In the immortal words of rapper Serengeti, “favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O’Doul’s.” Serengeti would be pleased to learn that in 2023, the world of non-alcoholic beverages is expanding, and O’Doul’s is, at this point, mostly just a punchline. But in an exploding market, who do NA brewers—of which there are a growing number—view as their core customer?
In theory, the expansion of booze-free options in the marketplace caters to many consumer demographics at once. There are, of course, those who strictly abstain from alcohol (perhaps after overcoming issues surrounding it), but also broadly health-conscious consumers who either limit their booze intake or simply like to switch things up. The latter category is full of people who embrace “Dry January,” a trendy commitment to not getting sloshed after New Year’s.
And if there were ever a time to consider beverage options beyond alcohol, it’s now. Not only has new research pointed to the negative effects of alcohol on our health, but also (more positively) there has never been more diversity in the zero-ABV beverages you can drink. Non-alcoholic wines are becoming more popular, and both booze-free cocktails and spirits are also in higher demand.
Beer, however, trumps them all. According to GMI Insights, non-alcoholic beer is a $22 billion industry, and those numbers are only projected to get bigger, to the tune of 8% annually. This data makes it clear that the market for NA beverages does not live and die in January.
And it is not just craft brewers who are noticing this growing trend; macro brewers have entered the ring too. Budweiser, Heineken, and Guinness have all rolled out non-alcoholic beer products in the past five years. Danish brewing company Carlsberg has also committed to expanding its alcohol-free options in recent years, hoping to capture this growing market.
The consumers who love (and hate) NA beer
An informal poll of my sober friends and acquaintances resulted in a fairly even split between those interested in drinking NA beer and those apprehensive that the experience might be triggering. As one friend put it, can of NA beer in hand, “What I really want is a whiskey sour. This is the next best thing.”
But while some non-drinkers welcome this beer, others aren’t fans of drinks that approximate their alcoholic counterparts. As Ian Lecklitner writes for Slate, “Drinking NA drinks feels kind of like hooking up with an ex; it’s not what it used to be, and once your ‘cup’ is empty, all that’s left is guilt.” Sober customers are not a monolith!
Still, brewers are finding the growing sober-curious and health-conscious market to be a lucrative one. Founded in 2016, Wisconsin-based Untitled Art is attempting to enliven the NA beer category with a suite of beverages both alcoholic and non.
“For breweries or alcoholic manufacturers, we have a preconceived notion of who is buying non-alcoholic product,” Levi Funk, co-founder of Untitled Art, tells The Takeout. “Because you think, ‘Who drinks O’Doul’s? It’s pregnant women and recovering alcoholics. Nobody willingly goes and picks up some O’Doul’s, right?’ And that has completely changed.”
“I would say the biggest segment of the drinkers of our non-alcoholic beer is the same people who buy our alcoholic beer,” Funk added.
And as public perception of the non-alcoholic category has shifted considerably over the past few years, Funk says the demographics have shifted in kind.
“People are integrating [NA products] as a part of what they consume,” he said.
I don’t think consumers are saying, ‘I’m not going to drink alcohol anymore, and so I’m drinking non-alcoholic beer.’ I mean, sober people are part of the audience. But I think a bigger part of the audience is consumers saying, ‘If I buy two six-packs, one of them is going to be non-alcoholic.’”
BrewDog, a UK-based craft brewery, notes a similar trend. “Our internal surveys of customers showed that the majority of our non-alcoholic customers drink beer as well,” a rep for BrewDog tells The Takeout. “We found that more than half of our customers who enjoy NAs also drink alcohol. Meaning people are looking more toward non-alcoholic options for moderation than to be 100% dry 100% of the time.”
Much as we’ve seen with the rise of plant-based meat, customers are integrating more variety into their purchasing habits rather than switching wholesale to the newer options. Ryan Brei of Octopi Brewing, a contract facility in Wisconsin that brews for multiple companies (one of which is Untitled Art), notes the “rampant growth” in the NA industry—growth that is driven more by sober-curious customers than by those in recovery.
“We see some pretty significant [sales] spikes in January because of Dry January, but it doesn’t taper off as much as one might expect,” said Brei. “As the quality continues to increase, I think you’re getting more long-term buyers.”
NA beer will continue to evolve: More brands are going to enter the market, and as dealcoholizing technology improves, it’ll be easier to find a quality NA brew. As that happens, it stands to reason that the segment of the population interested in exploring the NA category will only grow. And perhaps we can even get a Serengeti remix—“favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink small-batch NA chocolate milk stout.” It’s not as immediately catchy, but you’d be surprised at what kinds of things can catch on.