Brewery taprooms have provided backdrop for New Jersey’s social scene for nearly a decade, serving up suds by the pint in frosty glasses. Since last spring, they’ve also warmed folks up drinking at home with pickup and delivery offerings.
An increase in pandemic boozing has peppered headlines for the last year, but what might surprise some is that Nielsen found double the increase in non-alcoholic beer sales as it did alcohol sales from March to September 2020, 38% and 20% increases respectively.
A February report from market research firm IWSR, which tracks worldwide alcohol trends, found that global sales of no- and low-alcohol beverages are growing. By 2024, consumption of low- and no-alcohol products is expected to increase by 31% in the U.S. and nine other markets, which together account for 75% of global low- and no-alcohol consumption. Alongside the U.S. are Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Spain and the U.K.
“What we’re seeing is a moderation trend that’s sweeping across key global markets, and that’s bringing with it increased demand for reduced alcohol, or alcohol-free drinks,” said IWSR Chief Executive Officer Mark Meek in a statement accompanying the study. “Brand owners will have an important role to play in the future development of no- and low alcohol, as increasing the breadth of products available to consumers and their price points will support category growth and broaden its appeal.”
No- and low-alcohol beer and cider dominate the no/low market driven by early innovation and investment in quality—some 92%—and with investment in the category from major brewers like Coors (Coors Edge), Beck’s (NA), and Heineken (Heineken 0.0), consumers are becoming more familiar and accepting of no/low beer as a quality product, IWSR found.
“While several key beer players continue to steer the category, the market is fragmented with a number of smaller brands vying to establish themselves as market leaders in this space. The segment is likely to become even more of a focus for smaller craft producers who are able to bring a diverse range of products to the market in future,” the report said.
The trend, however, hasn’t made its way to New Jersey taprooms. Chris Walsh at Riverhorse Brewing in Ewing told NJBIZ that non-alcoholic beer has been on his radar, but that his team was “gun shy about coming out with new products during COVID. People have definitely been gravitating to what they know … Getting a new product on people’s radar is hard under normal circumstances. Harder during COVID. So, it needs a big budget.”
The challenge of making nonalcoholic beer is nixing the alcohol from finished beer while retaining flavor. The alcohol removal process is as simple as heating finished beer to the evaporation point of ethanol, which should be easy enough, but by doing that, the flavor of the product changes and can be described as astringent, vegetal and over-caramelized, according to Walsh.
“To retain the flavor of the beer and make it nonalcoholic the only options are extreme pressure reverse osmosis or vacuum distillation,” he said. “Since this is not equipment that is commonly found in a brewery (craft or otherwise) it would require the investment of costly equipment that isn’t useful for any other operation of a brewery [except] for that purpose.”
Until a brewery can make the capital investment for specialty equipment, New Jerseyans will miss out on locally brewed booze-free beer. What some in-state taprooms have offered, though, are craft sodas and sparkling beverages made with the same care as their alcoholic drinks but without the necessity of 21-and-over identification.
Somers Point Brewing serves up root beer, largely to whet the whistle of a group’s designated driver, according to co-owner Deepak Chauhan. The syrup comes from outside, is carbonated in house, and served from the tap. It’s been a surprise hit.
“There are customers that now come specifically with growlers to fill up of our root beer. We get this one dad who stops by for a 64 oz growler of his favorite beer and picks up a small 32 oz growler can of the root beer for his kids. Apparently, it goes very well with the soft serve ice cream next door at the Custard Hut. A joint root beer float,” Chauhan said.
Somers Point introduced the soda a year and a half ago, six months after opening, and the positive feedback and frequent sales mean it won’t be taken off the tap anytime soon.
Thirty miles up the parkway in Little Egg Harbor Township, Pinelands Brewing Co. makes their own birch beer, root beer and cream soda, on tap one at a time. They’ve offered it since they opened seven years ago. On-premises drinking is free, while a 64-oz. growler is $5.
At Montclair Brewery, owners Leo Sawadogo and Denise Ford-Sawadogo offer up not only root beer but limeade, mint julep made with mint from their own garden, and Jamaican sorrel, a popular drink from Ford-Sawadogo’s home country made with hibiscus flower petals.
A meadery in Vauxhall offers what might be the state’s most unique non-alcoholic on-tap options with sparkling honey water. Melovino founder Sergio Moutela has served the beverage, what was previously his own at-home boozeless treat, in his taproom since January 2018. Requests on repeat got him to can the drink, too, which was first released to go in December.
The product, sparkling water lightly sweetened with honey, is simple. Each glass showcases unique honey varietals that Moutela said need no other sweetener or flavoring. Orange blossom honey water has notes of bright citrus, white flower, and orange marmalade. Blackberry mallow honey water, on the other hand, brings together blackberry blossom and meadowfoam honey, which taste like strawberry candy, vanilla cupcake, and marshmallow.
“We pick out very unique standout honey varietals that have a unique flavor profile all our own, and that’s what we use as our flavor. From one SKU to another, they all taste completely different from each other,” Moutela said. “But it’s really just honey and water.”
At $3 a glass, it’s cheaper than most draught items; but $12 a four pack has Moutela noting that honey’s position as the most expensive sugar in the world has the price falling in line with premium soft drink pricing. Still, he said, “pretty much everyone” picks up a few four packs of Melle Water—its new name, now that it’s available canned—from beside their checkout counter when squaring up.
Making something unpasteurized “that won’t blow up in a can without adding sulfates” required some research and practice. How he does it, he said, will remain a trade secret.
“After I announced the launch of it, I’ve been reached out to by a number of other meaderies asking how I’m doing it. My response is, if I can figure it out, you can figure it out,” he said. “I’ve done a lot for [the meadery business community] … I was the president of the American Mead Making Association, I’ve done presentations. But at the same time, I’m not just going to invite competition on this sort of thing.”