'Game has changed' for near-beer industry with more, better-tasting options

Manitobans who are choosing not to drink alcohol this January have significantly more options than just a few years ago — and according to one non-alcoholic beer connoisseur, they actually taste good.

Brewers seem to have 'cracked the code,' says Winnipeg non-alcoholic beer aficionado

A man wearing a navy button-down shirt and glasses speaks to someone off-camera.
Aaron Goss says he's tried 242 different kinds of non-alcoholic beer. While it's 'one of those things people used to scoff [at],' non-alcoholic beer offerings have vastly improved in recent years, he says. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

This Dryuary, beer lovers in Manitoba who don't want to drink alcohol have significantly more options than just a few years ago — and according to one connoisseur, they actually taste good.

Aaron Goss, an amateur cicerone, or beer taster, says he's tried 242 different kinds of near-beer — beer with little (less than one per cent) or no alcohol content.

Some time just before the pandemic, non-alcoholic beer brewers seem to have "cracked the code" and figured out how to make near-beer taste good, he said.

"It's sorcery. It's alchemy. I don't know what they've done, but … it's one of those things people used to scoff [at] and the game has changed."

More people may be looking for those options thanks to movements like Dry January — also known as Sober January or Dryuary. The idea of going alcohol-free for the month gained popularity in 2013 due to a campaign by Alcohol Change UK, a charity that seeks to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

Their Dry January campaign highlights the potential benefits of going alcohol-free, from saving money to sleeping better sleep to brighter skin.

WATCH | Aficionado Aaron Goss samples non-alcoholic beers:

Want to drink something non-alcoholic?

11 days ago
Duration 3:50
Aaron Goss is an amateur cicerone or beer taster. He's tried 242 different kinds of non-alcoholic beers. He has some of his favourites you might want to try.

There's also a new report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, funded by Health Canada, that says no amount of alcohol is safe.

CCSA changed the guidelines for low-risk alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per week — down from two drinks a day and a maximum of 10 drinks a week — and is pushing authorities to add cancer warning labels to beer, wine and spirits.

"It's nice to hear Health Canada finally come out and say that," said Shane Halliburton, co-owner of Winnipeg's Søbr Market, an online store that offers a selection of non-alcoholic beer, wine, spirits and other alcohol alternatives.

"Canada was kind of behind. There's other parts of the world that have been saying that for a while."

But alcohol doesn't just affect physical health, said Goss, who hasn't had an alcoholic drink in 10 years — it can also interfere with mood stability, a particular concern during the long, dark Manitoba winters.

"I can say personally with my relationship with alcohol, I thought I was using it … to chase away the depression, but it was quite the opposite," he said.

"It's a vicious cycle we build up and, you know, getting away from that and being able to have a little bit different perspective is a healthy thing."

Breaking into near-beer a challenge for brewers

Goss says the increase in quality non-alcoholic beer may correlate with what he calls the craft beer revolution — the increase of microbreweries making experimental beer flavours on a small scale.

He points to Quebec, which has a thriving microbrewery industry and produces over 100 non-alcoholic beers. 

Comparatively, Manitoba's non-alcoholic brewing scene is almost non-existent. Andrew Sookram, owner of Sookram's Brewing Company in Winnipeg, said there are challenges to breaking into the near-beer industry, which is why there's been a lack of local companies making it so far.

There are two main methods to produce non-alcoholic beer, he said. The evaporative method uses vacuum distillation to remove the alcohol from beer after brewing. However, the equipment for this method is prohibitively expensive — Sookram says a manufacturer gave him a quote of $300,000 US.

A man with short dark hair and beard is wearing glasses and a blue and grey plaid shirt. He stands smiling in front of a long row of cylindrical brewing machinery.
Andrew Sookram, owner of Sookram's Brewing Company, said there are significant challenges to breaking into the near-beer industry. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"It's a space that's — normally has been reserved for bigger breweries, macrobreweries that are … way bigger than we are.

Those big brewers "can afford to get into that space, afford the equipment and afford to do the [research and development] that a small craft brewery like us can't do."

The other method brewers can use involves halting the fermentation process, but "it's really difficult to dial in a good recipe that tastes like beer without making it kind of like watered-down tea with hops in it," said Sookram.

How a Dry-uary could be beneficial for your health

12 days ago
Duration 3:23
Dry January, also known as Dry-uary, began a decade ago in the U.K. It's a month when people choose sobriety, for a variety of reasons. CBC's Jim Agapito shows us why Dry-uary could be beneficial for your health.

One Manitoba brewery is producing a non-alcoholic beer, though — Farmery, a farm-to-can operation based in Neepawa, launched its first near-beer last year.

"We already had our [non-alcoholic] malt-flavoured craft sodas in the grocery channels, and we also had our energy drink in the grocery channel," said Farmery co-owner Chris Warwaruk.

"So we already had access to the grocery customer, and … the growing trend was low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beers."

Farmery started experimenting "to see if we can produce a high-quality, non-alcoholic beer with our own barley and hops," said Warwaruk.

A man wearing a navy button-down and glasses sips an amber-coloured drink from a glass tumbler.
Goss says that some time just before the pandemic, non-alcoholic beer brewers seem to have 'cracked the code' for how to make near-beer taste good. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

It took their brewmaster quite a few batches to get the formula right, he said.

While most non-alcoholic beers are light lagers, Farmery wanted to experiment and make a more hazy IPA-style near-beer.

Response to the near-beer offering has been positive so far, said Warwaruk.

Demand 'bigger than we even expected'

Taste is key to a successful near-beer, said Goss — many people who've tried them in the past complain they're too sweet and don't taste enough like real beer.

Many non-alcoholic beers that have been around for a long time get their "warty" taste — a raw and unfermented malt flavour — due to the brewing process, he explained.

But during the boom in craft beer, many new kinds of hops have emerged, allowing for much more depth and diversity among the flavour profiles of near-beers, said Goss.

Demand for those beers has been surprising, says Halliburton, who launched The Søbr Market — which offers over 50 different selections of near-beer — as an online store in June 2022.

"It's a pretty big need. It's bigger than we even expected. There's lots of people out there looking for these kinds of options."

Sookram agrees, saying in the next five to 10 years, the market share for non-alcoholic beers globally is projected to grow even more than craft beer.

Warwaruk says Farmery is working on expanding to other non-alcoholic beer flavours, using locally grown ingredients.

"The general consensus from the consumer is that they they wouldn't even know that this is happening in their own backyard — but lots of great things are happening in the background in Manitoba."

A glass tumblr with a light yellow coloured carbonated beverage in it. Out of focus in the background are four other glass tumblers with beverages in them.
A selection of non-alcoholic beers curated by Goss. '[I] feel like we're on the cusp of something,' he says. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Goss finds a lot of his favourite near-beers at local grocery stores and pharmacies. He says new businesses like The Søbr Market, which will be opening a physical store Feb. 1 in Winnipeg's Exchange District, are an encouraging sign.

"[I] feel like we're on the cusp of something. You know, it's a revolution," he said.

"It can change the way that people think about drinking, and change the way that people can think about socializing with a drink in their hand and not have to worry about the pressure to be consuming alcohol all the time."


Nampande Londe is a community reporter with CBC Manitoba.

With files from Jim Agapito


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