Nonalcoholic beers offer alternatives and risks for those in recovery

SOBER LIVING: Cookie Hadley, executive chef at Rosabees, enjoys an occasional nonalcoholic beer but admits it's not a choice for everyone in recovery. Photo by Marisel Vicente

When it comes to adult socializing, much of it is done with an alcoholic beverage in hand. Which is why many people in recovery, or those who simply abstain from alcohol, often avoid meeting friends at bars, breweries and clubs. But for individuals in the hospitality industry who live a sober lifestyle, it’s more complicated due to the very nature of their workplace.

Andrew McLeod, executive chef at Avenue M, recalls the steps he took when he first committed to sobriety five years ago. “I had to leave the restaurant job I was in and not see any of those people for a good stretch of time during those first couple of months,” he explains. “The hospitality industry and alcohol are really intertwined — people celebrating a successful day together, buying each other drinks and decompressing at the end of a shift. That ritual was part of my life for years, so that had to be part of the separation for me.”

Cookie Hadley, executive chef at RosaBees, has been in the industry for 30 years and clean for the last 20. “When I started cooking, professional kitchens were very much the Anthony Bourdain model: a motley crew of pirates — that was real,” he says. “I got clean four months before my daughter was born; she was definitely a motivator. I came to work, did my job and went home. Especially once I started taking on higher chef positions, it didn’t serve me to go out with the crew every night.”

Instead, he sought out “hellions,” albeit sober ones, who shared his love of concerts and outdoor activities. “I felt safe in those environments that used to be accompanied by drugs and drinking, because I was surrounded by people who were also abstaining.”

Still, the decision for many in the food and beverage industry to forgo alcohol poses challenges when it comes to socializing. For some, the recent boom in the nonalcoholic beer industry, which began in earnest in 2018 with the launch of Athletic Brewing Co., provides a tasteful way to participate in a beer-saturated city.

But for others, the new nonalcoholic brews and their near identical taste to the real thing are viewed as too tempting to try.

Mixed bag

Xpress posed the question about the role of nonalcoholic beer for those in recovery on a local hospitality member Facebook group. The responses varied. One participant, for example, wrote, “Nonalcoholic beer is for nonalcoholics. I’m a proud member of AA, and NA beer is a slippery slope.” Another replied: “I’m in active recovery and love my NA beer. I keep a close eye on myself as to WHY I’m choosing to drink one.”

Having been sober for 20 years, Hadley notes that he missed a significant part of the craft beer revolution. Still, he appreciates the taste of a good brew and will occasionally indulge in a nonalcoholic round. These outings go especially well with his penchant for cigars, though he admits the concept and taste of these beverages sometimes rub him the wrong way. “I still find a little bit of weirdness to nonalcoholic beer,” he says. “Though there are some good ones.”

Don Paleno, chef and co-owner of DJ’s Pickles, has been sober for two years, after a 20-year stint as a self-described “functioning alcoholic.” He opts for nonalcoholic beer primarily for social purposes. “When I go out with friends and family — all three of my sisters are huge beer drinkers — I may partake in a nonalcoholic beer,” he says. “I like the taste, and it helps me fit in with the drinkers. It doesn’t trigger me, though that is not the case for all recovering alcoholics.”

Renee Minx, clinical director at Oasis Recovery Center in Asheville, which provides outpatient substance abuse treatment and community care housing, cautions against the use of nonalcoholic beer by people trying to maintain sobriety for that very reason.

“I know many people in recovery enjoy the nonalcoholic ginger beers, but I would be concerned with the newer nonalcoholic beers,” she says. “The way the brain works with addiction, my concern with a beverage that tastes, looks and is named like beer — that is basically beer except no alcohol — is that it could be a trigger to drink beer with alcohol. In my professional opinion, I don’t think it’s the safest option.”

McLeod, who along with his role at Avenue M is also a lead organizer of the Asheville branch of Ben’s Friends (a support group for members of the hospitality industry in recovery), says the subject often comes up at meetings.

“Usually, it’s a person newly in recovery who will ask if people find nonalcoholic beer beneficial or worth trying,” he explains. “If those are the questions, you probably know the answer. You’re looking for somebody else to validate you and help you feel less scared about doing something you know is probably not a good idea. Which isn’t to say it might not be a good idea somewhere down the road. There is a person in the group who has a good relationship with nonalcoholic beer.”

Pro choice

For two local entrepreneurs, sobriety and socializing should not be mutually exclusive.

Jason Pedrick, who moved to Asheville in March 2020, has been sober since 2011.

“I moved to New York City about six months into my sobriety, and it turned out to be pretty impossible to make friends without going to bars,” he remembers. “When I would tell my colleagues I didn’t drink, they’d look at me differently. Back then, there was no nonalcoholic beer except O’Douls, and you feel like a child drinking soda in a bar.”

Meanwhile, Ron George, a bartender in Asheville for nearly a decade, says he loves the craft of what he does but also sees the downside of alcohol. Two years ago, he stopped drinking, following the birth of his first child.

Creating options for those living sober lifestyles is what both Pedrick and George want to bring to Asheville.

George, who continues to tend bar part time, is currently in the development phase of a new business, Edge Bar, which he intends to open by the end of the year. With his sights set on a location in either West Asheville or the River Arts District, his hope is to create a safe, fun, welcoming space for those seeking a place to socialize without alcohol.

“I would like to go to a bar and have a couple of [nonalcoholic] cocktails or beers and not get inebriated or be surrounded by people who are,” he says. “That is the inspiration for Edge: to create a space you can come, socialize and drink nonalcoholic adult beverages. There is no place to do that in Asheville, especially late night, that does not also serve alcohol or that is not a coffee shop.”

Pedrick, on the other hand, is taking a broader view. He is in the process of opening NoLo bottle shop in the River Arts District, which will carry exclusively nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits. Currently, his products are available online.

“My ultimate goal for NoLo is to provide the means to allow every restaurant, hotel, bar, music club and venue where alcohol is served in Asheville to have more than cucumber water and Diet Cokes,” he says. “To provide choices for people who want to go out and enjoy adult beverages without the alcohol and socialize with people who do drink — that is my goal.”

A recent pop-up he and George partnered in at Uncommon Market was encouraging for both.

“We did over $3,000 in sales,” Pedrick says. “We did a mix of nonalcoholic craft cocktails that Ron made and retail bottles of nonalcoholic wine, beer and spirits. The overwhelming response from locals and tourists we talked to was that this is an alternative people want.”



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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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