Gen Z are drinking less than the generations that preceded them, and termslike “sober-curious” and “mindful drinking” are gaining popularity amongst millennials. The low- and no-alcohol industry is growing at pace, and there's a lot up for grabs
By Finlay Renwick for Esquire | 17 Feb 2023
Nirvana is located inside a small unit on an industrial estate near Leyton, east London. It’s squeezed between a scrap-metal yard, a Romanian food distributor, an outpost for a Pentecostal church and a Kingsmill bread factory. Nearby, lorries beep and extractor pipes send fragrant plumes of smoke into a pale sky. A pair of beige, new-build apartment blocks in the distance offer the only indications of the area’s ongoing gentrification.
Co-founded in 2016 by Becky Taylor-Kean, a 32-year-old Londoner (her two co-founders have since moved away from the business), Nirvana is — for now — the UK’s only dedicated alcohol-free brewery. As well as having its own tap room, Nirvana sells its Dark & Rich Stout, Bavarian Helles Lager and various pale ales and limited-edition runs in pubs, restaurants and online via major retailers like Ocado, Amazon and Whole Foods. The beers are also exported globally: the Middle East is big, for obvious reasons; Japan, too.
“It’s like with the craft-beer boom,” says Taylor-Kean, sitting in the Nirvana office, which overlooks a collection of glistening steel brewing vats below. “There are now lots of talented brewers trying their hand at it, which leads to more creativity and more options. The response has totally changed in the last few years. You used to be lucky to be able to get a dusty Beck’s Blue at the pub. That isn’t the case anymore.”
The inspiration for the brewery came after Taylor-Kean’s father stopped drinking. “It was a very positive change in his life,” she remembers. “Before that, we loved sharing craft beers together. When he gave up drinking, he still wanted that feeling of sharing a beer, but we couldn’t find any good non-alcoholic options. We met with lots of different brewers. Some in Germany, and then a guy here, who helped us to set it up. Before the movement was becoming a trend, we were one of the first to launch a range of alcohol-free beers.”
In the space of a few years, the alcohol-free drinks industry has gone from inconsequential to a source of major growth and innovation. UK sales of low- and no-alcohol beers have almost doubled in five years, rising from £195m in 2016 to £370m at the end of 2021, according to research group The IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record). This combines with a decline in the regular-alcohol market. Sales of Britain’s 100 biggest-selling alcohol brands dropped by more than £1.5bn over the 12 months up to April 2021, causing the Daily Mail to state “Britain turns its back on booze”. Something has shifted in our attitude to alcohol.
In Leyton, I’m invited to try a selection of Nirvana’s products: a special-edition orange and thyme sour, a classic pale ale and the brand’s lager, the beer that started it all. The sour is quite pleasant, maybe a tiny bit soapy, without the depth of a regular beer. But the lager and pale ale are… good. Balanced, refreshing and flavourful, without the weird, watery and unrewarding emptiness that I’d come to associate with no-alcohol beer.
Taylor-Kean and Nirvana’s head of marketing, Aaron Smedley, lean in and look at me expectantly. If this were a blind taste test, I’d say these were both
regular craft beers. There’s even that gentle, familiar buzz as the first sip lands. Call it Pavlovian, or placebo, but it’s there. “I get that, too,” says Taylor-Kean, seeing my puzzled expression. “It could be placebo, or it could be the hops. I’m not sure, but there’s definitely something.”
Typically, non-alcoholic beer is made by brewing regular beer and then boiling off the ethanol, which evaporates at lower temperatures than water. What’s left behind is often a bland, hollowed-out product — a strange and faintly depressing simulacrum of a familiar taste. “We use a lot of vacuum boiling,” says Taylor-Kean. “The temperatures are lower, so you’re keeping the beer in a better condition. We’re unique in that we’ll use different methods for different outcomes. There’s not a uniform approach, but it’s definitely more expensive and complicated than brewing regular beer. The alcohol element masks a lot. There’s also a lot more health and safety stuff. Alcohol is a natural disinfectant.”
“It’s not about us being the best alcohol-free beer,” says Smedley, who, in early 2022, left a job at the giant multinational brewery Anheuser-Busch InBev to work for Nirvana. “We want to be the best beer, which just so happens to be alcohol-free.”
Human beings have been drinking alcohol to celebrate, commiserate, misbehave, seduce and socialise for a very, very long time. There are suggestions that early humans were brewing mead 50,000 years ago.
Vikings and Germanic barbarians loved a tear-up in a beer hall on a Saturday night, and the Chinese were mixing up spirits long before Christ was around. Jars for beer and wine were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and cultures as wide-reaching as Babylonians, Egyptians, Sumerians and Aztecs all worshipped various deities of drink. We might have even invented agriculture because of it. In his book A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth writes, “We didn’t start farming because we wanted food— there was loads of food around. We started farming because we wanted booze.” Is alcohol part of who we are?
“I wouldn’t say essential, but I certainly think [alcohol] has played a fairly important role as part of a broader toolkit of social bonding,” says Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, and a world authority on the evolution of sociality in primates, including humans.
“As a species, we have a special set of enzymes that allow us to turn alcohol back into sugar,” he says. “We share that with the gorilla and the chimpanzee only. No other animal, or primate, possesses those two enzymes. It seems to be a very ancient trait. It kicks in the endorphins system in the brain on both an individual and a social level.
“Then there’s the disinhibiting effect of alcohol,” he adds. “It makes us socially more forward. We become the life and soul of the party, rather than sitting in the corner. That facilitates social bonding at a communal level. The only time you get major cultural shifts that don’t involve alcohol are when there is a religious or political prohibition.”
Some date the first non-alcoholic beer to 1919 and the temperance movement in the US, when breweries were forced to create zero-alcohol alternatives in order to continue to do legitimate business during Prohibition. But even banning alcohol hasn’t necessarily changed behaviours in the past, says Dunbar: “People still find a way to drink the stuff.”
It’ll take more than some east-London trendies to change the habits of millennia. But, in 2023, it can seem that getting leathered has lost its lustre. And the group one may expect to crave alcohol’s disinhibiting effects the most — the young and hormonally charged — is the one that seems to be least attracted to consuming alcohol, certainly in comparison with their predecessors. A 2019 study by the charity Drinkaware found that 16- to 25-year-olds were the most likely demographic to be teetotal, with 26 per cent not drinking. Terms like “sober-curious” and “mindful drinking” are gaining popularity.
Of course, there have always been plenty of people who avoid alcohol. There are almost two billion Muslims in the world, for a start. A number of countries across north Africa, the Middle East and Asia ban alcohol completely. And even in Europe, perhaps northern Europe especially, where alcohol has been central to a way of life, there are those who for reasons of health, religious observance, because they don’t enjoy the feeling of being drunk, or because they enjoy the feeling of being drunk too much, don’t drink. There have always been alternatives for them: water, juice, soft drinks, the dreaded “mocktail”. But as the number of people forgoing alcohol grows, so does a market.
“It’s very clear, in the UK and many other high-income countries, that alcohol use has reduced in underage drinkers, in particular from the early 2000s onwards,” says John Holmes, professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield and a director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group. “The thing is, we don’t really have a strong understanding of why that’s happening.
“We know that young people are more concerned about the future than they used to be,” Holmes adds. “About their ability to work effectively in school; the risks in drinking around violence, sexual violence and a reputation risk from social media. But as with public health as a whole, there is rarely one cause and one effect.”
Interestingly, Holmes’ research does not indicate that young people are replacing drinking with other substances or activities. “There’s been a general retreat from young people away from risky behaviours, and there’s not really an example of compensatory behaviour taking its place,” he says. “Young people are having less sex, they’re smoking less and there’s evidence that they’re driving less. They are generally avoiding seeking out risky activities.”
And it’s not just young people. “There is some sense,” says Holmes, “that things are [also] shifting among other age groups and that we might be moving, as a society, towards a different relationship with alcohol and being drunk over time. There appears to be less glamour around drinking, and not drinking has also become more attractive. It’s very clear from the data that people are drinking far more low- or non- alcohol drinks than they used to. There’s far less stigma around them.”
My own experience, as a 30-year-old man working in London fashion and journalism (neither industry previously notable for its sobriety), is that the pandemic was a factor in causing many of my contemporaries to reassess their relationships with alcohol. Over lunch last year a friend told me, quite plainly, “I’ve given up drinking.” I didn’t need to probe further; having sat alone in a crumbling shared house with a bottle of red wine on more than one occasion during the darkest days of lockdown, I understood. A year or two before, I wouldn’t have.
As a millennial, I have long felt somewhere in between generations when it comes to drinking — not a teetotal Gen-Z, nor a hedonistic, four-pints-for-lunch Gen-Xer. We seem to be moving closer to the former rather than the latter. A portion of my male friends will now spend a night drinking Peroni Libera, or actively abstain from alcohol for periods of time; behaviour that, until recently, would elicit laddish cries of “what’s wrong with you!” Sometimes the hangover just isn’t worth it. People are into mushrooms now. One of my friends went to Estonia for an ayahuasca retreat. He says it works. Good for him. It’s a lot more effort and expense than a quiet night in the Coach & Horses, though.
“I think the pandemic has particularly pushed people to prioritise their health and well-being,” says Melanie Masarin, the founder of Ghia, an alcohol-free aperitif company with beautifully designed packaging and a slick social-media presence. “That has opened up the conversation about sobriety and the sober-curious movement. For many people, it seems like ‘not drinking’ has become the default, since there is more information available about the causal effects of alcohol on both physical and mental health.”
“It’s not the same, is it?” says Laura Willoughby, the co-founder of Club Soda, a newly opened tasting room and bottle shop in Covent Garden dedicated to low- and zero-alcohol drinks. We’re sitting opposite each other at a window table drinking a glass of sparkling chardonnay by Noughty, a British brand that makes a range of de-alcoholised wines. It’s quite nice. Not a 1995 Dom Perignon P2 Plenitude Brut. Not plonk.
As well as being a shop and bar, Club Soda offers courses called “How to Change Your Drinking” or “How to Drink Mindfully”. Ebullient, with the clear, no-nonsense manner of someone who is at ease addressing a room, Willoughby explains how Club Soda was first envisaged as a “Weight Watchers for booze”. Ironically, the new shop is just across the road from the pub where she had her final drink.
“I come from a generation who have hit their late 40s and realised they’ve been drinking an awful lot,” she says. “I’m 48, which is the hardest- drinking generation of women. Equality meant that we felt like we could keep up with the boys, but then we realised it was affecting our health. Men started being a bit more vocal soon after. We talk about ‘mindful drinking’, rather than the heavier and layered alcoholic drinking, which doesn’t apply to most of us.”
A new priority for Willoughby is to educate people about the range and quality of “Low & No” drinks out there. Club Soda stocks what it describes as a “curated collection” of over 150 brands. “When I first stopped, you’d go to a bar and have what is, essentially, a load of fruit juices mixed together,” she says. “I’d describe that as a mocktail, which is different to a cocktail. A compromised drink and not something you would actually want. I always felt that if people didn’t want to drink, they still deserved to have an equal experience. A pint of Coke from a hose is not an equal experience. I’m not 12, waiting in the pub for my dad.”
It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday and the place is full. Two men in their thirties, who appear to be colleagues, prop up the bar, while a young couple browse the wine and non-alcoholic gin selection. An eager mixologist called Noah makes me a very passable whiskey sour using non-alcoholic “American Malt” from Lyre’s (get it?), an Australian brand that is a market leader. Rather than distillation, the company mixes natural essences and extracts to create alternatives of famous spirits. There’s even an absinthe. The sour is a bit sweet, but still appealing. “I still miss the burn,” reads a review of the American malt on Amazon. The room is quite bright for a bar.
A kind and engaging man called Josh leads me through a red-wine tasting. “Red wine is the holy grail for the non-alcoholic market,” says Josh, who used to be a teacher. “Replacing the ABV and also the tannins is really difficult. With something like beer, or sparkling, the carbonation can mask a lot of that missing alcohol taste. You don’t get that with red, that ballsy, oak and tannin sensation. How do we get those heavy notes? In five years it’s going to be totally different, but right now it’s still really early days. Three years ago it didn’t exist at all.” I try something by Oddbird, a brand from Gothenburg, that tastes a bit like Robinson’s squash. The Noughty Syrah is a bit better. “It makes you pause,” says Josh. “It’s an adult drink.” I suppose it is.
By far the most interesting drink I sample is something called GABA Spirit by Sentia, a brand created by Professor David Nutt, an English neuropsychopharmacologist, and Vanessa Jacoby, a botanical alchemist and plant-craft specialist. The drink is an odd mixture of loads of natural ingredients, including magnolia bark, sage, orange peel, liquorice, ginkgo, Nigerian ginger and angelica root. It doesn’t really taste like a spirit, resembling more of a herbal tonic. I mix the GABA Spirit with a fungus-based zero alcohol IPA by Fungtn, which is brewed with lion’s mane mushrooms. I’m in deep now.
The interesting part is how it makes you feel. An immediate sense of calm and relaxation, what is called that two-drink “sweet spot”. It triggers gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of sociability when we drink. It sounds like bollocks, but it’s quite incredible. That strange placebo sensation of the non-alcoholic beer, but elevated tenfold. Like you’re actually having a drink.
Increasingly, innovative non-alcoholic options are finding audiences at high-end bars and restaurants. The Connaught in Mayfair, an old-world institution, voted the best bar in the world in 2021, partnered with the gin brand Sipsmith on a range of non-alcoholic cocktails last year. Tayēr + Elementary, in Shoreditch, second in the world in 2022, has a standout martini-ish drink called “I’m Not Drinking… But Make It Delicious,” with a non-alcoholic aperitif, bitter orange and timurberry cordial. Seedlip, another major player, appears on pairing menus at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, which has three Michelin stars; Brett Graham’s two-Michelin-star Ledbury and the Savoy hotel.
“In the next five years I expect to see alcohol-free cocktails establish their own classics,” says Lorelei Bandrovschi, CEO and founder of Listen Bar, a New York non-alcoholic pop-up that appears around the city. “Just like you can go and order a negroni anywhere, having certain alcohol-free cocktails get to that level of notoriety. Having those cocktails be expected training for every bartender.”
Mustafa Mahmud is taking a break in his north-London brewery when we speak on the phone. A chartered accountant who, in a former life, had a career in banking, Mahmud, 49, has established himself as something of a savant in the non-alcoholic brewing world. “In my old job, there were many nights socialising with nothing more than a J2O or a glass of Coke,” he says. “I decided I wanted to start a business that would actually benefit people like me.” A few years ago he started brewing shrub soda, an old English drink with more than 350 years of history, made by steeping fruit and herbs in vinegar. He’s moved on to brewing vinegar-based wine and a range of rum and whisky that is made non-alcoholic by introducing a strain of bacteria to convert the alcohol into acetic acid, a by-product of fermentation. It’s clever stuff.
Read full article: https://www.esquire.com/uk/food-drink/a42776303/post-alcohol/