Published in Food/Agribusiness
Alt City Beverage Company Inc. in Grand Rapids’ Downtown Market. Alt City Beverage Company Inc. in Grand Rapids’ Downtown Market. COURTESY PHOTO

Beverage companies seize on ‘mocktail’ movement driven by the sober curious

BY ELYSE WILD Sunday, August 14, 2022 06:00pm

As a sober resident in a city widely recognized for its craft beer scene, Paul Clark struggled to find non-alcoholic options outside of soda, coffee or sparkling water. 

“I’ve been sober almost eight years,” said Clark, a Grand Rapids resident. “I had to deal for so long without good options and just made do by drinking lots and lots of sparkling water.” 

Clark and his brother, Chad, launched Alt City Beverage Company Inc. in 2019 after using the Downtown Market Incubator program to develop recipes. Today, Alt City Beverage is a vibrant presence at the entrance of the market hall, with lime green countertops and branding that embraces a bright, geometric, early ‘90s aesthetic. With what appears to be colorful bottles of spirits artfully on display and a mixologist skillfully crafting drinks behind a bustling counter, it’s easy to miss that all of Alt City’s offerings contain exactly zero units of alcohol.

The craft drinks at Alt City are all made with zero-proof spirits and are inspired by staple cocktails, including the Paloma, Maiden Fair, Citrus G&T and Moscow Fuel, to name a few. With fresh ingredients and innovative recipes, the beverages are elevated, complex and leave little to be desired. 

“I love seeing people’s reactions to the drinks,” Chad Clark said. “People will come back and double check that there really isn’t alcohol in the drinks because they are so good. To me, that is super cool.”

As Grand Rapids’ first business to exclusively offer thoughtful and thrilling non-alcoholic adult beverages, the rise of the sober curious movement and the surging mocktail market show that Alt City Beverage may very well be on to something. 

Alt City Beverage isn’t slowing down, either. Along with partner Neal DeMeester, the Clark brothers recently signed a lease for a retail location in the West Leonard Business District, where they plan to open the city’s first non-alcoholic liquor store in October, just in time for the holiday season.

The NA beverage market has, to put it mildly, exploded. Trade publication Wine Industry Advisor in October 2021 reported a whopping 315-percent increase in online sales of non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic beverages from 2020 to 2021, according to NielsenIQ data.

Alcohol sales also soared early in the pandemic but have since slowed. According to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, alcohol sales increased 20 percent in 2020 from 2019, the highest increase in four years, before slowing to just 5.5 percent in 2021. 

Sober curious

Market researchers attribute the rising demand for zero-proof products to growing health consciousness among consumers. Indeed, the Clark brothers told MiBiz that the primary customers at Alt City are not those in recovery from alcohol addiction, but rather the sober curious — people seeking to reduce their intake of alcohol. 

“Most people come to Alt City for the zero-proof cocktails, and most of them are sober and curious; they aren’t necessarily sober,” Chad Clark said. “We also get a lot of pregnant women, as well as younger people who just don’t necessarily want to get into drinking.”

Social media trends like #DryJanuary and #SoberOctober, which have been around for nearly a decade, reinforce the trend. Each challenge encourages participants to abstain from alcohol for 30 days. According to food and drink research firm CGA, 35 percent of U.S. adults participated in Dry January in 2022, up from 21 percent in 2019.

Justin Rewa is the founder of DRY Social Sober, a social group that hosts regular gatherings centered around fitness, dancing, music and other activities — sans alcohol. A personal trainer by trade, Rewa has been sober for four years after realizing that his weekend warrior lifestyle was at odds with his personal and professional goals. 

Rewa held his first sober event in 2020 in Denver, which drew 40 people to enjoy a live D.J. and practice yoga. He returned to Grand Rapids in 2021 and began hosting sober yoga and D.J. socials. Today, the group has more than 500 members on Meetup.com and has hosted more than 115 events since 2020.

“I think the pandemic had a little to do with it,” Rewa said. “Many people got sober when they had a moment of clarity that their life might be better without alcohol. I saw the surge happening before the pandemic, and many people who don’t drink want to feel included and participate.”

 NA options grow

Non-alcoholic alternatives have been available for decades — Anheuser Busch’s O’Doul’s or the Shirley Temple, a classic kiddie cocktail, for example — but until recently haven’t shaken the stigma of being a less-than-adequate replacement for the real thing. 

Today, a rapidly growing number of establishments serve high quality, NA alternatives to popular spirits. Nationally, top zero-proof brands include Monday, Seedlip, Athletic Brewing, and Ritual Zero Proof. Bellaire-based Shorts Brewing Co. recently released Thirst Mutilator — a non-alcoholic sparkling hop water — in June. 

“Since we have opened, there have been so many new products hitting the market,” Chad Clark said. “And they are getting better and better. Of course, some mimic the alcoholic counterpart, like tequila or gin, but then all these fun botanical things are their own complex adult beverage without necessarily mimicking a spirit.”

The NielsenIQ data also show that 78 percent of non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirits buyers also purchase alcoholic drinks. A growing number of distilleries also are dedicating portions of their menus to mocktails. 

Jon O’Connor, co-owner and co-founder of Long Road Distillers LLC and president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association, believes it’s essential for establishments to offer high-quality, non-alcoholic cocktails as an option.

“We offer non-alcoholic cocktails at all of our locations. It seems to be something people have been asking for,” O’Connor said. “We make all of our own mixers and juices and syrups, so we have the ability to create a lot of great mocktails. We all have a desire to be out and with one another, especially with how isolated we have been for the past couple of years, and that can come without having alcohol.”

O’Connor added that Long Road hasn’t yet explored creating zero-proof spirits, but it’s possible in the company’s future.

Meanwhile, several reports have indicated that — much like plant-based meat alternatives — the zero-proof market is less of a trend and more of a cultural shift. 

“We don’t see it has a trend,” Chad Clark said. “We see it as a lifestyle shift. Younger generations are a little more health conscious than in the past, and that has definitely driven the market.”

The Clark brothers are banking on that shift with their plans for a retail location on Grand Rapids’ west side.

“We will be able to host tastings and do community engagement to acclimate people to this thing we know a lot about and that a lot of people are really excited about,” said DeMeester, the Clark brothers’ business partner. “There is a lot of traction right now with these products.” 

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