Non-alcoholic beers have been quite the buzz lately and are right now likely chilling in many refrigerators since we are in the midst of Dry January.
However, that growing observation of a month without booze as a cleansing period after an alcohol-heavy holiday season isn't the only factor fueling non-alcoholic beer sales. There's an increased interest in health and wellness that includes healthier-for-you beverages and more people being sober curious.
"I think we're seeing a moderation trend with an increase in awareness around well-being for many consumers," said Christopher Mohr, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant at MohrResults.com.
Non-alcoholic beer sales have risen as a result. Sales of non-alcoholic beers at retail (not including bars and restaurants) grew 28% in 2021 to slightly more than $298 million, according to Bump Williams Consulting of Shelton, Connecticut, which services the beverage alcohol industry, and uses Nielsen data.
Non-alcoholic beers used to be consumed by "old-timers or perhaps some folks who had experienced over-indulgence in their past life. Not today," said Williams, a beverage industry analyst.
The taste, quality and image of non-alcoholic beer fits with "what people are aspiring to embrace with their new health and wellness attitudes," he said.
To meet consumer demand, beer makers have brought new products to market from Heineken 0.0 and Bud Zero to Samuel Adams Just the Haze, a non-alcoholic hazy IPA, and a lineup of exclusively non-alcoholic beers from Athletic Brewing Co., founded in 2017, which has breweries in Stratford, Connecticut, and San Diego.
Dry January has drawn consumers to Athletic Brewing's beers, said co-founder Bill Shufelt. "It is a time when we see many new consumers discover our brand."
About 80% of those who drink Athletic non-alcoholic beers also drink beer with alcohol, he said, because "it allows them to enjoy a great tasting beer without compromising their goals."
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Are non-alcoholic beers healthy?
So more people are buying non-alcoholic beers – and more options are coming to market. But are they healthy? That depends.
If you are opting for a non-alcoholic beer, you are making a healthier choice. That's because "the biggest benefit for health from a regular beer to a non-alcoholic beer is the absence of alcohol," said Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of "How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook."
Alcohol in moderation is allowed under most health guidelines, but a large 2018 study published in The Lancet found "the safest level of drinking is none."
So non-alcoholic beer is a healthy substitute if you want to quit drinking alcohol.
"Alcohol is toxic to the body and needs to be processed by the liver," Hultin said. "It interacts with a lot of medications, so there's many reasons that a person may want to choose a non-alcoholic variety."
Some experts are concerned that non-alcoholic beers could trigger relapses in those in recovery from alcohol addiction. “Really, anything can be a trigger if a person associates it with past drinking – the smell, the taste, the location, who’s there, the occasion or social setting," Hosia Keene of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation treatment center in Bellevue, Washington, told Treatment magazine.
"Someone who’s fresh in recovery may not be able to have that protective factor with non-alcoholic beer," she said, "whereas someone who has been in recovery for 20 years might say, ‘Yeah, it’s fine.’”
No alcohol in non-alcoholic beer? Really?
Despite their name, most non-alcoholic beers may have a bit of alcohol, typically up to 0.5% by volume. (Just check the label for the alcohol level.)
Back in 2010, a study found found 29% of non-alcohol and low-alcohol beverages tested had more alcohol than stated on the label.
Athletic Brewing's Shufelt said those findings are not reflective of today's marketplace.
Traditionally, non-alcoholic beers have been made with alcohol and then additional processing removed most of the alcohol. More recently, new methods of brewing allow the production of beers with no alcohol at all.
Heineken 0.0, the top-selling non-alcoholic beer in the U.S., and another big seller, Bud Zero, are both completely alcohol-free.
Counting calories or carbs? Check beer labels
Non-alcoholic beers also have calories and carbohydrates, which you may want to keep in mind. Typically, a regular beer can have about 153 calories and a non-alcoholic beer about 133, according to medical news site Healthline.
When it comes to carbs, non-alcoholic beers may actually have more than regular beers, typically about 29 grams, compared to 13 grams for a regular beer, Healthline found.
Just check the label and it's easy to find non-alcoholic beers with fewer calories and carbs. For instance, Heineken 0.0 has 69 calories, about 16 grams of carbs; Bud Zero has 50 calories and 11.5 grams of carbs. Athletic's Upside Dawn golden ale has 50 calories, 12 grams of carbs, while its All Out extra dark ale has 90 calories and 21 grams of carbs.
Carbs in beer – whether it's non-alcoholic or not – come primarily from grains, yeast and added ingredients such as lactose, which can give a smooth quality to the beer. If calories and carbs are a concern, you can check the label for nutritional information.
"Yes, some non-alcoholic beers may actually have more carbs than regular beers, but others don't," Mohr said. "To me here it's not about carbs or calories, choosing non-alcoholic drinks is about the alcohol itself."
Less alcohol also usually means fewer calories, he said, because alcohol has more calories per gram (7) than do carbohydrates (4).
The bottom line: Non-alcoholic beers give consumers healthy options.
"There are some rich flavored non-alcoholic beers that I turn to myself when I want the flavor or even the camaraderie with friends, but not the side effects of alcohol," Mohr said. "It's amazing to have these options – that can be just as flavorful as their alcoholic counterparts – for those who don't want to drink for a night, for a month or forever."
Other non-alcoholic options
If calories, carbs and small amounts of alcohol are concerns, there are other sipping options: sparkling waters.
Brewers are tapping into that trend, too. Athletic Brewing has four flavors of DayPack sparkling water. All are made with zero calories, carbs or sugar.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. recently released the newest non-alcoholic option into the market: Hop Splash Sparkling Hop-Infused Water. Containing no alcohol, calories, carbs or sugar, the sparkling water has a "big hop aroma and flavor," said Robin Gregory, the brewery's director of communications.
Consumer research found many "aren't necessarily looking to replace beer in their life," she said. "A lot of people just maybe wanted to cut back on alcohol for whatever reason, or just want to have more beverage options."
Hop craving? Drench it with Hop Splash, our new sparkling hop-infused water that goes 100% on hop flavor and nada on everything else: 0.0% ABV, 0 calories, 0g carbs, 0g sugar. Pre-order now - https://t.co/hl4vOTHMzz pic.twitter.com/eXyWRxUENm
— Sierra Nevada Beer (@SierraNevada) January 3, 2022
Speaking of water, that's a readily available beverage with no alcohol, calories, or carbs, too. Water should be "the predominant beverage in anyone's diet," Hultin said.
But if you want to drink non-alcoholic beers, she said, "I often recommend people use (them) like they would a regular beer – one, maybe two, per day and probably not on all days."
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dry January isn't the only time to consider non-alcoholic beers