Dry January can mean boon, not bust for California Wine Country makers of alcohol-free wine, spirits, brews

No longer does Dry January mean living without a cocktail, beer or even wine. It just means alcohol is not part of the equation.

North Bay restaurants and bars as well as local alcohol creators have the solution for those who don’t want to imbibe in the traditional sense this month.

“The sale of NA (nonalcoholic) beers as a whole in the last year has gone up insanely, but (last) January takes the cake,” said Caroline Chromik, bar manager at The Junction Beer Garden and Bottle Shop in Mill Valley.

While percentage-wise nonalcoholic beers are a fraction of overall sales, this Marin County bar has four of them available at any given time along with 30 taps of regular beer. Two are local purveyors — Best Day Brewing in Sausalito and RationAle, which is brewed in Sonoma. Both companies only make nonalcoholic beer.

Chromik said it’s not unusual to sell 20 cans of nonalcoholic beer in a day.

What is selling

For those who are participating in Dry January, options are endless and seem to grow each year. No longer are people relegated to soda water with a twist or flavorless “fake” beer.

In fact, nonalcoholic beverage choices aren’t just for this month. They are an option people are asking for on a regular basis.

The Fern Bar in Sebastopol usually has five nonalcoholic drinks on the menu at any given time, not just this time of year. These are much more than just leaving out the vodka in a Bloody Mary.

Fern Bar makes is own nonalcoholic whiskey. It is used in old fashioneds and other drinks.

Nonalcoholic gin is another popular choice as is rum, also now on the market in a nonalcoholic formula.

Seedlip, a company based in the U.K., brought the first nonalcoholic spirit to the market in 2015. Other companies joined the effort, with more varieties coming out such as tequila, mezcal and whiskey in addition to gin and rum.

“It’s important to me they have just as much fun in our bar when they are not drinking alcohol,” Sam Levy, owner/general manager, said as to why he embraces nonalcoholic drinks.

He recently received a shipment of nonalcoholic sparkling wine from Leitz in Germany.

“It has allowed us to do more fun sparkling daytime cocktails like French 75s, Bellinis, and sbagliatos,” Levy said.

While non-alcholic drinks are on the menu year-round at the Fern Bar, Levy is expecting an influx in sales.

“If we can make predications based on the last couple years, people did participate in (Dry January),” Levy said. “We did see guests coming out who wanted more nonalcoholic offerings and we were able to provide people a lot of options with drinks without alcohol.”

He said nonalcoholic drinks make up about 3% to 4% of sales, with that increasing to 5% to 6% in January.

And the reason these drinks don’t cost less, according to Levy, is a bottle of nonalcoholic gin usually costs more than the real stuff.

Josh Kirchhoff is the corporate wine, beer and spirits buyer for Oliver's Markets. He said the four stores, two in Santa Rosa, one in Cotati and one in Windsor, will definitely see a rise in sales for non-alcoholic products in January.

“It is a category that is growing and is starting to sell consistently year-round,” Kirchhoff said. He added the chain has “focused ads for all types of NA beverages for the entire month (wine, spirits and beer).”

The Fink, which opened in Napa last summer, is predicting nonalcoholic drink sales will be robust in January. The request for them have been so popular that starting this month options will be printed on the regular cocktail menu.

Owner Judd Finkelstein said it’s about being inclusive and making alcohol-free drinks more accessible.

Sovi Wine Co. in Napa, which has been making nonalcoholic wine since 2020, has seen a spike in sales every January.

“All of the grapes for Sovi’s wines are certified sustainably grown,” Samantha Edwardes, spokeswoman for the company, said. “Most other nonalcoholic wines start with unwanted batches of wine. It could be from a winery that is selling it off because it didn’t meet their standards, or just low-quality wine in general. When you start with wine that was never intended for alcohol removal, there is no choice but to add a bunch of sugars and flavors to make it taste halfway decent. This is not how Sovi does things.”

Barrel Brothers Brewing Company in Windsor has been one of the leaders in the nonalcoholic beer movement.

“We have been doing alcohol removal in beer, wine and the spirits space for about three years. We do our own branded products and for a handful of other clients,” owner Wes Deal said. “I think a lot of people are curious about trying the category and many are younger.”

Just like with the variety of alcoholic craft beers, the same is true in the non-alcohol arena. For instance, Barrel Brothers has a porter, West Coast IPA, hazy IPA and sour that are all alcohol free.

While Solano Brewing Company in Vacaville doesn’t have a beer without alcohol, it brews a nonalcoholic hop water that people seem to like.

German beer maker Clausthaler in 1979 created the first commercial nonalcoholic beer. To be a nonalcoholic beer, it must have an alcohol content of 0.5% or less.

Facts and figures

Revenue for nonalcoholic beer in 2023, according to Statista, amounted to $34.65 billion worldwide, with an expected growth to $46.38 billion in 2027. According to Nielsen, nonalcoholic beer represented 85.3% of all nonalcoholic drinks sales between 2021 and 2022.

Some of this growth can be attributed to Dry January as well as Sober October. Two months where people consciously cutback on the amount of alcohol they ingest, with some saying no for the entire month.

The concept of Dry January started in 2012 when the British charity Alcohol Change UK started an initiative to “ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days.”

Nearly every health organization touts the benefits of less or no alcohol: improved blood pressure-liver function-mental health, more energy, better skin, and lower risk of cancer and heart disease.

Less alcohol often means the numbers on the scale go down.

Better sleep and being more active are also associated with a reduction in alcohol.

All of the above are reasons people stop or curtail their alcohol intake in January. It’s essentially a reboot for a new year.

According to CivicScience, about 41% of adults in the U.S. planned to participate in Dry January in 2023. The reality is 16% managed to do so all month.

It’s a bit like making New Year’s resolutions. The intentions are good, but the follow-through isn’t always there. That’s why now there are movements called Damp January. This is more of a cutting back instead of a cold turkey approach.

In some ways, less alcohol sales this month isn’t a big deal at least in the world of beer.

“January is typically the lowest sales month of the year for beer. That was true before Dry January as a movement. So, while it’s possible that Dry January has an effect on sales, it’s during a period that most breweries aren’t relying on for their peak sales,” Bart Watson, chief economic with the Brewers Association, said. This is a trade group for independent craft brewers.

“We are seeing more craft breweries make nonalcoholic beers, though it’s still a fairly small percentage of all breweries given the additional technical challenges and costs coupled with the small, but growing market,” Watson said. “We are also seeing more breweries explore other alternatives like hop waters.”

Fogbelt Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa echoes the sentiment that it’s not so much Dry January, but slow January.

“We carry a variety of NA beers at our taprooms, but they sell slow. January is always a slow month for the taprooms,” owner co-owner Paul Hawley said.

January can be a mixed bag for distillers.

Cris Steller, executive director of the nonprofit trade association California Distillers Association, said through the years he personally has seen a bounce in sales at the start of the year.

He owns Dry Diggings and Amador Distillery in El Dorado Hills.

“We have found (January) was a slight bump over a normal month. It seems like more people are getting together who couldn’t over the holiday. It’s more like a delayed holiday. We get more groups of people,” Steller said.

The same is not true at Napa Valley Distillery.

“We absolutely notice a decrease in beverage alcohol sales in January, with more people opting for our ‘free-spirited’ nonalcoholic beverages,” owner Arthur Hartunian said. “However, that trend does not last more than a few weeks. I don’t think it’s so much New Year’s resolutions to quit drinking and things like that. I think it’s more that people just want to give their bodies a break after the holiday season.”

Which in many ways is what Dry January is all about.

Benefits of a break from alcohol for moderate to heavy drinkers

• Weight loss

• Better sleep

• Improved mood and energy levels

• Increased physical activity due to more energy

• Better diet due to better dietary restraint and less empty calorie intake

• Decreased growth factors related to cancer, insulin resistance, and blood pressure

• A reduction in liver fat and blood sugar

Source: University of California, Davis


5 non-alcoholic beverages trends to watch for in 2024

1. Functionality becomes a standard: 82% of consumers desire to see functional ingredients in their drinks and are willing to pay extra for it. Considering the growth of pro/prebiotic sodas, adaptogen ingredients and more, consumers will continue to expect more from NA beverage companies.

2. Flavors of refreshment and liveliness: While lemon and lime naturally top the list in terms of flavor launches, this opens the door for increased activity in exotic citruses, like yuzu, blood orange, and pink grapefruit. Other flavors to watch are watermelon, strawberry, mango, passion fruit, and blueberry.

3. Growth of plant-based waters: 60% of consumers in North America state they consume bottled plant-based waters for health purposes. Coconut, aloe, cactus and watermelon waters drove launches throughout 2023.

4. Non-alcohol alternatives beyond beer: Spirit-less spirits, relaxation waters, NA wine and other categories are exploring avenues to meet consumers desire for moderation while maintaining socialization.

5. Beverages rise to, or make, the occasion: As hybrid beverages continue to blur the line between drink categories, we can anticipate the evolution of new use occasions, like a post-meal peppermint watermelon water.

Source: Synergy


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