Bree Yard of Shrewsbury stares at a computer screen all day. Her evenings are reserved for much-needed human interaction, often at a local pub.
But multiple nights a week of whiskey sours and bottomless margaritas take a toll.
“I didn’t want to get drunk,” said Yard. “I just wanted to drink good drinks.”
That’s become much easier than it once was. In the past few years, nonalcoholic choices — from full-bodied IPAs to zero-proof bourbons and CBD-infused seltzers — have exploded. Online marketplaces sell memberships to NA wine clubs. Apps help quitters track their progress. Teetotaling tips are shared on Sober TikTok.
Brewers and bartenders in St. Louis and across the United States have grabbed onto booze-free beverages to woo a growing customer base that, led by health-conscious and Instagram-prolific Gen Zers, identifies as “sober curious” or has cut out alcohol entirely.
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Jeff Stevens of St. Louis gave up drinking decades ago. He watched from the sidelines as the craft beer market embraced innovation, incorporating unorthodox methods and offbeat ingredients. But alcohol-free options remained meager — and mediocre.
So Stevens experimented. His first batch, which he called Heavenly Wheat, was a hit among his friends.
By early 2018, Stevens and his wife had launched WellBeing Brewing Co., one of the first NA craft brewers in the country. Since then, WellBeing has added half a dozen varieties, including an electrolyte-laden “performance” beer, and sales have doubled a few times over.
“The industry has completely changed from five years ago,” Stevens said.
Last year, WellBeing partnered with Schlafly to scale production. Together, they introduced Match Day Light, a nonalcoholic English pale ale.
Small brewers aren’t the only ones jumping on the wagon. Three years ago, Anheuser-Busch rolled out an NA version of Budweiser, its flagship brand, and announced a goal of making one-fifth of its beer low- or no-alcohol by 2025.
Overall U.S. sales of nonalcoholic drinks vaulted 20% last August from the year before, led by an 88% spike in alcohol-free spirits, according to Nielsen data.
A Gallup report found that 4 in 10 adults didn’t imbibe at all in the past year, and those who did consumed less than they previously had.
Moderators are fueling NA sales more than abstainers, bar owners say. Leah Osborne of south St. Louis drinks — but not much.
“It’s nice not to be hungover,” she said.
Osborne, a regular at Pop’s Blue Moon on the Hill, is partial to its botanical seltzers.
“They almost motivate me to go out,” Osborne said.
‘A good social drink’
Co-owner Joshua Grigaitis has worked at Pop’s since his father bought it in 1999. A few years ago, after drastically curtailing his own consumption, Grigaitis started exploring ways to incorporate booze-free alternatives. Pop’s hosted weekly dry nights at the bar.
Its alcohol-free menu broadened when the 2018 farm bill removed hemp as a controlled substance. That allowed CBD, a compound in marijuana that does not produce a high, to be added to beverages.
Grigaitis hung a neon-green light in the window to announce his newest ingredient. He canned CBD-fortified water and sold it under the label Mighty Kind.
“People were willing to try something without alcohol,” he said. “It just kind of snowballed from there.”
Soon, Mighty Kind was producing private-label “craft waters” for almost 20 brands. The newest line, Cheerz, was introduced in November. Now, booze-less orders make up almost a third of Pop’s sales.
The key, Grigaitis said, is backing off the sweetness that can overwhelm NA selections. Instead, Mighty Kind features lemongrass, hibiscus and wormwood.
“It’s playing the part of a good social drink,” said Grigaitis. “We knew the Dry January crowd would dig it.”
The annual resolution, fed by social media, has mushroomed since originating in Britain in 2012. More than a third of U.S. adults said they sat out post-holiday debauchery, according to research firm CGA. For some people, the monthlong reprieve catalyzes longer-term changes.
For others, the pandemic has been a motivator. Brandon Cavanagh of the Tower Grove East neighborhood went cold turkey in March after he noticed that a once-in-a-while indulgence had turned into a nightly habit.
“I woke up one day and was like, ‘I’m done,’” said Cavanagh, who owns Gezellig, a taphouse in the Grove.
Before his own eye-opener, Cavanagh had been a skeptic of the prohibitionist scene. He kept a single shelf of NA beer among his selection of more than 700 ales and pilsners. Now he stocks a cooler-full.
“It was immediately well-received,” he said. “Our NA products get more traction on Instagram than our alcoholic ones.”
Elizabeth Lockwood has always moonlighted as a bartender. In the early days, everyone drank, and they drank a lot. But rites of passage have changed.
“The next generation is choosing a healthier lifestyle,” said Lockwood, who lives in Jefferson City.
She decided a college town would be the perfect place for a nonalcoholic bar and scouted locations in Columbia, Missouri.
Lockwood connected with the owner of the Mocktail Lounge in St. Charles to get ideas and ended up taking it over last September.
This month, a grand reopening is scheduled, with a new name — Mocktails on Main — and a shift from an Old Hollywood theme to a more bohemian décor. Lockwood has been workshopping a revamped menu for weeks.
Scott Hartman of St. Peters latched onto Under the Mistletoe, a white grape club soda with fresh mint, pomegranate, honey and a splash of ginger beer.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Hartman, who has been in recovery for six years. “I really hope they carry it year-round.”
The drinks are important, Lockwood said, but the atmosphere is her priority.
“You go to a bar and pay for the vibe,” she said. “You can have the same vibe without the alcohol.”
Georgia Coomer, a Lindenwood University student, stops in at least once a week. “It’s nice to have somewhere to hang out that’s not a coffee shop,” she said.
In some ways, nonalcoholic beverages have followed the trajectory of coffee: higher-end offerings are more accessible than they were even five years ago.
“Options are becoming endless,” said Meredith Barry, co-owner of Platypus in the Grove. “You can be more nuanced.”
Her popular “Whoa-groni” combines vermouth, aperitifs, bitters and two types of gin — but no alcohol.
Barry doesn’t call it a mocktail, though. Or an NA cocktail. She resists those terms as exclusionary.
“Let’s talk about proof,” she said. “We have zero proof, low proof and high proof. It’s putting us all in the same category.”
It’s also a shrewd business decision, she said. To cater to a changing customer, Barry thinks bars will need robust NA offerings — whatever they call them — especially if recreational marijuana siphons off more drinkers.
“If you put a zero-proof drink on the menu, people will buy it,” said Barry. “We’re not saying we’re anti-alcohol. We’re saying we’re pro-everything.”