Food & Drink

Counterculture Club to Host Charlotte’s First Nonalcoholic Beverage Festival

Molly Ruggere, founder of Counterculture Club, poses with drinks
Counterculture Club’s Molly Ruggere came up with the idea for a nonalcoholic beverage festival. (Courtesy of Counterculture Club)

January is a time for new beginnings, when people attempt to start the new year off on good footing. In recent years, “Dry January” has become a more popular part of those efforts, with participants swearing off alcohol for the month. In 2022, data for how many people took on Dry January ranged from 20% of legal-aged adults ( to 35% (CNN), but one thing that remains clear is that the movement has only trended up since originating in the UK a decade ago. 

It’s not easy; alcohol has a hold on our society in a way that many folks don’t notice until they try to leave it behind. From pop songs to TV shows, references and reminders of drinking are everywhere, and alcohol is on virtually every menu. For those who are in recovery, pregnant, nursing, or simply don’t want to drink, their options are limited. 

That’s what inspired Molly Ruggere to create a movement to push back on the belief that a social life must revolve around drinking.

“If something doesn’t exist, why don’t I just make it?” she asked.

Ruggere is the founder of Counterculture Club, a Charlotte-based organization that serves as a global community for people who want to lessen or eliminate their dependence on alcohol. On Jan. 21, the organization will host the inaugural Counterculture Festival, Charlotte’s first nonalcoholic beverage festival

Ruggere, who grew up in Charlotte, was living in New York when she decided to get sober in 2018. 

“I had been using alcohol to cope with the stressors,” she said. “It started to wear on me as I was getting into my later twenties, and I was kind of compromising my mental health.”

According to Ruggere, one of the toughest parts for her was trying to keep any semblance of a social life while not entering situations that tempted her to drink. 

“I felt like my life was over — my social life was over — because there was literally nothing alcohol-free that was social and no way for me to meet people,” she said.

The difficulties created a strain on Ruggere’s mindset. The traditional 12-step program didn’t work for her. Since she couldn’t find the right community, she eventually made one of her own.

In 2020, Ruggere moved back to Charlotte and created Counterculture Club to cater to people who wanted to let go of their dependence on alcohol. The organization hosts members-only events, public events, and offers life-coaching services. The events range from yoga to alcohol-free pop-up bars and happy hours. 

Ruggere said the organization’s focus is on changing not just behavior but mindset and cultural perspective.

“You don’t have to stay home every night and drink water,” she said. “That’s why oftentimes people don’t stick with Dry January because they don’t integrate it into their lives. They try to just isolate themselves from everything fun and exercise and just take away the pleasure and joy of things, and that makes it not sustainable.” 

People doing outdoor yoga
Counterculture Club hosts yoga at Camp North End. (Photo courtesy of Counterculture Club)

In addition to founding Counterculture Club, Ruggere is a writer, certified life coach, and alcohol freedom coach, a term she uses in place of sobriety coach because sobriety may not be the end goal.

“I’m not a sober coach. I’m not trying to get people sober if that’s not going to work for them or that’s not going to make them happy,” she said. “My goal is to help them reach their ideal relationship with alcohol in whatever way that looks.”

She hopes to prove to others that living without alcohol isn’t a bad thing. Too often people feel stigmatized about not wanting to drink, she said, and finding the courage to let go of something, a decision which may later open many doors, is a beautiful thing.

A global community

Though based in Charlotte, Ruggere said Counterculture Club is a global community for individuals who want to experience a social life without alcohol, or at least alcohol dependence. 

“In order to create cultural change, which is what we want to do, we have to also speak to everyone,” she said. 

According to the organization’s website: “Counterculture Club is a global alcohol-free community based in Charlotte, NC, created for free thinkers who don’t buy into the mainstream societal narrative that we need to drink to connect with others or to be the best version of ourselves.

 “Through a vibrant global online and local in-person member network, large-scale alcohol-free social events, and modern, science-based alcohol freedom coaching, Counterculture Club provides individuals with the support and resources they need to take their power back from alcohol for good—no labels, willpower or a lifetime commitment to alcohol abstinence required.”

The organization consists of online and in-person memberships. As it was founded during the height of the pandemic, virtual membership was critical. Counterculture’s online community flourished, with members in Arizona, Florida, and even New Zealand. 

“We meet virtually every week,” Ruggere said. “And then a couple of times a month for special events, [such as Christmas]. We sent books to our Secret Santa, and then we met and we did a little holiday party.”

The organization’s first happy hour event was a huge success, Ruggere recalled. 

“We sold out and had a line at the door. It was packed the whole time,” she said. “And it was a perfect mix of drinkers, non-drinkers, people in recovery, people that aren’t in recovery.”

There was also a varied age range of guests from mid-twenties to older generations, something Ruggere was happy to see. After successfully creating this community of folks who were shedding their dependence on alcohol, she took it a step further and created Charlotte’s first nonalcoholic beverage festival.

Two people cheers with nonalcoholic beverages
Attendees drink nonalcoholic beverages at a Counterculture Club event. (Photo courtesy of Counterculture Club)

A festival of firsts

The Counterculture Festival is not only the first event of its kind in Charlotte, it’s the first in the southeast as far Ruggere can tell. Queen City Nerve’s own search turned up past events in Washington D.C.; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; London; and Melbourne, Australia; but nothing regionally.  

The festival is scheduled to take place Jan. 21 from 3-8 p.m. at Camp North End. At the time of our conversation, VIP tickets for the event had nearly sold out.

The festival will feature nonalcoholic beverages from national breweries like Athletic Brewing Company and local breweries like Resident Culture and NoDa Brewing. There will be more than just beverages at the festival, however. Attendees can expect live music, tarot card readings, and panel discussions.

Ruggere, who has never hosted a festival, said the planning is “taking over her life,” but she’s enjoyed the epiphanies she’s had along the way.

“[Hosting a festival is] something I never would have ever thought to do had I not gone through the process of quitting drinking,” she said. “But that process showed me how capable I am and gave me all this confidence that I just never had before.”

Launching the event during Dry January is sure to gain the attention of people who might not typically attend an event like this, but that’s part of the plan.

“What better time than Dry January when it’s societally okay to not drink to have that event?” she asked.

There will be a pre-festival event on Thursday, Jan. 19, where attendees will explore several nonalcoholic beverages, but the majority of the events will take place at the main festival. 

 “It’s just fun to have unlimited capacity to kind of create whatever we want and to be the first,” Ruggere said. “Doing something like this in Charlotte and hopefully not only bringing more awareness to all the nonalcoholic options out there, but also showing people, just because you’re doing Dry January doesn’t mean you can’t go out and have fun and socialize. Willpower is a finite resource.”

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