Recently, I wrote an article about the best non-alcoholic beers to drink not just in Dry January, but all year long. It started as a story about the brews themselves, but the research opened my eyes to the ingenuity of the burgeoning craft NA beer scene.
I took the opportunity to connect with a handful of founders and owners of the brands leading this revolution, and though non-alcoholic craft beer is still a fledgling category, these experts shared some eye-opening business insights—more than that, they told inspirational stories about what this beverage means to people.
The audience for NA is both vast and ripe for the picking, but these founders don’t view what they produce as another commodity meant to saturate the market and generate quick cash. In fact, what I found was the complete opposite: These business owners are thoughtfully curating a much-needed space for customers who would oftentimes get overlooked.
In the relatively uncharted territory of NA beer, these eight leaders are carving a path through this rapidly growing segment of the market, and doing so with compassion. Here’s what they have to say about the future of beer.
Philip Brandes, the mastermind behind Bravus Brewing, took it upon himself to brew a non-alcoholic beer to help a friend who was experiencing struggles with alcohol, which is what set the wheels in motion for his entry into the category. He saw that more and more consumers were looking for great tasting beverages that weren’t alcoholic, but also weren’t packed with sugar.
Bravus strives to push the envelope, which paid off when the brewery won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2019. Commitment to quality is one of its guiding principles.
“You can slap enough marketing dollars to make a bad product successful, but we focus on quality and flavor,” Brandes said. “It’s a good thing to hang your hat on.”
The response from customers has, so far, been overwhelming. “We receive a bunch of really heartfelt feedback, emails and letters from folks that are just happy and comfortable to be part of the crowd,” said Brandes. “Some of the feedback will make you shed a tear.”
Emree Woods always enjoyed the social and community aspect of drinking beer, whether it was home brewing or meeting up with friends at breweries. Her “aha” moment arrived in the middle of her pregnancy.
“Being pregnant was super isolating,” Woods said. “As a consumer, it’s super frustrating being in this brewery environment where everyone’s drinking beer and the only alternative is sparkling water. It’s just not going to cut it.”
In response to this isolation, Woods, who had prior professional experience in the beverage industry, decided to launch Rightside Brewing. Her lack of alternative options had made her aware of just how socially limiting it can be to abstain from drinking, and the timing felt right to do something about it.
“It’s way less of a stigma now when you’re not drinking,” she said. “It’s cool that it’s changing. The future of NA is normalization. With more options comes more choice. Choosing not to drink is a choice in and of itself, so having more choices out there makes it easier.”
Her outlook is as positive as her mission. As for how she measures success, Woods says it’s all about upending the idea that we’re alone in our decision not to drink.
“The dream that keeps me motivated is this ubiquitous experience for all consumers where there aren’t any ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ questions,” she said. “That’s utopia. It’s definitely what keeps me going, because I think it’s a shame that there’s so much social pressure around drinking alcohol.”
Jamie Fay is a 25-year veteran of the beverage and consumer goods industry—so when he founded RationAle Brewing in 2021, he knew where he wanted to take the brand.
“I really understand the role that brands play within the category, whether through price or consumer positioning,” he said. “I saw a space to appeal to the craft beer consumer and entered to solve a problem for myself, because I wanted to make a beer that I would be proud to hand over to a friend.”
Fay’s move into craft NA beer was a calculated one, but it also carried some deep personal meaning. Growing up, he was surrounded by the dark side of alcohol and shouldered the weight of his family’s struggles with it.
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” Fay said. “I thought this was one of the crucibles in my life that I just had to live with. The intention is that I wanted to put a brand on the market that can make a meaningful difference to human beings.”
A peek into RationAle’s Instagram feed shows how the brand is taking on the beer industry with a disruptive ad campaign. Fay’s approach has been called bullish, and his goals for RationAle are certainly lofty, but he doesn’t shy away from the label.
“My goal is for this company to be the #2 craft NA beer brand and the #1 premium brand,” he said. “Someone is going to have to step up.”
Brad Hittle, owner of Two Roads Brewing Company and a highly respected marketing and beer vet, attended a seminar at a beer industry conference where a speaker from a consumer research firm was presenting on younger demographics. The last slide of the presentation read, “It’s never been more cool to not drink.” That’s when the lightbulb went off.
Considering how new the market segment is, deciding to start an NA program was a strategic decision as much as it was a gamble for Two Roads. “It’s exciting, yet nerve-racking, because we’re investing so much into product development, marketing and sales,” Hittle said.
Two Roads also owns its own brewing equipment, which is also another steep investment.
“We didn’t want to consider contract production because NA beer is not easy to make, and you’re going to have to dump a few batches to perfect it,” Hittle explained. “We wanted to perfect the process on our own and have the confidence that it would result in a consistent product.”
It’s safe to say that business decision has paid off, as the beers that Two Roads is producing are as complex and delicious as they are meticulously crafted. One brew uses 9 different malts and a bouquet of hops. This level of craft for any beer recipe, let alone an NA beer, demonstrates that this isn’t a flash-in-the pan gimmick, but a true commitment to produce a quality product.
Betsy Frost’s background is in packaged goods and marketing, and when she joined the Hoplark team, she was tasked with launching the company’s NA beer channel. Frost didn’t shy away from the challenge, knowing full well the stigmas behind NA beer. She once had a customer tell her, “Even the best NA beer is kinda like listening to a bad cover band.”
Hoplark’s approach is different from other NA brewers because it brews tea like a craft beer, integrating the nuanced flavor of hops.
“We didn’t set out to mimic beer, but rather create a beer-like experience through hops and being able to create a more sophisticated and refreshing [beverage] than sparkling water,” said Frost.
Hoplark has a distinctive approach to NA in general, but as far as a craft beer alternative, Frost sees that America’s relationship to alcohol consumption is changing for a number of reasons and seeks to cater to those. She predicts we’ll see the NA segment grow incrementally alongside beer over time as the sober-curious population grows, and Hoplark will be part of that.
“It’s not going to steal occasions, it’s actually going to grow occasions,” she said.
Robin Lapoint owns Geary Brewing, New England’s first craft brewery in the post-Prohibition era. Geary owns national brewer’s license #13! Although the brand has been producing beer since 1983, it saw room for growth within the brewing business. Enter Eighteen Twenty Brewing Co., the NA sister brewery to Geary. It has invested heavily in both research and specialty equipment, adding a tunnel pasteurizer just like NA behemoth Athletic Brewing has. This was pre-COVID; the brewery would have entered the market, but, well, COVID had other plans. Geary Brewing prevailed, however, and its spin-off is now armed with state-of-the-art equipment. It’s not f*cking around, and it’s fully committed to the NA movement.
Like many other founders, Lapoint’s decision to brew NA beer was a combination of both business strategy and personal reasoning.
“We have family members that don’t drink alcohol, and they were looking for better NA options,” Lapoint explained. “We could see there was room for it. We felt we had the capacity and the capability.”
The brewing team has a collective 80 years of brewing experience between them. Both Geary and Eighteen Twenty are top-notch in quality, tech, and manufacturing, but also pioneers in a sense, Geary having been one of the first breweries to offer a gluten-free beer over 15 years ago.
“It feels really good to be able to offer an alternative option to craft beer drinkers,” said Lapoint. “There is a movement and things are changing, so we thought, why not us?”
Eric Ottaway, owner of the legendary Brooklyn Brewery, naturally found himself immersed in European beer culture after doing business there.
“Spending a lot of time overseas, we came to appreciate how NA beer is a regular part of life there,” said Ottaway. “There’s always one or two people drinking NA and nobody gives them a hard time. Nobody asks, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It doesn’t even occur to anybody that there’s something wrong with that scenario.”
Seeing how alcohol consumption is wired into our social rituals, Ottaway felt it should be a non-issue. “We didn’t start off to cause some great cultural revolution,” he said. “Certainly, if we help to normalize being social and having to do the things with each other without having to consume alcohol, that’s a huge positive.”
This thinking means Brooklyn Brewery doesn’t just target the non-alcohol drinker. This makes its consumer base potentially even more vast.
“There are times when you want to have alcohol and times that you don’t,” said Ottaway. “It’s really just a way to moderate your alcohol intake. It’s not about depriving yourself of anything.”
Although there might be some consumer apprehension to enter the NA market, Ottaway feels he’s helping by producing a tasty beverage that doesn’t taste any different from its alcoholic counterpart.
“It’s like emphasizing the positive rather than the negative,” he said. “We are emphasizing the positive in that you don’t have to trade off flavor for lack of alcohol.”
Levi Funk, co-founder of Untitled Art, is known for coming up with uniquely vibrant flavors that are like drinkable creative expressions as much as they are beverages. While many of the NA producers are sticking to more traditional beer styles, Untitled Art is bringing a level of innovation that’s at the core of everything the brand does.
“If Untitled Art is going to make NA beer, we are obviously going to do beers like a NA S’mores Stout, NA Watermelon Gose, and styles that represent the alcoholic beers at Untitled Art,” said Funk.
NA craft beer is a fledgling market segment, and right now consumers are focused on finding familiar styles without the alcohol. However, Funk believes that as these consumers mature and are introduced to styles such as adjunct stouts and fruited sours, there will be others besides Untitled Art offering those NA options.
“We started making NA Beer because we were in this Goldilocks position of having the know-how and portfolio of high end craft beer, while also having access to the necessary equipment,” Funk explained. When asked what he saw as the future of NA, part of his response drew parallels to what the pioneers of craft beer were saying at the infancy of their revolution.
“As the beer market shifts and evolves, so will the NA market,” said Funk. “Where a previous generation might have individuals that only drink a certain producer or a certain style, consumers now enjoy a matrix of beverages.”
The way Funk sees it, incorporating NA beer into that matrix is a way for people to live a healthier life, enjoy the flavors they love, and prevent grogginess the next morning. What could be better?