It is hard to escape the concept of Dry January. From buddies and bloggers talking about the benefits of a month without alcohol, to the bar owners and brewers who are doing everything they can to keep the taps flowing and seats filled during an already challenging month for the beer business, chatter abounds.
The idea of a month of abstinence from alcohol, which began in England a decade ago, has taken off across the world. Many use it as a chance to start a new year off on a healthy start or simply to check in mentally on their personal alcohol consumption. And many others challenge the concept for a variety of reasons, some because their livelihoods rely on the sale of booze.
But Dry January doesn’t have to mean taprooms or bars will be empty or drawing fewer visitors. There are ways to cater to these newly sober groups during January and in the months beyond for customers who may be looking for some non-alcoholic options: offer better non-alcoholic products.
There’s been an uptick in the number of small non-alcoholic producers in recent years, including breweries like Athletic Brewing Company in Connecticut (check out the Drink Beer, Think Beer podcast episode with Bill Shufelt, the brewery’s founder). Even some major brewery players, such as Brooklyn Brewery, Deschutes, Heineken, and MolsonCoors, have entered the space or rejiggered their recipes and concepts to appeal to a new generation of non-drinkers or the sober curious.
With the rise in interest in low or no alcohol offerings, one thing has become clearI: if a bar serves O’Douls or St. Pauli Girl N.A. as the only alcohol-free offering, it is not looking to broaden into this growing and potentially lucrative part of the beer industry.
Brewery taprooms are the public’s new social gathering spaces. They appeal to wide demographics, are often family friendly, excellent date spots, or just right for community meetings and after-work hangouts. Still, everyone who walks through the door might not be interested in the latest hazy IPA, barrel-aged stout, or wild fermented saison.
In states where a brewery has a license that limits what can be offered aside from house-made beer, beverages like hard cider, wine, or spirits might be off limits. But that doesn’t mean that non-beer drinkers or designated drivers should be stuck drawing from the jug of water and plastic cups gathering dust on a corner table.
There are a few simple options that can grow a business’s non-alcoholic offerings without taking up too much space and add black to a company’s ledger.
No, not hard seltzer. Ordinary carbonated water. New Belgium Brewing Company has been offering a serve-yourself tap of cold, fizzy water for years now. The absolute delight that customers have on their faces when they discover it for the first time shows that a simple upgrade a tap room’s water offerings can have a noticeable impact on visitors. Most breweries and taprooms already have the equipment on hand to offer seltzer, and even more likely have an employee tap in the back. Take the next step and make it available to customers as well.
For an added touch, and to even charge for the drink, consider making in-house simple syrups. The flavor possibilities are endless and in addition to creating a signature house flavor, seasonal options can keep customers interested in trying new things.
The same is true with bitters. There are many artisanal bitters offered in the market today. Brewers can try their hand at making their own, or simply offer a few dashes from a locally made bottle. Not only does it give the seltzer a flavor boost, but it can also give a jolt to a local company that your customers might also want to support.
No matter what you add to a seltzer, there’s a story to be told about the product and can help forge a deeper connection with a non-alcohol drinker or even regular customers who might need a time-out between pints.
Coffee and Tea
So many breweries are making coffee beers with local roasters, but few offer a decent pot of coffee in their taprooms. Beans from a local supplier, and maybe even bags for sale in the gift shop, especially if co-branded with the brewery, are a great option for the early afternoon weekend crowd at a taproom, and maybe even for some late night customers.
The same is true for tea, where there are so many different blends and flavors available that are complementary to the citrus or earth forward ales being served. A simple mint iced tea is also a refreshing alternative in the warmer months.
For breweries that care about independence or craft, that loyalty should extend beyond beer. If Coke or Pepsi products are your sugary water of choice behind the bar, it is time to rethink that strategy. Some breweries, such as Sprecher in Wisconsin, have been offering up house-made sodas for years. Popular with kids and adults alike, Sprecher root beer can also be found at competing breweries around the state.
Sodas are relatively easy to make in house, and can have a local spin in recipes, using local herbs, fruits, or other ingredients.
Lemonade or Juices
Much like iced tea, house-made lemonade or juices can be appealing during the warmer months, and can also be mixed with beer to make shandies or radlers.
Again, it comes down to giving value to customers who are already willing to pay a premium for a well-made beer product. Offering a drink that came from a powder diminishes a business’s overall shine and is inconsistent with the very idea behind the “craft” of beer. It can also be a way to highlight local farms that provide fresh produce for beer recipes.
Although overall sales growth has slowed over the last several years, kombucha remains popular with a certain segment of health-conscious drinkers who are willing to pay a premium for the fermented tea. Brewers have created their own line of kombuchas, such as Full Sail Brewing in Oregon, and depending on the type of brewery license a company has, it’s possible to make a very low ABV version of the tea to have on offer. Such offerings help broaden a bar or taproom’s interest beyond standard beer drinkers.
Non-Alcoholic Spirits and Mocktails
There has been a slew of non-alcoholic spirits released over the last several years. These are designed to taste like a particular spirit, like gin or vodka, but without the high proof. To sip neat or enjoy mixed, it’s a way to get customers looking for something other than beer enjoy a social setting with something comfortable and somewhat familiar in hand.
The same is true for mocktails. More than a Shirley Temple, virgin Pina Colada, or Margarita (although, with so many breweries now owing slushy machines for their IPAs, there is hardly a big deal to add one more), there are combinations of juices, sodas, seltzers, bitters, and more that can be whipped up quickly and served with a flourish to interest customers.
While perhaps initially daunting, taprooms needn’t offer a full cocktail menu. Providing options for one or two house specialties is enough, especially where designed to be easily made to order..
These non-alcoholic drinks are not intended to make a brewery taproom function as a full bar with endless choices, but rather to help keep customers at their tables or on their stools longer, and to broaden the appeal of an overall business to non-drinkers or those who have not yet to come around on beer.
The same should be said for bar owners. Soda from the gun or the same dusty old bottles of uninspired NA beers means customers might leave faster than intended, or seek out other places with options that suit their moods.
Dry January might only be 31 days long, but the simple act of offering more than just water or the status quo for customers who prefer something more than alcohol can have a business benefit all year long. Besides, Sober October is only five months away.