Canada

Shift to non-alcoholic drinks was underway even before new health guidelines

Some Canadians have been mulling — or dismissing — new guidelines suggesting that people dramatically reduce the amount of alcohol they drink, but players in Canada's alcohol industry say a shift toward lower or non-alcoholic beverages already began a few years ago.

Businesses say consumers are expecting more non-alcoholic drinks — and they're responding in kind

A person walks past shelves of bottles of alcohol on display.
A person walks past shelves of bottles of alcohol on display at an LCBO in Ottawa in 2020. People in the alcohol industry say they've seen more interest in low- and non-alcoholic drinks in recent years. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Some Canadians have been mulling — or dismissing — new guidelines suggesting that people dramatically reduce the amount of alcohol they drink, but players in Canada's alcohol industry say a shift toward lower or non-alcoholic beverages already began a few years ago.

"I really think now it's becoming a movement," said Mitch Cobb, CEO of Upstreet Craft Brewing in Charlottetown. "I think that people are becoming very conscious of their health and wellness."

Cobb expects the trend to continue, and the numbers back him up.

Market research firm Nielsen IQ says in the United States non-alcoholic beverages are seeing double-digit sales growth, with sales up more than 20 per cent in 2022 over the previous year. And market and consumer data provider Statista is predicting an 8.4 per cent increase in the volume of non-alcoholic beer sold in Canada next year.

Andrew Sookram, owner of Sookram's Brewing Company in Winnipeg, said in the next five to 10 years the market share for non-alcoholic beers globally is projected to grow even more than craft beer.

Alcohol and cancer

These numbers were increasing well before the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) released new guidelines this month suggesting that consuming even a small amount of alcohol — more than two drinks a week — can put people at an increased risk for certain types of cancer.

The guidelines could give another push to the industry, experts say.

"I think we've known for a long time that alcohol isn't good for us, it isn't good for our health," said Cobb, who was spurred to create Libra, a non-alcoholic beer, after his own experience with wanting to limit how often he drinks. 

"After a couple of years of being in the beer industry, it was really sort of starting to take a toll on my health," he said.

Mitch Cobb sitting on a chair holding a can of his non-alcoholic drink, Libra.
Mitch Cobb, co-founder of Upstreet Craft Brewing, says non-alcoholic beverages provide alternative options for people who choose not to drink or want to drink less. (Ryan Williams Unbound Media)

Since Libra launched in 2020, Cobb said there's been significant interest across the country and "really strong demand" in the Maritimes. 

Richard Alexander, Atlantic vice-president of Restaurants Canada, says many restaurants are adapting to the trend.

"That's how the industry survives, and you're seeing healthier items come onto menus and non-alcoholic drink options — so it's a change in the industry, but it's a change that's been happening a while and this will just accelerate it," Alexander said.

Gen Z drinks differently: liquor corporation

The Newfoundland Liquor Corporation, which imports and distributes booze throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, is among those making changes.

In a statement, the corporation says it's started to stock products with lower or no alcohol, noting millennials and Generation Z have different perceptions of drinking than older generations.

"They seem to consume less and/or no alcohol. And what they do consume are lighter in alcohol, calories, sugar or all of the above," wrote chief marketing and merchandising officer Peter Murphy. Murphy says the corporation plans to expand its offerings.

WATCH | Navigating Canada's new alcohol guidance | The Breakdown:

Navigating Canada's new alcohol guidance | The Breakdown

9 days ago
Duration 9:20
New Canadian health guidance drastically reduces the amount of alcohol consumption that's considered safe. Oncologist Dr. Fawaad Iqbal and substance abuse researcher Tim Naimi help explain the research and why they believe it can save lives.

People in at least six provinces told CBC News they've seen an increase in demand for non-alcoholic drinks — and have responded with more products. Several industry-watchers say they're tasting better, too.

"Where at once you might find a watered-down light beer with no alcohol, one taste profile — which was next to nothing — now we're seeing IPAs, stouts, flavoured beers and that sort of thing and ciders," said Greg Gill, marketing vice-president with Colemans grocery stores in St. John's.

'It's sorcery'

Aaron Goss, an amateur cicerone, or beer taster, in Winnipeg says he's tried 242 different kinds of near-beer — beer with little 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."

A man wearing a navy button-down shirt and glasses speaks to someone off-camera.
Aaron Goss, amateur cicerone or beer taster, has tried 242 different kinds of non-alcoholic beer. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Goss says new businesses like The Søbr Market — which sells non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits online and 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."

Compiled by John Mazerolle from files by CBC P.E.I., Ottawa, N.L., Man., Sask., B.C. and London

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