Drinks with Pat

Pat Evans

It’s a wrap on Dry, or damp, January, and it appears the sober curious trend is here to stay.

And I really don’t mind that. It’s a good way to check in on your relationship with alcohol, which is, by all accounts, a poison. This trend is driven by the younger generations, primarily Gen Z, who recognize that fact and want to start their adult lives with a better relationship with booze than previous generations have set.

Restaurants and bars have certainly caught on, with establishments across West Michigan offering mocktail menus year-round. Major breweries and distilleries have jumped on the trend as well and have turned to manufacturing non-alcoholic options. Even one of the fastest growing breweries, Athletic Brewing, is dedicated solely to N/A brews — and good ones at that. (I’ll detail great N/A options on the market in a minutes.)

The sober curious trend can be a hard thing to swallow for Grand Rapidians; those who call Beer City, USA home pridefully. But it’s a smart thing to dabble in, whether you might go a little too hard a few nights a week or you don’t like the way you feel the next morning after two glasses of wine with dinner.

To put a cap on the month, I checked in with Steve Hauser, the president and CEO of Paulaner USA. The German-based Paulaner is one of the oldest breweries in the world and makes incredible beers, starting in 1634. Paulaner is one of six breweries that provides beer for Oktoberfest in Munich.

Paulaner USA has seen its shipments in the US grow 11% in 2023. It also is the US importer for the Chinese brand Tsingtao, which saw its shipments grow 23%. Along with its historic options, both breweries are also offering 0.0 options, that taste remarkably like the real thing.

Pat: How does one keep an established import brand fresh in the world of what’s new and hot?

Steve: Paulaner USA has ignored the “world of what’s new and hot” as we believe our classic brewing techniques and world class ingredients are all that is necessary to keep consumers interested.

Anchored in the Reinheitsgebot, the quality of our Hefe-Weizen, Münchner Lager, Pils and Oktoberfest beers engage consumers with complex taste profiles and time-honored traditions so that we do not need to rely on ingredients that don’t belong in beer or gimmicks that change the profile of classic styles. Even when we do something unique like our Grapefruit Radler, it is based on a traditional Munich recipe.

When we innovate, we do something as dramatic as updating the graphics on our packaging. We don’t chase package segmentation strategies that confuse the consumer’s understanding of our prices. We believe in providing quality products, in pack sizes that communicate value and quality.

Pat: As craft beer dips, and canned cocktails and N/A beverages take off, do legacy beer makers like Paulaner have a new opening in the market?

Steve: We see an opening, as not only do we believe consumers are tiring of the overwhelming speed of new products and packages, but major retail buyers are as well. We hear everyday about retailers not being able to keep up with the explosion of new products and packages and that going forward they will not be taking on so-called “innovations.”

We believe this will allow Paulaner USA to present to retailers our traditional products and packages that retailers can offer to their customers truly satisfying experiences.

Pat: Say someone hasn’t had a Paulaner beer, ever or in years, what does the brand offer consumers that they should know of?

Steve: A high-quality, time-honored product that delivers a beer drinking experience that has been the basis of many of today’s innovations. Many of which use Lager, Pils or Weisse beer as the basis of their brews today.

Why disguise quality if your base product is interesting, satisfying and consistent time after time.

Jumping into the world of N/A products

For the past four years, I’ve dabbled in N/A products as part of my duty as a beverage writer. I’m on board, and the products have advanced quickly in the couple of years I’ve been trying them out.

I still drink full booze drinks more than I probably should, but these products are a great way to start cutting into it. For me, the act of drinking is really more about the ritual, perhaps its ending the day, or hanging out with friends, and with something that isn’t a plain as water or sweet like juice or soda.

Athletic Brewing, as mentioned its one of the fastest growing beer companies in the US and only makes N/A beers. Those products are better than many of the full-alcohol versions made by breweries across the US.

There’s a few other decent craft N/A brewers out there, but I’ve also really enjoyed Heineken 0.0 — which tastes nearly identical to the real Heineken when cold, so you ave to like Heineken, and really who likes a warm Heineken — and Guinness 0.0.

WhistlePig is one of the premier craft whiskey distillers in the country, and yet they’ve also turned an eye toward the Sober Curious trend. They made a pre-mixed N/A version of their Orange Fashioned cocktail. More gimmickly, this year they promoted “Dank January” with a hemp infused “Dank & Dry Old Fashioned.” It came with a pig head smoke topper and smoking chips to help fully emerse one in the situation. Sure enough, it tasted like you might think it did. All proceeds of the endeavor went to Turning Tables, which donated them to bartenders.

Non-alcoholic wine is lagging a bit from beer, but companies like brands like Proxies and Jøyus are putting out interesting products. Proxies don’t really taste like wine, but offer a wine-like experience that pair well with food. Jøyus makes a sparkling substitute that fits incredibly well in sparkling mocktails, while its other n/a wines are some of the best I’ve tried.

Monday Gin is by far the best N/A spirit true to style I’ve tried, and that’s probably because gin’s botanical backbone really lends itself to covering up any weird flavors evident when booze is cut out.

Similarly, Martini and Rossi, widely known for its vermouth but is a major global alcohol producer, has turned to making N/A aperitifs that are remarkable and make a spritz no one would realize booze is missing.

Celebs are getting in on it too, like Katy Perry’s De Soi. The brand has launched Tres Rose, a sparkling N/A aperitif that includes Lion’s Mane Mushroom but a huge raspberry punch, so it is “buzzy, not boozy.”

A big reason the sober curious movement has taken off likely can be attributed to the legality and availability of marijuana and other similar products, like the CBD-focused company Dad Grass. Dad Grass makes joints “like your dad used to smoke,” and offers a more mellow high than many of the full-THC products available at dispensaries. The company, which can mail its products across the US, recently launched a line with light THC.

Editor’s note: For more sober-curious reading, or just to find out where to get a darn good mocktail in town, check out Rise of the Mocktail, by Kelsey Dunneback.

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