There used to be a time when craft beer was all about the most crushable brews. These are session beers that have an ABV around 4-5%, aren’t too hoppy, and go down nice and easy. But over the last several years, craft breweries have started focusing their efforts on IPAs of all varieties with one thing in common: a higher alcohol content. Even more recently, the non-alcoholic beverage industry has been booming. With beer drinkers now swinging to one extreme or the other, what does that mean for the future of mid-level ABV beers?
As former Takeout editor Kate Bernot writes in The Washington Post, over the past four years sales of both high-ABV beers and non-alcoholic beers have been on the rise—since 2019, non-alcoholic beer has increased its chain retail sales by 27%. Meanwhile, the only beer category that has lost sales in that time is beer in the 4-6% ABV range.
To those who are reaching for the higher alcohol content, inflation might be a factor.
“If I’m going to drop down $12 for a six-pack, I want to make sure the alcohol content is 6 percent [alcohol by volume] or higher,” Danny Tejada told The Washington Post. “That way I can just drink one or two and be satisfied, and still have a couple of beers left for later.” It’s increasingly important for people to find ways to get more bang for their buck, and that applies to their buzz as well.
A shift in drinking culture overall can explain the rise in popularity of non-alcoholic beer. A recent report from the National Public Health Information Coalition shows that Gen Z drinks 20% less per capita than Millennials; when surveyed, Gen Z said they’d rather spend an hour at the gym than at a bar and that they find heavy drinking culture boring. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to vary their intake—enter non-alcoholic beers like those from Takeout favorite Athletic Brewing that embrace that active lifestyle.
With people leaning into extremes in their drinking habits, those mid-level crushable beers are seemingly getting left in the dust.
Major breweries are in the process of adjusting their lineups to cater to the varying needs of their customers—even brands that have long hung their hat on flagship brews in that middling ABV level. Pabst Blue Ribbon, for example, still most recognizable for its 4.8% ABV beer, now offers an “Extra” variety that clocks in at 6.5%. The brewery also released an NA beer in 2019.
Breweries that have always been focused on the craft movement, like Delaware’s Dogfish Head, are taking the opportunity to be even more creative to give people what they want. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the non-alcoholic Lemon Quest, made to mimic a wheat beer instead of just a typical lager. On the other end, there’s the 120 Minute IPA, which clocks in at a whopping 15-20% ABV and is marketed as “the Holy Grail for hopheads.”
Essentially, to stay up to speed and demand, breweries have to be a girl who can do both. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be getting rid of those middling offerings anytime soon—the brews that top lists of most popular beers in the United States are still firmly in that 4-6% range. It’ll take a while for the kings like Budweiser and Miller to get dethroned. But it’s still pretty exciting to see breweries preparing for a future in which we all drink beer a little differently.