Low and no-alcohol drinks brew reform for cocktail and beer market

The sale of no- and low-alcohol mocktails, wine, beer and hop waters has seen a market boom this decade. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino explains it's a trend that began before the pandemic and shows no sign of slowing down afterward.

'People are starting to see this as a trend and not a fad,' says drinks executive

Sales of no-and-low alcohol beer-like beverages are surging, with market watchers noting huge growth in the past five years. (Jordan Gill/CBC)

Canadian alcohol consumption is higher now than before COVID-19 hit: the per capita value of alcohol sold between March and November 2020 was 13 per cent greater than the average value of alcohol sold during the same time period between March and November 2017-2019, well before the pandemic.

That's despite 70 per cent of Canadians saying their alcohol drinking stayed pretty much the same during the pandemic, according to recent surveillance surveys from "Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada," a journal of the Health Agency of Canada. 

And while it looks as though Canadians are drinking more alcohol, they may also be drinking more no- and low-alcohol beverages: restaurants are serving mocktails, brewers are creating sparkling hop waters (a.k.a. no-alcohol beer/barley/hop flavoured drinks), and you can find a dozen relatively new and interesting Canadian-made alcohol-free spirits, wine and beer online.

One question is whether drinking mocktails and more alcohol-free beer is a trend or a fad? It's a question Bob Huitema, president of Toronto-based DistillX Beverages, which makes Sobrii non-alcoholic spirits, believes he can answer.

Growth in sober-curious market

Huitema says Sobrii sales have increased this year over last year. That is the result of health-conscious consumers, brand awareness (including Sobrii's appearance on Dragon's Den) as well as the juggernaut of online buying.

"There's more consumer interest among [sober-curious] people, more products and more media stories. Dry January is driving more interest this year," Huitema said in an email.

The new year is traditionally a moment in time when people focus on their health, including cutting down on their alcohol consumption. "There's more enthusiasm because people are starting to see this as a trend and not a fad," Huitema added. "This is becoming more mainstream."

A Neilsen report found the non-alcohol sector of the beverage industry has grown 506 per cent since 2015. (Gary Graves/CBC)

Mainstream but not necessarily only pandemic-driven. Research company Mintel found that between 2013 and 2018 sales of alcohol-free beer increased by more than 50 per cent.

Forbes magazine, citing Neilsen statistics, says the non-alcohol sector has grown 506 per cent since 2015 and anticipates future growth for the category will hit 7.1 per cent by 2025. 

Local interest

Partake, a non-alcoholic brewer based in Toronto, secured $4 million in funding in late 2020 to expand into the U.S. market.

In Guelph, Wellington Brewery has seen its sparkling hop water sales climb, according to Wellington's marketing manager Brad McInerney. Like Sobrii, sales have been boosted by the pandemic and people deciding to forego liquor this January but also by consumers looking for healthy choices.

"We have seen a recent growth in our sparkling hop water sales, especially this month with many folks choosing to take part in Dry January or cutting back on alcohol to start the year," said McInerney, adding that it's difficult to assess the full impact of the pandemic on sales because their hop waters were launched in spring 2021.

Who is drinking it?

As for who is drinking these beverages, it is consumers in the 19 to 34 demographic, the same group looking for a wider range of food and beverage choices, including plant-based foods. Millennials are not really following their parents' footsteps into the 5 p.m. cocktail hour. That older demographic is likely to be less engaged with alcohol-free cocktails

The companies creating these beverages invest time, money, and research and development – Huitema says that distilling a non-alcoholic gin could take more time than alcoholic gin – not out of temperance idealism, but because there is money to be made. They're hoping for product longevity.

In fact, many alcohol-free products were in development before the pandemic because consumers wanted more choices. Research companies like Mintel have tracked the consumption of alcohol-free spirits since 2016: their surveys indicate that adherents are intending to stick to the beverages.

As well, the United Kingdom government has committed to working with the industry to increase the availability of non-alcoholic beverages by 2025, while the World Health Organization has a strategy calling for alcoholic beverage producers to reduce the amounts of alcohol in their products.

Gateway product?

It's important to note that the world of alcohol companies is a relatively small community: massive Diageo bought spirit-free Seedlip in 2019, while beer giant Labatt brews Budweiser in Canada – including Budweiser Zero non-alcoholic beer with its marketing tag, "Drink Wiser."

With these alliances, health researchers have expressed concern that low- and no-alcohol products could be used by producers to promote their higher alcohol product lines. A survey of current literature published in the journal "Nutrients," in September 2021 (held in the National Institutes of Health's medicine library), found no published studies to indicate whether the marketing of low- and no-alcohol brands is specifically used to boost higher-strength products. 

So for now, pandemic or not, beverage companies large and small continue to give consumers choices in what they are drinking, including healthier choices. According to McInerney, Wellington Brewery has just introduced two new hop waters in order to satisfy demand and fill a growing niche within its own beer-drinking customer base.

"It's clear to us that our customers appreciate having a great tasting non-alcoholic option in our lineup whether it's as a replacement for a beer or alongside beer."


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.