the absolute bright spot that was a package full of Burial beer as well as their aperitif wine(!) that the brewery sent. The work is much more pleasant with a wonderful West Coast IPA or Vienna lager to look forward to, and on the flip side, the work I’m slogging through makes those beers taste that much better and more precious.
Until next week, here is a certainly not-great picture of Darby, but one I felt worth sharing because this position like she’s bellied up to a bar is just silly.
I own a piece of La Nebulouse, the largest craft brewery in Switzerland. I pointed out to them the success of Athletic Brewing. Bill used to work with me. NA is now 12% of La Neb sales.