My long, and until recently, happy relationship with beer began as a child, Saturday nights at my grandparents’ home in a small blue-collar town south of Philadelphia. At their Formica kitchen table, while I enjoyed a rare treat of Coca-Cola, they enjoyed Schlitz beer poured into small Pilsner glasses kept in their freezer. (God save the child that used one of those glasses for milk. “It’s ruined!” Alton would declare before tossing it in the garbage.)
My relationship with beer continued to evolve with new flavors introduced in every city I lived in: Rolling Rock in Wilmington, Del., where I grew up; Miller Lite when I moved to New York City; and Lone Star longnecks while visiting my family when they moved to Texas. I only met craft beer once I moved to Nashville when Yazoo Brewing Co. opened in 2003 — after that, there was no turning back.
Relocating to Asheville in 2019, I spent my first year exploring the city’s seemingly endless craft beer options. When COVID-19 locked taprooms up tighter than a drum, I bought my favorites at retail outlets and continued enjoying the liquid gold on my deck through the summer of 2020.
But that fall, inexplicably and overnight, alcohol turned on me. The smallest amount — an ounce of vodka, 2 ounces of organic wine, 6 ounces of moderately low ABV beer — would take me out for the entire next day, putting my head in a vise and my brain in a fog machine that made writing a moderately clever sentence impossible. I consulted multiple professionals, took many tests, and still, I remain a medical mystery. So, I stopped drinking, going through one of the most fraught eras in history stone-cold sober, dry but not high.
One silver lining was the discovery of the explosion of the nonalcoholic beer industry — not only in quantity but quality. There are nonalcoholic beer choices that are so remarkably close to the real thing — particularly when poured into a chilled Yazoo pint glass — that I checked the cans to be sure I hadn’t mixed it up with a real beer hopefully awaiting my attention in the back of the fridge.
I’ve also since discovered I’m not alone in my new drink of choice. Local residents have multiple and varied reasons for leading nonalcoholic lifestyles. But finding breweries and venues that serve nonalcoholic beers remains a challenge. For those in the local beer, service and entertainment industries, the reasons for or against including these products are equally as varied, though for breweries, it is predominantly tied to costs and the complexity of brewing nonalcoholic options.
Brooke Randle, staff reporter for Xpress, and Lindsay Levine, newly hired general manager for Harvest Pizzeria, both say their sober-month experiments turned into an ongoing choice. “I’m not much of a cocktail drinker, so when I went out and wanted an alcoholic beverage, it was beer,” says Randle, whose first job was in a microbrewery. “During the pandemic, I was trying to be healthy and in a good head space, so I decided to take a little break. It had a really positive effect on my life, and a month turned into over a year.”
Levine had a similar experience. “I’m not a big drinker, I’m a mom,” the former Wicked Weed bartender says. “But even a beer or a glass or two of wine made me feel foggy the next morning when I had to get my kid up for school.”
Initially, Levine planned to forgo alcohol for the month of February. But in the process, she discovered feeling the best she had in years. So, she decided to stick with it.
And while happy with their choices, Randle and Levine — who met while both bartended at Thirsty Monk — still wanted to partake in social gatherings without having to nurse a glass of water or soda. Nonalcoholic beers were an option, albeit a difficult one to come by.
That all changed for Randle after discovering a variety of options at The Whale in West Asheville. The venue, Randle says, is her new happy place and where she and Levine sometimes meet for a tasty IPA, minus the alcohol.
Whale of a time
Randle can thank Doug Ross, father of Whale co-owner Andrew Ross, for the multiple selections of nonalcoholic beers available at the West Asheville spot (in addition to the business’s other locations).
“My dad doesn’t drink anymore, so it was important to me and out of respect for him that we always had something that was an option for him when he came to The Whale,” Ross explains.
When The Whale opened four years ago, the first nonalcoholic beer it carried was Einbecker, a traditional German lager. After being well-received, the company expanded its search, which Ross points out coincided with a time when the nonalcoholic beer market was expanding.
“We started to see new producers in nonalcoholic options that were still craft-beer-driven,” he says. “We started to see IPA without alcohol, then nonalcoholic variations on darker beer, and now we’re starting to see nonalcoholic fruited sours and nonalcoholic hazy IPAs and nonalcoholic imperial stouts. It’s such a departure from anything you’d expect. We really embrace it.”
Today, The Whale carries at least 10 nonalcoholic beers on its menu. “We want to be sure we are always carrying the highest quality of everything, including nonalcoholic options,” Ross says. “It’s not something sitting in a dusty mop closet, and if someone wants one, we’ll quickly chill it for you. We want to be as proactive with it as possible and offer it with as much enthusiasm as any other option.”
Just brew it
Unfortunately for nonalcoholic beer enthusiasts, similar options are not available at Asheville breweries, despite a growing trend within the industry. According to an August report published by The Business Research Co., the global nonalcoholic beer market was expected to grow from $15.09 billion in 2020 to $16.65 billion in 2021. According to the same study, 2020 sales for nonalcoholic beers were largest in North America. Meanwhile, major players like Anheuser-Busch and Coors are developing new options, and companies such as WellBeing Brewing Co. and Athletic Brewing Co. are solely dedicated to brewing craft, nonalcoholic beer.
“There are a number of conversations happening on a larger scale in the country and the world about traditional breweries getting into nonalcoholic beer,” says Leah Rainis, executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance. “I have not heard that discussion locally among our members. I can’t tell you how many times I am asked if there are any breweries in Western North Carolina making nonalcoholic beer. I have to tell them no. It is prohibitively expensive and complicated for small, independent breweries to add that to their production.”
Drew Kostic, head brewer at Archetype Brewing since July, concurs. “I am not a nonalcoholic beer expert, but I am certain that the sticker price for entry would be very, very high, especially for breweries of our size,” he says. He points out that the testing involved in meeting the strict standards applied when labeling beer as nonalcoholic would add additional costs and compliance issues.
Such variables for a product with an uncertain return don’t leave much incentive for local breweries. “Operationally, the vast majority of product you make is with alcohol,” continues Kostic. “If only 10% of your volume goes through this expensive new equipment, that’s a very small use for that investment. It makes sense for a company exclusively devoted to making nonalcoholic beer, or the huge national breweries or maybe a bigger place like New Belgium.”
Or maybe not (or at least not yet), says Michael Craft, New Belgium Asheville community and communications ambassador.
“I am not a brewer, but from what I understand producing nonalcoholic beer is very complicated and very expensive,” he says.
Nevertheless, Craft says, the company is testing the market, offering non-New Belgium nonalcoholic beers at the company’s Fort Collins, Colo., taproom. If consumer demand supports the addition, a similar option could arrive in Asheville.
Open-mindedness, Craft points out, is part of New Belgium’s history and philosophy. “We were a Belgian-style brewery for a very long time, and we evolved out of our ‘category’ with the IPA segment that has been on fire for us. Last year, we came out with a fruit smash seltzer. I can assure you the conversation about nonalcoholic beer is happening, and it’s a business model we are keeping our eye on.”
With her professional experiences in the service industry, Levine says she and many other servers in the local scene would like to have nonalcoholic options to offer inebriated customers as an alternative to cutting them off, which almost always results in a confrontation. She suggests that if local breweries find making their own nonalcoholic beers cost- and space-prohibitive, these businesses should still consider carrying a national brand devoted exclusively to the product. “We’re not in competition with them,” she continues. “And we don’t know what that market would be unless we offer the option.”
Offering the option is a start. Some months ago, I attended a show at a local club. When I asked the bartender what nonalcoholic beer was available, she practically scoffed at me. “We don’t,” she replied. “They don’t sell.” After buying a water and putting a tip on the bar, I pointed out it’s hard to sell something not available.
Some entertainment venue owners, however, get it. Katie Hild, marketing manager for Salvage Station, reports that in addition to Shanti Elixirs, Yerba Mate, Fonta Flora Brewery sparkling water and nonalcoholic ginger beer, the venue offers the popular Heineken 0.0. “We are very open to customer suggestions to carry specific brands,” she says.
Asheville Pizza & Brewing President Mike Rangel says Rabbit Rabbit, the entertainment venue he co-owns, has hopped on the sober-friendly wagon. “We are definitely in the nonalcoholic game with three different nonalcoholic beers from Athletic Brewing Co., as well as Hop Water from Lagunitas Brewing,” he writes in an email exchange. “The nonalcoholic segment of the population continues to grow, and we are committed to providing as many alternatives as possible.”
Back at The Whale, Andrew Ross agrees. “American culture is deeply rooted in alcohol consumption; it always has been and always will be. But not everyone can or wants to consume alcohol. We want to make sure we provide a space so that those don’t have to be exclusive of each other. You can still enjoy the experience of having a cold beer in your hand and the taste of a cold beer, without alcohol attached to that experience.”
Personally, as someone who enjoyed tasting a variety of craft beers at The Whale my first year in Asheville, I am glad to know I can join Randle and Levine there for nonalcoholic options. But as someone who also spent many a solitary late afternoon on New Belgium’s deck, decompressing after work with a Voodoo Ranger IPA, watching the French Broad River roll by, let me be clear that a glass of water just doesn’t cut it. I’m pulling for New Belgium’s trial run in Fort Collins to make its way to Asheville. First round’s on me.