Food & DrinkFood Features

The Sober Curious Movement Continues to Grow in Charlotte

Exploring the gray areas of the sobriety spectrum

a portrait of Molly Ruggere and her mom at Counterculture Fest
Molly Ruggere, founder of Counterculture Club, with her mom, Lisa Ruggere at the inaugural Counterculture Fest in January 2023. (Courtesy of Molly Ruggere)

The idea of exploring sobriety and what that means has changed within the last few years. 

Sobriety describes the act of abstaining from substance use, whether that be alcohol, tobacco … you name it. When someone decides to become sober or explore the idea, telling others can hold a lot of weight due to the association people make between sobriety and alcoholism and dysfunction.

Without realizing it, people can put others in a box when it isn’t necessary. There’s a spectrum when it comes to alcohol use, with a lot more gray area than one might think. 

The sober curious movement has gained ground around the country in recent years, allowing folks to explore these gray areas without labels — a pathway to a more inclusive community of mindful drinkers.

The movement aims to challenge drinking culture, improve personal health and well-being, and offer support for others to create sustainable and less risky alcohol habits.

Sober-curious drinkers may take a week or month off from alcohol, attending more social events that don’t revolve around happy hours or open bars, while remaining open to having a couple of beers on the weekend with friends, for example. 

Establishments that serve alcohol have picked up on the rise in popularity of the sober curious movement, with more breweries and bars offering a wider range of mocktails and other non-alcoholic options. 

Resident Culture, for example, released its non-alcoholic, THC-infused drink Cümulo in September 2023, a first-of-its-kind offering in the state. 

The beverage is described as a full-spectrum plant-based social beverage infused with hemp-derived Delta-9 THC and CBD, L-Theanine, and natural fruit flavor. 

The brewery hopes the CBD-infused drink provides an alternative to those who still want to relax and unwind without alcohol being in the mix.

a portrait of na beers provided at Counterculture Fest in Charlotte, NC
Non-alcoholic lager options from Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing at the Counterculture Fest in Charlotte. (Courtesy of Molly Rugerre)

Michael Daniels, a bartender at Wooden Robot’s South End location, has worked in the industry for the past three years. He said Cümulo delivers on its promise of relaxation.

“I’ve had the drink twice, and it’s done the trick both times. As someone who regularly smokes, there’s no difference,” he said.

He noted, however, that he hasn’t seen much interest in the drink as an alternative to alcohol as much as an alternative to marijuana. 

“Fused drinks will probably be more thought of as an alternative for smoking than for drinking,” he said. “People who smoke but might be predisposed to lung diseases would be more likely to switch to THC alternatives than someone who’s looking to drink.” 

However, the number of bars and restaurants that have begun serving mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages besides water and soda has steadily increased locally in recent years.

Shifting the narrative around sober lifestyles

The drinking culture in Charlotte is changing, and Counterculture Club has catapulted the sober curious movement forward. It serves as a testament to the need for more inclusive drinking spaces for people who want to change their drinking habits.

Counterculture Club held its first festival at Camp North End in January 2023, with more than 500 people in attendance. Counterculture Club founder Molly Ruggere said she was “shocked” at the turnout, despite having spent the past four years hosting similar pop-ups since founding the organization in 2020. 

“There was a mix of drinkers, non-drinkers, and all other kinds of people,” she said of January’s festival. “It allowed people to feel comfortable talking about drinking in a non-judgemental way.” 

The festival featured tastings of non-alcoholic beverages, pop-up beverage shops, panel discussions and giveaways. It proved to be a success, with Ruggere holding the second annual fest in January 2024 at Camp North End.

Before that, Counterculture Club has hosted regular events including outdoor yoga, virtual Q&As, workshops, social meetups, and more. The organization’s mission is to promote a more mindful, inclusive drinking culture and community.

“When I started Counterculture Club, I wanted to create sober events because it felt like there was nothing out there for people who don’t drink. I thought, ‘If I want to go do healthy activities, I’m sure there are other people that want to do that too,’” Ruggere told Queen City Nerve.

She points to Restaurant Constance as an example of establishment that practices inclusivity within Charlotte’s drinking culture. She explained that restaurateur Sam Diminich, who has been open about his own experience with sobriety and recovery, is creating a more thoughtful, expansive NA menu.

“As a sober person I have seen a void in restaurants providing a ‘full experience’ while dining out,” Diminich said about the NA menu back in January. “Most places, at least historically, make water the only option or a mocktail that is an afterthought. For us, it’s part of our identity as a restaurant — and our community has embraced it.”

a portrait of Ben Colvin, founder of Devils Foot Beverage Co, at Counterculture Fest
Scenes from the 2nd annual Counterculture Fest. (Courtesy of Molly Rugerre)

The restaurant’s menu includes craft, non-alcoholic beverages on par with the city’s best cocktails. She was impressed when her waitress helped her pair one of them with the fish course that she had ordered. 

“The interaction I had is the kind of experience that people crave and fear they’ll lose by cutting back on drinking,” she said. “Sometimes, people just want to have that pretty drink. As silly as it sounds, it’s super important. It’s not enough to just have a Diet Coke on the menu.”

Ruggere says she’s beginning to see Charlotte’s drinking culture lean into the market of NA beers, wines, and infused drinks and expects to see that ramp up in the coming years.

“The more we can make Charlotte’s drinking culture mindful, blended, and healthier by providing more non-alcoholic beverages, the easier it will be for people to have those options without that decision being stigmatized.” 

Finding who you are without alcohol

Robbie Shaw, founder of EVRYBDY Studios and host of the Champagne Problems podcast, explains that losing one’s sense of identity is a common fear for those who are on a journey to sobriety or a path to more mindful drinking.

“It’s tough to remove that time you have with your friends to maybe have a glass or two after a week of work when you can be carefree and let loose. That’s an enjoyable time,” Shaw says. “But once you start taking the glass away, you might have a little social anxiety. Maybe you’re not as loose and can’t laugh as loud, and that sounds a little scary.”

Shaw described a common inner dialogue occurring within some people as they begin to explore a sober curious path with questions like: Am I fun to be around? Am I funny? Am I too boring? Am I too quiet? Will people like me as much?

Shaw, who has been open about his 18-year journey through sobriety, discussed how generational substance abuse affected him on Episode 23 of Champagne Problems, titled “Breaking the Cycle.” 

He explained the complexities of addiction and the amount of factors to consider when trying to understand its roots — genetics, personality types, behavioral patterns, etc. 

portrait of Robbie Shaw, the host of a popular podcast called Champagne Problems in Charlotte.
Robbie Shaw, founder of EVRYBDY Studios and host of The Champagne Problems podcast. (Courtesy of Molly Rugerre)

“I broke the cycle in my family,” he told Queen City Nerve. “My father was an alcoholic. His mother and father were both alcoholics. The cycle went straight to me, and I was going to continue the legacy of being an alcoholic and treat my own child the way that my dad treated me, and his dad treated him. 

“I quit drinking before I had my daughter. She’s never seen me drink or seen me come home in a terrible mood because I’m hungover,” he continued. “There’s a level of communication and understanding that she and I have that I didn’t have with my dad, and he didn’t have with his dad, and on and on and on…”

“That’s the breaking of the cycle,” he said. “Adversity is a powerful thing. We avoid it at all costs, yet it is the thing that helps us grow the most.”

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