One of the biggest breweries on the East Coast, Athletic Brewing, in Stratford, Conn., was founded in 2017, and today is a Top 20 craft brewer by size in the country, out of more than 9,000 craft breweries. But there’s one thing you won’t find in all its cases of craft beer: alcohol.
“It’s one of the biggest oxymorons out there: great-tasting nonalcoholic beer,” said co-founder Bill Shufelt.
Last year, Athletic Brewing’s sales hit $37 million, and they’re on track to double that this year. In the last five years, nonalcoholic beer sales overall have increased 70%.
Shufelt said, “Eighty percent of our customers do drink alcohol at other times during the week.”
According to co-founder John Walker, what Athletic does is pretty similar to what a full-alcohol brewery does: “A hundred percent. It is all the same. What we do is traditional brewing through and through. We tweak a degree here, a degree there. But we wind up at a fully-fermented product that is under 0.5%.”
“Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked Eric Asimov, chief wine critic at The New York Times, “Have you noticed in the last five or ten years that there are more and better nonalcoholic drinks on the menu?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Asimov replied. “No good cocktail list nowadays is complete without at least a few selections.”
“Do you think there’s more room to grow?”
“It’s gonna increase. Dry Januarys are a big thing that’s been extended to October.”
“I’m worried it’s gonna take over the calendar!” said Sanneh.
“With some people, it is! You have people thinking intently about their health, and deciding maybe that alcohol consumption is not a great thing.”
“Sunday Morning” asked Asimov to taste some of the latest nonalcoholic beverages. At Manhatta, in New York City, head bartender Cameron Winkelman served up a Free Wave IPA from Athletic Brewing.
“This is not bad,” Asimov said. “It’s super-hoppy. There’s a lot of flavor in there.”
“I thought you might hate this,” Sanneh said.
“No, I quite like it.”
Next: Eins Zwei Zero Sparkling Rosé by Leitz. “This is a pinot noir that’s been de-alcoholized and carbonated,” Winkelman said.
Asimov said, “If you were to drink a good sparkling wine that’s made naturally, the bubbles would be cascading all over the mouth. And this feels more like a soft drink.”
That’s if you compare it to wine. “If we’re comparing it to other nonalcoholic wines, I think this is a really good effort. It’s not overwhelmingly sweet.”
Asimov says some of his favorite nonalcoholic drinks are the ones that don’t try to imitate wine. “Alcohol is part of the natural process of making wine,” he said. “Yeast transforms the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. If you don’t have alcohol, you’re putting together parts that don’t really have a unifying element.”
Next, Winkelman served up Passing Clouds by Muri. “This is actually a gooseberry ferment,” he said.
“Wow, it’s almost very floral,” Asimov said. “I really like that.”
He also liked some of the alcohol-free cocktails. Winkelman served a “mocktail”: “AMASS Riverine seedlet that’s been infused with mango, grapefruit, yuzu, and coconut water, and topped with a mango-matcha meringue.”
“Oh, my. That is delicious. It’s so concentrated and yet light and refreshing,” said Asimov.
Sanneh asked, “The growth in this market seems to be as an add-on, right? Not, ‘I’m gonna give up cocktails and only drink mocktails.’ It’s like, ‘I don’t wanna have four cocktails, but maybe I could do two-and-two’?”
“That’s as I understand it,” Asimov said. “It’s not my personal experience, I confess.”
“What’s your personal experience?”
“I just drink less.”
“But that’s not really the American way,” said Sanneh. “The American way is, ‘Let me figure out a way to consume even more!'”
“If I don’t want an alcoholic beverage, my tendency – except for a cocktail – is to drink water,” Asimov said. “I love water!”
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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