In recent years, the move to consuming less alcohol or lower alcohol products has taken shape. Generational changes are partly at play as millennials eschew the booze-infused cultures of their parents and grandparents. With that in mind, a burgeoning “sober curious” movement has begun. Bars dedicated to non-alcoholic socializing have popped up, and brands, long in the business of peddling booze, are starting to notice.
For years, low-alcohol brews such as O’Doul’s and Buckler have been tucked into small corners of the beer aisle. Yet high-profile entries like Heineken, with their 0.0 beer, have shown that the nascent category is primed for substantial growth. However, at present, the current crop of available low or non-alcoholic beers are extensions of existing brands.
Sensing an opportunity to make a mark in non-alcoholic beer, WellBeing Brewing Company out of St. Louis introduced a line of products that puts an emphasis on craft and taste. Instead of a simple lager like the major brands, well-being has products with names like Intrepid Traveler Coffee Cream Stout, Heavenly Body Golden Wheat and Hellraiser Dark Amber.
Jeff Stevens, founder of WellBeing, had a history in the beer and spirits marketing business (though he stopped drinking at age 24) and pondered why there wasn’t a product like this on the market.
“I was constantly out for 20 years at clubs or with clients, and I was always in the situation of never having anything good to drink,” he said. “You don’t realize how few choices there are for people who don’t drink.”
According to Ben Little, founder of Fearlessly Frank, a London-based innovation firm and an investor in WellBeing, the choice of a different product along with cultural shifts are both a positive signal.
“[Anecdotally], we threw a drinks party recently, and of the 25 or so millennials there, only two or three were drinking alcohol,” he noted. “I think [the move away from alcohol] is growing, but people still do love to have a beer.”
In many ways, the brand is a first-mover, offering consumers a new way of approaching not just the ritual of beer drinking, but the idea that the product is more about wellness. In fact, some of the natural properties in beer have benefits, something that Michelob, with its Ultra product, leans into, but those aren’t often well known. Research on marathoners in 2009 showed that consuming non-alcoholic beer helped with recovery, and at the last Winter Olympics, the German team considered the brew a secret weapon of sorts.
“There’s a larger trend of health and wellness,” said Stevens. “I think globally, people are looking at the actual buzz of alcohol as being not that great in many ways compared to other things.”
While WellBeing sales and re-orders from distributors and retail have been encouraging, the fact is that the beer category is still highly-competitive—even more so among craft brewers. Standing out in a sea of choice presents a unique challenge.
According to Little, U.K. brewers like Camden Brewing and Brewdog have met their audiences where they are. Instead of being everywhere, they have been smart and strategic about “nailing distribution” and, in the case of Brewdog, creating their own chains.
“The first thing we need to figure out is where our audiences are,” he said. “It’s fascinating when we get into that because we can be at places where people don’t necessarily want alcohol, but they still want our products.”
Where WellBeing may find another way to build momentum is through direct-to-consumer channels. While the brand has traditional distribution in several U.S. states, getting into the hands of anyone who wants the product could prove to be a point of differentiation.
“People can buy from our site, and we are on Amazon,” noted Stevens. “What has held us back is that beer is heavy and expensive to ship, but we’ve been getting those costs down, and we see this as a real opportunity. We sell a lot of beer online, and that’s a part of our business that is growing every month.”
With seemingly little or no competition specifically in the non-alcoholic craft beer category, WellBeing is potentially teed up to make a significant impact. For his part, Little has seen companies go from small specks in the firmament to bright stars quickly.
“It’s easy to go too far and do things that are outside the brand DNA,” he said. “The second thing is overextending on SKUs, and it’s something we’ve seen in other brands we’ve incubated in different categories,” referring to Jimmy’s Iced Coffee, a popular beverage brand that launched a decaf product that is no longer part of its product mix.
Interestingly, according to Little, there is actually a technology story as well related to the brewing process itself. Instead of using either a method that boils off the alcohol, which can result in a “skunky” taste, or one that stops fermentation, resulting in a very sweet beer, WellBeing uses a state-of-the-art vacuum distillation method that takes finished beer and gently removes the alcohol.
“At the heart of WellBeing is this piece of technology, and there are very few [of the stills] in America,” he said. “This is one of the things that will make us different and stand out.”