Food & Beverage

Fewer Americans are drinking alcohol—so bars and brewers are adapting

Key Points
  • Alcohol consumption across the globe fell 1.6% in 2018, according to data from IWSR.
  • As alcohol consumption declines, low- and non-alcoholic drinks offer an opportunity to appeal to consumers who don't want to drink as much.
  • In the U.S., only 0.5% of the total beverage alcohol market are low- or no-alcohol brands.
Roy Mehta | Getty Images

This summer when it comes time to celebrate with friends, it's more likely someone in the group will be raising a glass with a beverage that doesn't have alcohol.

The trend coincides with changing consumer tastes, as more people try to eat and drink healthier and follow low-carb diets like keto. The term "sober curious" has become popular as a way to identify those who want to stop or reduce their alcohol intake for wellness reasons.

Alcohol consumption across the globe fell 1.6% in 2018 to 27.6 billion cases, according to data from IWSR, which tracks alcohol trends. Non-alcoholic beverages other than soda, which has also seen its consumption fall, offer restaurants and drink makers the opportunity to capitalize on a trend that could otherwise hurt their bottom line.

Mocktails have been around for decades, and non-alcoholic beers have been around even longer, thanks to Prohibition. But more players are entering the market as the trend gathers steam with younger generations. According to IWSR data, the most frequent consumers of low- and no-alcohol drinks are between 21 to 44 years old — an age bracket that mostly includes millennials, with some Generation X consumers — and male.

In the U.K., low- and no-alcohol brands only represent 1.3% of the country's total beverage alcohol market, according to IWSR. In the U.S., that number is even smaller: 0.5%. More popularity overseas means that most companies launching a no- or low-alcohol drink start there.

For example, Heineken launched its alcohol-free beer, Heineken 0.0, first in Barcelona. Then it rolled out elsewhere in Europe, including the U.K., before hitting the U.S. at the beginning of the year — just in time for Dry January.

"The United States was poised for a product like this, with health and well-being being a larger consumer trend. It's really taken off, and people are really excited to have something like this," Ashleigh Phelps, the Heineken brand manager who led 0.0's U.S. launch, said in an interview.

Heineken has been marketing 0.0 to beer drinkers who enjoy the taste of a Heineken but aren't always in the mood or setting to consume alcohol. Part of that strategy includes putting Heineken 0.0 right next to other Heineken products in retailers, not in the alcohol-free beer section that is usually more difficult to locate.

For now, though, the best known alcohol-free beer in the U.S. remains Anheuser-Busch InBev's O'Doul's.

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The sober curious movement is also pushing bars to get creative by adding mocktails to their menus. The Tao Group, known for its blend of nightlife and dining, is planning on offering at least one mocktail at all of its locations, with help from Owen's Craft Mixers. Mocktails are more profitable for restaurants and bars than a seltzer water or soda, a distinction that matters in an industry with razor-thin profit margins.

Owen's sells mixers like its Ginger + Lime so bars, restaurants and consumers can mix up cocktails like a Moscow mule without much fuss. But co-founder Josh Miller has noticed that some drink it straight from the bottle without any added alcohol.

"I think that mocktails are great for people who want to be comfortable holding something in that nightlife setting that looks like a drink with alcohol," Miller said. "Fundamentally, you don't want to alienate a crowd because they don't drink."

Some of the world's largest spirits makers are getting into non-alcoholic liquors, a category that is expected to grow by 7.1% annually between 2018 and 2022. Pernod Ricard inked a deal to distribute Cedars, a South African alcohol-free gin, in the U.K. Campari Group, the Italian alcohol-maker that made the Aperol Spritz last summer's hottest drink, also sells an alcohol-free aperitif called Crodino.

Start-ups are also trying to take advantage of the trend. Seedlip, a London-based start-up makes non-alcoholic spirits, has gotten funding from the venture arm of Smirnoff maker Diageo.

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