Nonalcoholic beer is having a moment. Michigan is behind the curve.
When White Claw exploded in popularity around 2018, it set off a hot new trend in the alcohol industry: hard seltzer. Beer giants like Corona, Budweiser and Coors quickly brought their own hard seltzers to market.
But recently, the industry has seen a boom of nonalcoholic beers, and those same companies have all introduced their own versions of them. Some wonder if we’re on the cusp of a renaissance for this new type of beverage.
“Everyone has talked about it and realized that there's a market for it,” said Michelle Zajac, the beer and wine buyer at Arbor Farms Market, a health and wellness grocer in Ann Arbor.
“But with everything going on, I think they're just not ready to make that leap yet,” she said.
It can be challenging for smaller breweries to add a nonalcoholic beer to their offerings, even if they want to. Distilleries may have to purchase expensive equipment and invest in R&D, because their competitors aren’t always forthcoming about recipes and processes, Zajac said.
Because of these same issues, even some of Michigan’s larger brewers — including Bell’s, Founder’s, Short’s and New Holland — told Zajac they were still figuring out their plans for nonalcoholic options.
While expenses continue to be a hurdle for the distillers, they also impact consumers: despite not containing alcohol, these beers can cost the same amount as their alcoholic counterparts.
“I think because of the expense of the process and the quality of the ingredients that they're putting into it — and they really want those beers to taste as good as their alcohol version — they tend to be priced the same,” Zajac said.
Although Michigan is home to Grand Rapids — known as “Beer City USA” — the alcohol-free beer market in our state is still developing.
“The only one in Michigan that I am aware of that packages [nonalcoholic beer] is Schmohz,” said Zajac. Even though Schmohz, a Grand Rapids brewery, has caught her attention for it’s nonalcoholic offerings, Zajac said it only offers one nonalcoholic beer: the rest contain alcohol.
Still, this could be the direction the industry is headed. Along with bigger companies introducing alcohol-free beers, distilleries with a stronger focus on nonalcoholic beverages have cropped up in other parts of the country. Zajac said some of the most popular nonalcoholic beers at her store are made by Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing, and Wisconsin-based Untitled Art.
IPA is the most popular nonalcoholic beer at Arbor Farms, according to Zajac. But, she’s seen everything from s'mores and milk chocolate stouts to a watermelon gose. And, she’s seen a market for nonalcoholic beverages that aren’t beer.
“Grüvi out of Colorado makes some nonalcoholic beers, but also nonalcoholic wines: there's a rosé and a dry prosecco,” she said.
“We also are big fans of Casamara Club, which is a Michigan based company in Detroit, and they do sparkling amaro soft drinks, based on the Italian aperitivo with botanicals [think: herbal, bitter]. Those are wonderful.”
For Zajac, non-alcoholic beers make up about 5% of her sales, but she expects to see a spike in dry January.
“Whether they're just taking a break from alcohol or they're mixing it with their alcohol use,” Zajac predicts, these beverages will gain greater market share as more people discover their appeal.
She isn’t aware of any more nonalcoholic beers slated for 2022, but expects that the market will continue to grow.
“I feel like people are really recognizing — especially since the quality has come up so much and there's so many more flavors available — that it's just become a part of everyone's daily use.”