There has been a push toward living a healthier lifestyle in recent years, especially among millennials and Gen Z-ers. Healthier meat alternatives like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burgers have made appearances at major fast-food chains, and social media feeds are filled with constantly changing fitness trends.
But nowhere is this shift in healthy habits clearer than in the outdoor industry. Skiers and snowboarders are opting to skin, or hike, to the top of their lines, “earning their turns” rather than riding the lift, in part due to the health benefits associated with the activity. Climbers like Alex Honnold have publicly adopted vegan diets, promoting both the environmental and health benefits. Online training programs designed specifically for climbers, skiers, mountain bikers and runners have become increasingly popular.
Looking to keep up with this active and healthy lifestyle trend is the $551 billion global beer industry through the introduction of non-alcoholic craft beers. While non-alcoholic beer is nothing new (it’s been available for decades, especially in Muslim countries with stringent alcohol regulations, European countries, and even in the U.S. during Prohibition), the industry has seen an obvious boom in the past few years. In fact, according to the latest figures from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, which specializes in providing data, analysis and insights for the global alcoholic beverage market, non-alcoholic beer in the U.S. grew by 22 percent in volume and 32 percent in value last year alone. It is expected to grow by 58 percent in volume and 55 percent in value during 2021, outpacing non-alcoholic beverages as a whole, including non-alcoholic wine and cocktails.
Cody Flody, who grew up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and has spent the past 10 years brewing for the Moat, Smuttynose and Foundation breweries, is now the head brewer at the Mount Washington Valley’s Ledge Brewing Company. He has seen this major shift in the brewing industry firsthand.
“When I first got into brewing, the craft beer world was obsessed with the highest alcohol content you can make,” Floyd said. “Barleywine, wheat wine, imperial stouts — everyone was obsessed with 10 percent and above hammers. The only place you could really find non-alcoholic beers was at the grocery store.”
Of course, O’Doul’s has been one of a handful of major players in the non-alcoholic beer scene since the early 1990s. It has been readily available at many bars and beer distributors. But what’s new is the emerging number of non-alcoholic craft beers.
“What changed the most is flavor,” Floyd said. “The abundance of (non-alcoholic beers) is greater and the diversity is growing, but now the craft is really being honed. The non-alcoholic beers of yesterday had very little body, very little aroma, and really paled in comparison to the light lagers they were trying to emulate.”
Floyd said that, from his perspective, a large demographic drawn to the original non-alcoholic beers were individuals who drank Budweiser and other similar pilsners and needed a cold and refreshing beer during the day, while it was still too early to crack open an alcoholic beer. With this new movement, those days are no more.
“I was first introduced to (non-alcoholic craft beers) through a few friends who were visiting North Conway to rock climb,” Floyd said. “They were firm believers that they couldn’t climb to the best of their ability while hung over, so they drank a few cans of non-alcoholic beers instead of the double IPAs everyone else was drinking.”
Arguably at the forefront of this non-alcoholic craft beer movement is Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Company, which specializes in a variety of beer styles like sours, hazy IPAs and stouts — all without alcohol. Bill Shufelt, who founded the brewery in 2018 with highly accomplished brewer John Walker from New Mexico’s Second Street Brewery, did so after he had the realization that hangovers and unhealthy eating didn’t match the active lifestyle he was striving for. But having attended college in Vermont — to some, the beer capital of North America — he was unwilling to give up the delicious craft beers he grew to love. Unable to enjoy the bland and boring flavors of the non-alcoholic beers on the market at the time, he decided to make Athletic Brewing a reality.
Seemingly, the brewery has its focus largely on the outdoor industry, often making appearances at and sponsoring outdoor-focused events throughout the Northeast and U.S., including the Iron Man Triathlon, Friday Night Lights and Last Skier Standing at New Hampshire’s Black Mountain, and Granite Backcountry Alliance’s annual Wild Corn event. The company even has a grant program called Two For the Trails in which 2 percent of all sales is donated to causes and organizations that support active and healthy lifestyles in the outdoors.
Athletic also recently announced a partnership with Alterra Mountain Company, which owns 14 North American ski resorts (and a heli-skiing outfitter), including Sugarbush and Stratton. A dozen of these resorts will now be offering Athletic Brewing Company’s beers and will be collaborating with Athletic to offer aprés events throughout the season.
Matt Place, Athletic’s New England regional manager, acknowledged that the outdoor space is perfect for the product it offers.
“You can go out and ski, but the real opportunity we see with (ski resorts) is you can come in for lunch, have a beer, and still go out and ski hard all afternoon,” Place said. “You’re out recreating and have a fun time, but you’re also able to maximize your performance while doing so.”
The brewery, which trade publication Brewbound named best craft brewery of 2021, plans on a major expansion of its Connecticut location in 2022.
While Athletic is a major player in this movement, it is by no means the only one. Burlington, Vt.-based Zero Gravity launched a line of non-alcoholic beers in January, starting with an IPA, under the name Rescue Club Brewing Company. In Missouri, Wellbeing Brewing has been offering a selection of non-alcoholic beers since 2017 and has continued to offer a wide variety of styles, including a coffee cream stout, dark amber and citrus wheat beer. In Portland, Maine, KITna Brewing is slated to be the first craft brewery solely dedicated to brewing non-alcoholic beers in the state.
With lockdowns and COVID still on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, those near to and far from the outdoor industry are rethinking their personal lifestyle choices and how it affects their health. The previously mentioned growth in 2020 (22 percent in volume) likely is no coincidence.
But when the pandemic is behind us, it’s unlikely the non-alcoholic beer movement will see its demise. A recent report conducted by Global Market Insights backs this, speculating that the non-alcoholic beer industry will be worth $29 billion, internationally, by 2026.
Craft beers, active outdoor recreation and mindful eating habits all go hand-in-hand. With more and more people getting into the outdoors every year, along with significant advances in the non-alcoholic brewing world, this new genre of hangover-free beers is here to stay.
Josh Laskin can be reached at [email protected].