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Beverage pros weigh in on the alcohol-free beverage trend

The growing appetite for alcohol-free beverages is creating challenges and opportunities for beverage directors, sommeliers and other hospitality professionals when it comes to making sure bars and restaurants offer something for everyone.

6 min read

FoodRestaurant and Foodservice

A group of people cheers with cocktails and mocktails

Helena Yankovska/Unsplash

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From bending an elbow at a local watering hole on a Friday afternoon to raising a toast in celebration of a special occasion, beverages are a key part of the hospitality experience, and increasing interest in low-alcohol and alcohol-free beverages is causing many people to rethink what is in their glass.

Sales of nonalcoholic drinks in the US grew 20.6% between August 2021 and August 2022, reaching total dollar sales of $395 million, according to Nielsen IQ. This growing appetite for alcohol-free beverages is creating challenges and opportunities for beverage directors, sommeliers and other hospitality professionals when it comes to making sure bars and restaurants offer something for everyone.

Keep customers’ motivations in mind

Several different factors are driving the increase in demand for low- and no-alcohol beverages, and it’s important to offer options that can suit a range of situations. For example, many consumers who are exploring nonalcoholic beverages in the interest of a healthier lifestyle continue to drink traditional alcoholic beverages or lower-alcohol beverages on occasion, but bars and restaurants should also consider patrons who abstain from alcohol for other reasons and need to avoid it entirely.

Nonalcoholic beers, wine and spirits can have no more than 0.5% alcohol by volume in the US, but an official definition of “low-alcohol” is difficult to pin down, since it can vary from person to person.

“Kombucha and drinks containing bitters, or house-made ginger ale, have such low quantities of alcohol they are essentially not a concern for state liquor authorities but would be a concern for those abstaining, for example, for religious reasons or people in recovery,” said Rory Brown, an associate professor of hospitality and service management at The Culinary Institute of America’s New York campus.

Making sure patrons know what goes into a beverage can help them choose a drink that best suits their needs. Brown said consumers’ increasing focus on health is prompting many people to seek out drinks that are lower in sugar or carbohydrates, which can rule out some fruit juice-based drinks.

“Drawing attention to coconut water or carbonated mineralized waters as a base ingredient, along with coffee or tea, can broaden the ability to produce low sugar/carb-friendly beverages, which is on-trend right now,” he said.

For those who want a lower-alcohol option but aren’t concerned with cutting out alcohol entirely, kombuchas, brut and farmhouse-style ciders, and alcoholic seltzers can all be good options since they usually clock in around 5% ABV, advised Fabien Jacob, a lecturing instructor of hospitality and service management at The Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.

“As far as wine goes, you can always look for vinho verde or fruitier wines, like a riesling from Mosel or a moscato, but then you’re getting a lot of residual sugar and that goes against the healthful reason of choosing a low ABV drink.”

Pop bottles that don’t pack a punch

Many breweries and other beverage companies have risen to the challenge of creating low- and no-alcohol beverages that deliver similar tastes to their alcoholic counterparts. The nonalcoholic beer market has boomed in recent years, with new brands springing up and big-name brewers adding NA products to their lineups. Nonalcoholic beer accounted for 85.3% of nonalcoholic beverage sales between August 2021 and August 2022, according to NielsenIQ, which found that sales increased nearly 20% compared to the previous year.

The wide range of nonalcoholic beer options available makes it easy to add a few options to beer lists, and Jacob said, “I think all bars and restaurants should offer nonalcoholic beer options, nowadays.”

Alcohol-removed wines and other alcohol-free wine replacements are also becoming increasingly popular, as are alcohol-free alternatives to distilled spirits, which accounted for 13.4% and 1.3%, respectively, of nonalcoholic beverage sales in the year prior to August 2022. The growth of the nonalcoholic spirits market has been especially robust, with sales increasing 88.4% year over year during that period, according to NielsenIQ. Alcohol-free versions of tequila and bourbon from brands such as Ritual Zero Proof and Spiritless can give bartenders a starting point for creating zero-proof cocktails that mimic drinks made with alcohol.

Apply a culinary mindset to alcohol-free beverages

When creating alcohol-free beverages, Jacob and Brown agreed it’s essential to use the same quality ingredients and attention to detail that go into traditional cocktails.

“Customers are used to the classic flavor profiles of traditional cocktails, so it’s important to include fresh and good quality products like botanicals, tea, lemon, ginger syrup, shrubs or even edible flowers as a garnish,” Jacob said.

Developing alcohol-free beverage options that complement the food menu can be an undertaking that “spurs creativity for the culinary team,” Brown noted. For example, brines from fermented or pickled items can be repurposed as cocktail ingredients. “We made a 50/50 tomato juice-blend with pickle juice for our Bloody Mary that allowed us to repurpose an underutilized component and position this for non-alcoholic brunch as well as a morning after tonic for hangovers,” he said.

Texture is also key to making nonalcoholic beverages that stand out. “I like milkshakes, smoothies, hot tea, carbonated waters, carbonated mineral water, slushies, foam-based experiences (think flavored meringue/whipped cream) etc.,” Brown said. “Nonalcoholic beverages are what people consume on a daily basis, so the answers are hiding in plain sight.”

He and Jacob also concurred that presentation and service are essential to giving non-drinkers the same special, celebratory experience as those who imbibe.

“It’s important to make the non-drinker feel included at the table when they order a drink and not make them feel like they are ordering a Shirley Temple,” Jacob said.

Brown pointed out that “most people who enter a [food and beverage] establishment are looking to leave happier than when they arrived, which has nothing to do with food or beverage. The personal attention, positive energy and genuine care from the staff is what contributes to the end goal.”

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