Many moons ago when I was newly sober, my poodle Ziggy was recruited for a magazine photoshoot at a new-but-since-closed, dog-friendly, self-pour bar in Plaza Midwood. I brought him to the bar, fully planning on stage-moming from the sidelines, but as it turned out, the photographer also needed humans in the shots. They asked me to be in the photos too, posing with drink in hand. I nervously scanned the list of more than 100 beers on tap for a single non-alcoholic option. Not a one.
I had to work with what was available. I ended up shakily filling a glass with beer and pretending like I was drinking it for the hour-long shoot.
I left the shoot feeling frustrated and annoyed, both with the brewery and with myself, so I called one of the few sober friends I had at the time to vent in the parking lot. More than 100 taps and not a single kombucha, non-alcoholic beer or even a working draft soda? Something’s gotta give!
I wasn’t proud of myself for saying no to a drink when it would’ve been so easy to say yes. Instead, I was frustrated because, as a socially-awkward introvert, the whole situation reminded me that I no longer had alcohol as a vehicle to form quick connections with others like I would’ve done in the past.
I had just moved back to Charlotte, and felt like I missed out on an opportunity to make new friends by bonding over beers. I understood a sober person isn’t exactly a brewery’s target audience, but with socializing in bars and breweries being such an integral part of our society, what I didn’t understand was why they made it so hard for non-drinkers to feel included.
Since then, the world is slowly becoming a friendlier place for non-drinkers. According to Nielsen, in 2019, nearly two-thirds of millennials were reducing their alcohol consumption, and that trend is only continuing to grow.
A recent report from IWSR, the leading source of data on the alcoholic beverage market, states that the no/low alcohol segment saw a 30% increase in the US in 2020, despite the economic and altogether stress-inducing challenges of the pandemic, with non-alcoholic products outperforming low-alcohol beverages. The study also predicted that by 2024, sales of no/low alcoholic beverages will increase 31% globally.
Millennials are drinking less; the term “sober curious” has become a part of our mainstream lexicon, celebrities like Chrissy Teigen are talking openly about their sobriety, and even major alcohol brands like Guinness and Budweiser are brewing their own non-alcoholic beers.
Bigger cities like NYC have jumped on the alcohol-free bandwagon, opening bars like Getaway, a coffee shop and alcohol-free general store, and Spirited Away, a booze-free bottle shop.
The Charlotte hospitality industry is starting to do more to accommodate non-drinkers as well. Just a few years ago, the fanciest non-alcoholic drink you could typically find at a restaurant here was a Shirley Temple or a seltzer (back in the day before spiked seltzer was a thing).
Lenny Boy Brewing has been a trendsetter in the alcohol-free space here in Charlotte. For years, the brewery has sold its popular kombucha by the pint, flight, bottle, crowler, growler, and even keg. More recently, places like Haberdish and Elsewhere have gone beyond non-alcoholic options to offered dedicated non-alcoholic drink menus.
These options aren’t cranberry juice in a wine glass, either. They’re objectively good drinks — alcohol presence irrelevant. Haberdish offers the “California Sober,” with ingredients including locally-grown hemp, brown rice syrup, lemon oleo, grapefruit and soda.
Elsewhere features non-alcoholic options like the “So Fun,” which includes Ritual, a zero-proof tequila alternative, pineapple, orange, lime and jalapeno. These aren’t beverages that will earn you a seat at the kid’s table, but they also aren’t going to cause you to dance on the table either.
Still, finding a good non-alcoholic beverage for adults — or better yet, a whole menu dedicated to non-alcoholic drinks — is the exception, not the rule.
If you’re a drinker you might be thinking, “Why don’t you just do other activities instead of going to breweries or bars?” I hear you, and I do certainly spend far less time haunting the bar scene than I did before getting sober. However, alcohol is so ingrained in our culture here that there are few spaces untouched by booze — even some yoga classes offer drink tickets or end with a mimosa.
I’m not a prohibitionist. I don’t judge anyone for drinking. I know alcohol isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t need it to. What I am asking for is more options for those of us that choose not to imbibe, for whatever reason, so when we’re surrounded by drinking, we have something thoughtful and delicious to appreciate too.
Rather than a “good for you” or a pat on the back, I want the fact that I’m not drinking booze to be a non-issue. I want it to be just as normal to order an alcohol-free drink instead of a beer, and I want those options on the menu.
As someone who runs an alcohol-free community called Counterculture Club, I know from conversations I’ve had with other Charlotteans that the demand for more alcohol-free options is here. Every time one of our members goes to a local restaurant or bar with amazing spirit-free drinks, we share photos in our group chat to pass along the good news.
I have reached a point in my sobriety where I no longer think much about drinking, but this mindset shift didn’t happen overnight. I see inclusivity in the drink space as a way to make this transition easier for others who may be a few steps behind me in their sobriety journey.
People are choosing to drink less, so making it easier for them to do so would create a more inclusive environment and help normalize the idea that it’s OK not to drink, for whatever reason you’ve chosen that path.