Non-alcoholic beers become best-sellers as more Kiwis choose sobriety

Craig Cooper has won nearly every beer award going. But nothing prepared him for the reception his latest creation has been getting.

"It's been quite humbling, really," the founder and owner of Bach Brewing says.

All Day IPA has become Bach Brewing's most popular release, and Cooper can't brew it quickly enough. The twist? It's non-alcoholic.

"I believed there was a market there, but the extent of the market has surprised me," he says.

Non-alcoholic means anything under 1.15 percent, versus alcohol-free, which is a flat zero. The process is complicated and often secret, sometimes due to fancy and expensive tech, sometimes just down to the malts and yeast.

Contract-brewed at Steam Brewing in Ōtāhuhu, Bach's All Day IPA beer is 0.4 percent, about the same alcohol content as a ripe banana.

"Through trial and error we got to where we were happy with it, but even then, the first commercial batch we had to tip 5000 litres, and that was fairly painful!" Cooper says.

Boozeless beers aren't exactly new, but for years they've been, well...

"Well, they were rubbish. For a long time, they really were," says Michael Donaldson, editor of beer magazine and website Pursuit of Hoppiness.

That kind of experience was what inspired Cooper to brew All Day IPA in the first place.

"Perhaps people have just accepted that and said that's the compromise you make for 0 percent alcohol. I had that very experience myself and I wasn't willing to compromise."

Donaldson says for years, brewers would keep in some sort of residual sugar to mask the lack of alcohol, meaning they were often too sweet.

But with Kiwi craft brewers like Bach, Sawmill, and Garage Project (which all won bronze medals at the 2021 Brewers Guild awards for their non-alcoholic offerings) jumping onboard, the quality - and perception - has improved.

"There's something to be said for sitting down with your mates, you pull a can out of an eski, it's a branded can, from a popular brewery, and you pour it and it looks like the real thing and it smells like the real thing, and you can actually get a buzz off that as part of the experience," Donaldson says.

"There's huge potential because finally there are things that taste good, and I think that's the bottom line. And that we're making our own here and not necessarily relying on imports. People like to drink locally made," he explains.

The availability of these drinks is timely, as more people say "yeah nah" to the beersies.

The Ministry of Health's 2020-21 Health Survey found 78.5 percent of Kiwi adults chose to drink alcohol in the past year - down 3.1 percent on the previous year, and the lowest it's been in 10 years.

With New Zealanders - especially those in Tāmaki Makaurau - going in and out of lockdowns, it's been a time to look inwards and make changes.

"There was a noticeable surge of people getting in touch when this lockdown kicked in, and they were literally like 'I can't do last lockdown again, can you help me?'" says Claire Robbie, founder of mindful drinking movement No Beers? Who Cares.

Robbie started the movement in 2017. She says the conversations around cutting down, or cutting out, are getting better.

"I think there is a really big shift, like it's incredibly hopeful. I definitely don't feel like a weirdo anymore when I go out and have my cup of tea at a bar sometimes!"

Higher-quality non-alcoholic options, and the money being thrown behind making sobriety look attractive, may be playing a part in helping people ease up.

"Things are absolutely changing, even the market for non-alcoholic drinks has just exploded, so there must be people who are making different choices," Robbie says.

Craig Cooper says his beer's for everyone: whether it's teetotallers missing the taste, sober drivers, or just people wanting to have a night off.

"It looks like a real beer, in the product credentials and the way the brand and the packaging looks, it's very much the authentic thing. And it's designed to be like that."

But can you convince someone to pay $20 for a six pack of non-alcoholic beers, or $65 for a Seedlip spirit, over the old faithfuls like Coke or Fanta?

"I think you have to appreciate how really difficult this is, the research and development that's gone into these beers," says Donaldson.

And the better it is for people's palates, the better it'll be for their heads.