Nonalcoholic beer, wine, spirits expand Chicago’s NA movement

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Cristina Torres walked home from the bar at 3 a.m. in early 2020 with tears in her eyes, despondent after a night out.

The issue wasn’t too much to drink; it was that she hadn’t had a drink at all.

After a decade of alcoholism, Torres was newly sober, yet wanted to continue socializing with friends in bars and clubs. She was left hyper-aware in those spaces of her inability to drink, frustrated that everyone else seemed to be able to handle booze, but she could not.

“It felt like there wasn’t a place for me to go that was still fun and wasn’t revolving around alcohol,” Torres said.

She realized she needed that place — so she built it.

Torres, 32, opened Bendicion Dry Bar in October in Humboldt Park (2540 W. Division St.), where she sells an array of nonalcoholic beers, wines and spirits and hosts events meant to build an alcohol-free community so others don’t face the struggle she did.

“Sobriety can be very isolating in the first couple of months,” Torres said. “If you’re coming into it from a recovery aspect, you tell yourself, ‘I can’t drink, I can’t go out with my friends.’ There’s so much ‘can’t’ in the beginning, it’s easier to stay home.”

Patrons enjoy nonalcoholic drinks while making vision boards on Jan. 1, 2023, at Bendición Dry Bar in Humboldt Park.

After years as one of the nation’s great drinking cities — from dive bars to meticulous cocktails, a booming craft beer scene to Jeppson’s Malort — a nonalcoholic movement is taking root in Chicago. Though still small, it is no longer confined to sober people and belies a year-round momentum beyond Dry January, the annual ritual of beginning the new year with 31 alcohol-free days.

In addition to Bendicion Dry Bar, Go Brewing launched in Naperville in October as the Chicago area’s first primarily nonalcoholic brewery; one of the nation’s forefather nonalcoholic spirit companies, Ritual Zero Proof, is based here; and nonalcoholic wine shop Prazbar launches Monday as a three-month pop-up in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

The business slogans reflect their missions: “Be present now” (Bendicion); “Remember tomorrow” (Go); and “Zero calories. Zero alcohol. Zero regrets.” (Ritual Zero Proof).

Until the last couple of years, nonalcoholic drinking largely amounted to a can of O’Doul’s or a club soda and lime. The new generation runs deep and creative, including restaurants curating nonalcoholic cocktail menus and the rise of sober social groups hosting events such as NA Day, a nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits festival debuting in January.

Traditional breweries also see increasing opportunity in nonalcoholic beverages. Evanston’s Temperance Beer Co. releases its first nonalcoholic beer Friday, a hazy India pale ale called Near Tears, after sales slumped last January. Marz Community Brewing, which has locations in Bridgeport and Logan Square, has been at the forefront of local diversity with an array of seltzers, teas, coffees and sodas, many with CBD. And Noon Whistle Brewing, in Naperville and Lombard, is introducing a hop water this week — seltzer with an addition of hops — due to what brewery co-founder Paul Kreiner called “a change in the consumer.” Noon Whistle is also developing a CBD seltzer.

“We are seeing more people taking a pause in the middle of alcohol to slow their consumption,” Kreiner said. “This is our first step into alternative beverages for that reason. Younger generations have different pressures on them socially, and they are being more aware of their surroundings, which has pushed them into more responsibility socially.”

The embrace of nonalcoholic beverages has several names. The dry movement. The NA movement. Sober curious. Cali sober (in which cannabis is still OK). It even has an association: the Adult Nonalcoholic Beverage Association, which launched in 2021, counts 73 companies as members. Some make products labeled “alcohol free” or “zero proof,” which generally have no alcohol. Others, including most breweries, make “nonalcoholic” products that have a wisp of booze, but less than 0.5% by volume. (Some people in recovery use them interchangeably; others restrict themselves to alcohol-free beverages.)

“Since I’ve been sober, things have changed significantly,” said Carrie May, a nurse practitioner who launched Chicago AF, the group behind NA Day, as an alternative of sorts to 12-step programs (though some members of Chicago AF are also in 12-step programs).

When May became sober six years ago, she said, there was still stigma and even shame around not drinking — as if the choice was a character flaw. In the last two years, she said, the stigma has faded as sobriety and an evermore interesting array of nonalcoholic beverages have nudged into the mainstream.

“People really want to have spaces that are more inclusive and to have sophisticated options,” she said. “We are going to continue to see this movement exploding, both nationally and internationally.”

Nonalcoholic beer accounts for a vast majority of total NA sales — more than 85% — according to market research firm NielsenIQ. Year-to-date sales of nonalcoholic beer are up 14.5% compared to a year ago, equating to more than $247 million, according to market research firm IRI. But the category also remains small: just six-tenths of 1% of the overall beer market.

Two brands deserve much of the credit for the growth: Heineken 0.0 swiftly became the nation’s top-selling NA beer after its launch in 2019, and Athletic Brewing Company has grown rapidly as the nation’s largest NA craft beer brand. Both Heineken and Athletic have invested heavily in marketing, including Athletic’s reported plan to spend more than $1 million supporting its “Give Dry a Try” campaign in January that include commercials during the NFL playoffs, beer news website Brewbound reported.

“Our goal is to have them try our beer in January and stay with us the full year,” Athletic co-founder and CEO Bill Shufelt told Brewbound.

As much as sales, advocates of the NA movement say the most profound change has been in attitudes and the habits of consumers, regardless of whether they’re sober.

Marcus Sakey, inspired to launch Zero Ritual Proof in 2019 after a four-month break from spirits as “a health and mental reset,” continues to drink alcohol. So do many Zero Ritual Proof employees, he said, and so do many consumers of NA products; according to NeilsenIQ, 82% of people who buy nonalcoholic product also buy beverages with alcohol.

Ritual Zero Proof bottles of nonalcoholic liquor substitutes line the shelves at Bendición Dry Bar in Humboldt Park.

Sakey, who is also a well-known writer of thrillers, sees the brand as a way to moderate both alcohol and calories, a route to a “weekday drink or a third drink.” NA options are simply serving a new generation of demand, he said, which he compared to the rise of coffee shop dairy alternatives.

“They speak to a desire from consumers to have more choice, and in the way they want it,” Sakey said. “Try to imagine Starbucks only having cream ever again.”

Ritual Zero Proof brands are built from elaborate interplay of long lists of ingredients in a base of filtered water, landing with spicy kicks meant to emulate alcohol’s drying bite. The company, which counts spirits giant Diageo as a minority shareholder (with an option to acquire the whole operation), makes NA versions of gin, tequila, whiskey and rum. Bottles cost $30 each.

Though arguably pricey for containing no alcohol, Sakey argued the market wants premium NA options that offer a near-real experience, whether rooted in health concerns for older customers or younger people choosing to drink less than previous generations.

“There’s clearly a generational shift, but one thing I found fascinating — and I’m happy about — is we succeed with every generation, from Gen Z to Baby Boomers, just for different reasons,” Sakey said.

When opening Go Brewing founder Joe Chura expected many of his customers to be like him: casual drinkers looking to moderate. Instead, he was surprised to find a majority of visitors don’t drink at all, yet want the taste of beer.

“This is what they use to celebrate life and be social and they’re perfectly OK with it,” Chura said, noting that such products may not work for sober people who risk relapsing.

Chura, 45, said he was a longtime craft beer fan who “became very unhealthy — stressed out, gaining a ton of weight and drinking way too much.” During the first fall of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his wife stopped drinking, paid acute attention to their diets and exercised regularly for 75 days. He said he dropped about 50 pounds while appeasing his thirst for beer with NA options, mostly from Athletic Brewing.

Like Torres, Chura said, he realized there were few places to visit socially when not drinking that didn’t revolve around alcohol. He launched Go Brewing (1665 Quincy Ave., Naperville) in a space that previously housed 2 Fools Cider, as interested in building a taproom with an upscale vibe and live music as the NA beer itself. (Chura, who is also chief innovation officer for cars.com, sold two auto-focused websites to the company for $165 million in 2018.)

Go makes five year-round styles familiar to any craft beer drinker — pilsner, India pale ale, stout, witbier and hazy IPA — and one-off styles including mango-peach hazy IPA, grapefruit IPA and chocolate cherry stout. To appeal to a broader audience, Go also makes low-alcohol beer, generally under 2% alcohol by volume, which Chura called “a good step between full strength and NA.” It’s just another way to moderate, he said, offering more texture and flavor than NA.

Chura acknowledged NA beer is still in its infancy and “market penetration is still extremely low.”

“But if you look at trends toward health and wellness, it’s clear there’s opportunity there,” he said.

The NA movement struck Quenjana Adams as primarily a business opportunity after spending an afternoon in New Orleans with her aunt looking for a particular brand of nonalcoholic wine. They visited store after store, which made Adams think there must be an audience for a store and bar dedicated to such products.

She opened Prazbar one year ago as a pop-up operation, selling NA wines and spirits and operating a bar. She wants to eventually open a permanent booze-free bar, but from Monday until March 30, will focus on selling wine to-go by the bottle in a space operated by the West Town Chamber of Commerce (1821 W. Chicago Ave.). Many of her customers drink alcohol, but are curious about nonalcoholic options. Many more are nondrinkers reveling in the newfound selection after years of juice-based “mocktails.”

“Nondrinkers existed the whole time,” Adams said. “Now there are just options for them.”

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