The Newest Trend in Craft Beer is Guilt Free

There are a lot of things trending right now in the adult beverage world. Rose, Froze, Hard Seltzers, Canned Wines and Cocktails. And then there is craft beer—perhaps on another level—which continues to bask in its ever-growing popularity. To put its popularity into perspective, overall U.S. beer volume sales were actually down 1% in 2018, whereas craft brewer sales continued to grow at a rate of 4% by volume, reaching 13.2% of the U.S. beer market by volume, according to Brewers Association. With Global Wellness Day coming up on June 8th, it’s a good time to discuss perhaps the newest trend in the global beer market—non-alcoholic craft beer. Apparently the teetotalers want a piece of this market too and the market share for NA products, as a result, is growing more rapidly than you might think. Back to that in a sec. 

Full disclosure: I have never understood non-alcoholic beer. And my position is quite simple. It is an inferior product. Buckler? O’Douls? No thanks. If I am not drinking then I am not drinking and I would much rather just have a Diet Coke or water. I mean really, what’s the point? As much as I love the taste of beer—especially in this golden age of craft brewing—without the alcohol beer just isn’t beer. Putting aside the obvious detractor, it lacks flavor. Alcohol, lest us remember, plays an integral role in the actual taste of beer, wine and cocktails.  A Bloody Mary without vodka is just some thick, spicy tomato juice on ice with a celery stick. No thanks. A Margarita without tequila is a heartburn-inducing sugar bomb, with some lime notes. A Napa Valley Cabernet that doesn’t go through fermentation? Who knows what that would taste like but it certainly can’t taste like wine. Why would beer be any different? Eliminate the wonderful fermentation process that takes places between yeast, barley and hops and you have something akin to beer, but far inferior. Is it really worth it? No sir.  

At least this was my take before attending a recent dinner with the founder of Athletic Brewing Company, the producers of craft—yes, craft—non-alcoholic beer at David Burke’s Tavern in New York.  Their golden ale was delicious. And it tasted like beer. In fact, it tasted like something I would thoroughly enjoy after a day of skiing while basking in the sun, slope-side. Their IPA, while not as rich as your typical IPA, was still quite good with the hoppiness you’ve come to expect, followed by notes of citrus and pine, compliments of the Mosaic and Citra hops. Their stout? You could have told me it was Guinness and I would have believed you. Even the proprietor of the establishment, celebrity chef David Burke himself came over to our table to meet the founder, Bill Shufelt. It turns out Mr. Burke is a fan of the beer and was planning to put it on his beer list.  

Athletic Brewing Company Founder Bill Shufelt at Headquarters in Stratford, CT

In my opinion the proliferation of quality, non-alcoholic beer brands in the marketplace is two-fold. First, there is a demand for it. Americans are increasingly making healthier food and beverage choices to foster overall wellness, and according to the Institute of Social Welfare and Research (ISWR) the beer, wine and spirits sector will triple their non and low alcohol sales growth over the next four years. 

According to Nielsen, 50 percent of US drinkers in the critical 21-34 demographic are seeking low or non-alcoholic beverages when dining out. This reflects global trends, where the non-alcohol craft beer market has grown 381 percent in the United Kingdom since 2017 (Euromonitor), 43% in Germany from 2011 to 2016 (Mintel), and is projected to double worldwide to $25B by 2024 (Global Market Insights).

“The non-alcoholic beverage sector is a $300 billion market and there are a host of consumer trends that point to millennials’ rising interest in consuming beverages that have wellness in mind,” says Athletic Brewing’s Bill Shufelt. 

Although the best argument for the ultimate growth potential of the US NA craft beer market may come from across the pond in Europe—where beer was invented and still thrives and where they have had staggering success with NA beer.  

In Germany, NA beer grew 46% from 2011 to 2016 to 15% of the overall beer category (source: Euromonitor)

The UK craft NA market has risen 381% since 2017 (source: EEbria)

Overall UK alcohol free beer rose 27% from 2017 (source: Nielsen)

Carlsberg Western Europe NA volumes grew 33% last year alone (source: BeverageDaily). 

And these brands enter the market as Americans are becoming more and more health conscious, especially around the intake of alcohol and what is considered healthy usage. According to a Bank of America survey in May 2018:

64% of drinking age respondents say they are drinking either the same (42% ) or less alcohol (22%). 

When asked those drinking less what was driving their change in behavior, 55% said increased concerns on Health and Wellness while 30% say they are drinking fewer days of the week. 40% of respondents say they are drinking less beer because it’s too caloric and “beer makes me fat.”

40% of US adults don’t drink and 70% average less than 2.1 drinks per week (source: Washington Post / Philip Cook) 

The craft beer world has done an incredible job filling out every nuanced variety of the $110B beer market. But the opportunity to unlock new populations into the beer market is where the real future growth lies. The non-alcoholic beverage market is upwards of $300B, and there are categories the size of coconut water or cold brewed coffee that could easily be carved out and be the next growth driver in beer. 

But demand alone does not explain the influx of these brands. You need to have quality products in order for this trend to gain steam and brands like Athletic—with different styles of high quality beer that closely mimic the real thing—are leading the way. Unlike real beers (ie. with alcohol) that were led by large brand names like Budweiser and Heinekin for generations, before the craft beer movement took hold, with non-alcoholic beer you have a situation where the craft beers are leading the way. Sure, O’douls and Buckler have been around for decades, but they have had hardly any market penetration. As I began by saying, I would rather have a glass of water or some seltzer than a non-alcoholic beer and my guess is that goes for most people who don’t drink or are currently on hiatus from the sauce. 

So what are some of the brands making noise in the space of “mindful drinking?” Well for one, the aformentioned Athletic Brewing Company (based in Stratford, CT) just last month launched their Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn Golden Ale in partnership with Union Beer Distributors and Craft Beer Guild NY. 

Craft beer drinkers in New York City can find Athletic beers on tap at top craft beer bars like “Top Hops,” “Bierwax” and “As Is NYC” and anywhere from taco joints to Michelin-star restaurants.

While brands like Heinekin have certainly provided the market with quality NA beer—Heinekin Zero is well liked—Heinekin is not exactly a craft beer and someone who normally enjoys a craft beer and is currently subsisting might want something that is more in line with what they are used to.  

U.S. soldiers overseas enjoying a shipment of Athletic beer

After trying multiple styles from Athletic and liking virtually all of them I decided to try several more NA craft beers. Here are my favorites from light to dark.

Athletic Brewing Company “Upside Dawn” Golden Ale

Made with organic grains and crafted to remove gluten, this beer is extra healthy. But it still tastes like beer with premium organic malts from US & Germany and a combination of English and traditional American hops. The result is a clean, balanced, refreshing golden ale. It reminds me of a lighter version of New Belgium’s Sunshine Wheat—the kind of beer I crave on a sunny afternoon after a long mountain bike ride or a day of skiing in the Rocky Mountains.  

Estrella Damm “Free

I’m a big fan of Estrella Damm Inedit—the Barcelona-born brewery’s Belgian inspired beer—so I decided to try their NA offer. It is made to the same recipe as its 5.4% abv brethren, but with the alcohol removed using a vacuum distillation process, which it claims helps retain the flavor. What can I say, it was good. Golden color with malty, honeyed flavors and a touch hops. 

Mikkeller “Drink’in the Sun

From Mikkeller, one of Denmark’s finest micro-breweries. The beer is hazy gold in color with peach and bitter citrus notes (more grapefruit than orange).  A very refreshing beer, ideal in warm weather after an active day of work or play.  

Athletic Brewing Company “Run Wild” IPA

A blend of Northwest hops with a focus on Citra and Mosaic. This is the ultimate session IPA, yet a step further.  Wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this and a low alcohol session IPA. 

Brewdog “Nanny State” IPA

Made with North American hops and “specialty” malts and provides plenty of hoppiness along with pine and citrus notes. 

Athletic Brewing Company “All Out” Stout 

Made with premium roasted malts from the US and Germany. A delicate balance of coffee and chocolate notes. Great for the winter months but refreshing enough to enjoy year round. Like Guinness, don’t let the color fool you. It’s not as heavy as it looks.