WARNING: the following post includes graphic descriptions of sobriety.
Dry January. Sober October. SepTemperance.
Okay, the last one is a fugazi. But as we’ve all borne witness to a proliferation of occasions and events promoting sober-centric choices of late, we’ve likewise seen a wave of low-ABV wines, mocktails and non-alcoholic beer flooding a dry market. A realm that was once but an empire of dust in the backs of bar fridges ruled over by a skunky bottle of O’Douls and his trusty man-at-arms, Beck.
These are halcyon days for non-imbibers, teetotalers and the sober-curious who walk among us. You know ’em. Always in fine fettle. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning. Our dependably designated drivers.
A personal note: As I write this, I’m nine months clean and sober. Long and mostly embarrassing story short: COVID got the best of me. And brought out the worst. The isolation, the malaise, the fact that private liquor stores got into the third-party delivery game. It all added up to one bittersweet boilermaker that had me looking up from a bottom and realizing I needed to take an honest appraisal of my lifestyle and habits. Not to mention the fact that once you blow past your twenties the hangovers come at you as fast and furious as Dom Toretto.
I took my cues and inspiration from fellow travellers navigating the beam, and sober celebrities who had decided to carry a message to others like Robin Williams, who dropped this gem in his iconic A Night at the Met standup album: “I’ll have to sip a Perrier here. I had to stop drinking alcohol because I used to wake up nude in front of my car with my keys in my a**.”
Whether you’re cutting calories, cutting back or cutting it out altogether, there’s never been a better time to sally forth into the sober zone.
Just ask Iain Hill, Brewmaster/Principal at Strange Fellows Brewing. The East Van brewery just dropped a truly satisfying substitute they (and by “they” I mean Strange Fellows’ creative design wizard Christine Moulson) brilliantly dubbed Nevertheless.
“We opened eight years ago, and if we had tried to do this back then, people would have really looked down their nose at it,” he says. “In those days, no self-respecting brewer would have ever considered making a non-alcoholic beer.”
But he was open-minded about exploring that avenue — so long as he didn’t have to cede an inch of ground on one very key ingredient.
“It had to have integrity,” he says.
And while it’s as fresh as petrichor after a long spell without rain, it instantly was an integral part of the Strange Fellows mystique. The can is characteristically on-brand, with Christine’s trademark woodcut-style design showcasing an elephant with only three legs and a wee ditty on the label that hits the sober nail square on the head:
Regarding the beast in the corner,
So great we cannot ignore her,
Delightful to share,
A breath of fresh air,
We thank her for keeping us sober.
The elephant in the room. Not a leg to stand on. It really works.
And so does the beer.
“I’m so happy with it. It’s BEER, you know?” he says, giddily.
In spirit, it’s a close cousin to their Talisman Pale Ale.
“It’s got a lovely hop aroma (specifically, Amarillo, Mosaic and Citra), it’s aromatic and fruity, the bitterness is a little bit pithy, but one of the things I really appreciate is that it’s not lacking body,” he says.
And it’s not. As Iain said, it’s BEER. Or as near to beer as one can get, dear.
Down the street a few blocks in Yeast Van where all the cool kids hang and scratch their IPA itch, Superflux also jumped on (or is that off?) the wagon and released its small-batch Experimental Non-Alcoholic IPA #37 with Citra.
All the ’Flux. No capacitor.
How cool was it? So cool that the school flew through all its cans the same week it debuted.
Looking for a gateway into sobriety that’s as smooth and silky as that first sip of a frosty Orange Julius? This beauty instantly transported me to Arizona and my first taste of Huss Brewing’s iconic Papago Orange Blossom.
Tasting notes? Orange Creamsicle in a Pint Glass. How does that hit you?
Their initial press release was unnecessarily self-effacing — almost apologetic — stating “The dry hop presents itself in the aroma in a much more ‘raw hop pellet’ way than we’re used to”.
Fiddlesticks. Let hints of lemon rind, orange blossom and vanilla be the real mea culpa for this beauty.
It’s good. Damn good. I tried to grab an extra four-pack to go the Friday of the week it was released and left empty-handed.
“We approached this non-alcoholic IPA the same way we approach all the beer we make,” says Superflux Head Brewer Simon Jonsgma. “We pay close attention to every detail, use the best possible hops and create something delicious that we are proud of and want to drink ourselves.”
Simon says: give the people what they want.
“We’ve noticed a positive response from our guests who usually drink beer but are looking for something that (they) can enjoy a few more of. We believe beer is inclusive and for absolutely everyone. Just because someone is choosing to not consume alcohol for whatever reason doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to drink beer.”
Across the Strait, Victoria’s Phillips Brewing became one of the pioneers in helping folks stay on the straight and narrow by launching its iOTA suite of non-alcoholic beer.
Labelled with a cheeky “Responsibly brewed by Irresponsible Brewers” tagline atop each 355-mL can, its Pilsner and Hazy IPA appeared on shelves in time for pandemic shut-ins to make their toasts to Auld Lang Syne in late 2021. The pilsner is light, malty and even-keeled, while the hazy is equal parts juicy, citrusy and smooth.
The response and demand for the first two quickly ushered in a third entry — a pale ale with a profile balanced equally between malt and hops with a note of honey, floral hops and plenty of flavour.
It was a natural progression for Phillips, though, considering it had already carved out a corner for itself in the non-alcoholic sphere with its line of Sparkmouth and Phillips sodas. Now you can find iOTA right there in the drink aisles at major retailers like Thrifty’s and London Drugs and get your favourite near-beer delivered through its online store.
“We saw an opportunity in the market to bring a great-tasting non-alcoholic craft beer to life,” says Phillips Marketing Manager Samantha Beck. “We’ve always been deeply passionate about brewing great craft beer, but sometimes there are times you want to share a beer with friends but it doesn’t work to have an alcoholic beer. So we decided to brew a delicious, flavour-forward craft non-alcoholic beer that lived up to our standards. The response so far has been very positive, especially for our Hazy IPA.”
Taste profiles and personal preferences aside, it also makes sense from a business standpoint for craft breweries to cut themselves in on a piece of the non-alcoholic action.
According to 2021 articles by Forbes, consumption of low and no alcohol products is expected to rise by 31% in Canada by 2024, and 66% of U.S. adults in the 21-34 age bracket are reducing their alcohol consumption.
Low-ABV beers like Nevertheless, iOTA and the long-winded Experimental Non-Alcoholic IPA #37 with Citra not only appeal to consumption curbers and those looking for ways to cut calories. They also give sober or sober-curious folks a good reason to head to their local brewery with friends for a guilt-free night out and fresh morning to follow.
Once again with feeling, and in the sage words of Iain Hill: It’s BEER. In taste. In mouthfeel. In aroma. In every delicious way except the waking-up-nude-in-front-of-your-car part.