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Zero-proof: Behind the growing popularity of an alcohol-free lifestyle

A woman takes a non-alcoholic Limello Spritz from the table, while there are the other non-alcoholic cocktails Gin Tonic, Aperol Spritz and a zero-percent sparkling wine. (Annette Riedl/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
A woman takes a non-alcoholic Limello Spritz from the table, while there are the other non-alcoholic cocktails Gin Tonic, Aperol Spritz and a zero-percent sparkling wine. (Annette Riedl/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

It’s hard to miss the increasing popularity of non-alcoholic drinks, and the growing number of people choosing an alcohol-free lifestyle.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who consume alcohol has remained steady over the past two decades.

Except in one group: For younger adults between ages 18 and 34, it’s dropped by 10%. So what’s driving the shift?

Today, On Point: Who’s living the zero-proof life, and why.

Guests

Emily Nicholls, sociologist at the University of York.

Elva Ramirez, journalist and media consultant. Author of “Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking.

Also Featured

Syd Robinson, co-founder of That Reality Bar.

Arielle Ashford, co-founder of Unity Recovery and co-owner of The Volstead, a vegan restaurant and zero-proof bar in Philadelphia.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We’re almost halfway through January 2024 already. How are those resolutions going? I’m rooting for you. I really am. Especially if you’ve resolved to cut back on or cut out alcohol from your life completely.

SYD ROBINSON: I have always been an on and off drinker. I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve just randomly decided to stop, and then times when I’ve picked it up again.

But I stopped drinking fully in October of 2022 and it was for a variety of reasons.

CHAKRABARTI: So this is Syd Robinson. She’s a writer living in Brooklyn, New York, and you’ve certainly noticed what she said. Syd isn’t just trying out a dry January. She hasn’t had a drink for more than a year. And why is that? One reason.

Even though she’s just 27 years old, drinking often made Syd feel terrible the next day.

ROBINSON: I also have a family history of alcoholism. My mom is 10 years sober and a huge motivator for me. And I think the biggest turning point for me was I left a relationship with someone because of their drinking.

CHAKRABARTI: Syd tells us that she feels lucky that she could stop drinking alcohol by choice.

However, it wasn’t just a snap your fingers and ‘Voila!’ kind of transition.

Syd says she was a social drinker. She could always live without alcohol if she wanted to, and she wasn’t drinking every day. But Syd was also, or is, still is, an introvert. Going out is fun for her, but only for a while. Because before she stopped drinking, soon she’d feel that classic introvert exhaustion from having to put out so much energy in social situations.

So to keep herself going, Syd often felt like she had to keep drinking. Now the hard part for her wasn’t giving up the alcohol. It was the way it changed her social life.

ROBINSON: At first, I was really discouraged. I made the choice and I immediately started looking up places of community. Some of the only sober centered things were like, I remember there was one that was a trip to The Statue of Liberty.

And I was like, “Oh my God, what have I done?” Like I understand why young, I understand why young people don’t quit drinking. They feel like there’s nothing to do.

CHAKRABARTI: Eventually, Syd did find other alcohol-free groups. And she wonders if the pandemic might have helped those groups grow. Alcohol consumption went up during the lockdowns, but after that, Syd thinks people sought out new kinds of communities that weren’t centered on drinking.

And she says the relationships she’s built in those communities are much stronger.

ROBINSON: Oh my God, so much more authentic and like when you think about it, like even before I stopped drinking, the relationships that I really valued were ones that I had with childhood friends, before alcohol was a thing. Or with coworkers, and you weren’t drinking at work. Like all the relationships that had already mattered to me were not alcohol centered.

CHAKRABARTI: That is such an interesting insight. 15 months later, Syd’s decision to give up drinking entirely has transformed her life. The biggest thing for me that I think I’ve developed is boundary setting, which is something I’ve really struggled with in the past, whereas now If I’m out at a bar and people get to the point where everyone’s slurring their words or repeating stories, like I have no problem just like leaving. And I have no problem telling people I don’t really want to do that, but let’s do something else in the future.

And that has translated to my personal relationship, my work life. I have gotten a lot more into running. I started an advanced business with my best friend, I have so much time and I do so many more things. That’s the tip of the iceberg, but the transformation I’ve seen in my life since I’ve stopped has been crazy.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. It wasn’t too hard to find someone like Syd. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans overall who consume alcohol has remained steady over the past two decades, except in one group, younger adults, between the ages of 18 and 34. In the early 2000s, more than 70% of that age group said they drink alcohol.

Today that’s dropped by 10% down to 62%. There’s this question. The growth of the zero-proof lifestyle. Who’s living it and what is driving it? We’re going to talk about that today with Emily Nicholls. She’s a sociologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom. And she joins us from York. Emily, welcome to On Point.

EMILY NICHOLLS: Oh, hi Meghna. It’s lovely to meet you and thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Likewise. Now when I first cited those Gallup numbers, those were for Americans and the change in alcohol consumption in this country. But are you, have you seen similar things in the UK or the rest of the world, or parts of the rest of the world, at least?

NICHOLLS: Yes, absolutely. The part of the world that we tend to refer to as the global north, so the UK, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Europe, we’ve seen this pattern across all of these countries. Decreases in drinking amongst the younger generation and drinking holding steady amongst older consumers.

It’s definitely a much broader pattern than just the U.S. Which I think is very interesting.

CHAKRABARTI: That is so fascinating because drinking or alcohol consumption is such a deep part of the culture and social aspects of so many of these countries. Can you tell me, first of all, let’s just focus on where you are.

What have you seen in the UK?

NICHOLLS: So very similar patterns. And interestingly, hearing Syd talk earlier. A lot of these themes coming through in UK as well. So younger generations really moving away from alcohol, either drinking more lightly or not drinking at all. And often tying that into reasons of kind of health wellbeing but also ideas of having more time, being more productive and being more authentic, as well.

So these very similar themes that seem to be emerging in the UK as well, around people’s kind of motivations and reasons for not drinking.

CHAKRABARTI: So can you tell me a little bit more about when the, because the numbers I quoted were basically 20 years apart, a lot of people, and Syd mentioned this too, did most of that growth in terms of the choice to either reduce or cut out alcohol come pre, post pandemic, when?

NICHOLLS: I think it’s probably safe to say that this was in motion pre-pandemic. So the idea that drinking peaked around the kind of early 2000s, we also saw young women’s drinking, for example, increasing to catch up with the drinking practices and levels of young men. And since the kind of mid 2000s we’ve seen what researchers have called to, referred to as a drinking decline.

So it’s been in motion before the pandemic, but it would be interesting to speculate and think about the ways in which the pandemic and that shift away from public drinking might have accelerated that process as well. Or, changed the ways in which people socialize with and without alcohol.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So one more thing about the trends then. Are we seeing the reduction, amongst young adults again, the reduction in the percentage of people drinking equal between the genders? Is it different based on socioeconomic status? Give me a little more granular understanding of who’s choosing the alcohol-free life.

NICHOLLS: Yeah, I think there’s variations. And I think, interestingly, researchers are still digging into the nuances of this trend and wanting to be careful not to just say, it’s this blanket decline. It’s this really positive change. I think there are nuances there, but in terms of gender, I don’t think we’re seeing a huge gender difference.

There is a bit of a gender difference in the kind of communities that young people might be accessing, which we can certainly talk about. But in terms of levels of drinking, or the decline, I think that’s holding stable across genders, socioeconomic class. Again, changes across the board, but differences perhaps in how people are accessing support, communities.

And so I think age really is the key factor here in terms of where we’re seeing this kind of polarization with young people drinking less and older cohorts tending to, as I say, hold steady or perhaps even drink more as in recent years.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So just so that folks know, we didn’t just pick the Gallup poll as our reason for doing this conversation.

Emily, as you said, there are a number of surveys and studies out there that sort of indicate the same trends. There’s one from the University of Michigan here in the United States that found that the share of college age adults abstaining from alcohol has grown to 28% over the past couple of decades.

So we’re looking at almost a third of college students, according to this University of Michigan study. And then another one from a company called Berenberg Research. They said that about 20%, that Gen Z are drinking 20% less alcohol than Millennials did at their age. So that’s actually a very short term, a large change over a very short period of time.

Emily, I’d love to dig in a little bit more into the whys, right? You quickly went through some of the reasons, but let’s talk about them individually. What would you think is the largest driver for this right now?

NICHOLLS: Again, I think there’s probably variations particularly across different contexts and perhaps for different individuals, but to me, I think that there’s an increasing kind of pressure and expectation on young people to be always on.

So a group of researchers in the UK have called this hustle culture. The idea that young people can’t really have downtime in the same way that they used to. They need to be working on a side hustle, that there’s an increasing sense of anxiety for the future and a need to get ahead and perhaps to be your kind of best self, if you like.

So this idea that young people can’t actually afford to have a hangover or can’t afford to have a heavy night of drinking because one’s leisure time needs to be used product productively. So I think there’s a real sense that, much as we might celebrate the decline in youth drinking, I think it is also bound up with some of these perhaps more negative factors, like young people feeling that they can’t switch off and relax with alcohol or use alcohol in the same way as older generations might have done.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow. Okay. Have you spoken to people who told you that’s one of the main, one of the reasons why they’ve stopped drinking?

NICHOLLS: Yes, absolutely. So one of the key findings in my most recent research, which was looking at no and low alcohol drinks and why people drink them, one of the main reasons that my participants gave, particularly the younger participants, was this idea of needing to be productive the next day.

So one of them literally said, “I can’t afford to have a hangover. I’ve got my own independent business that I run on a weekend alongside my 9 to 5 job in the week,” for example. So this idea of needing to be productive, needing to get out there and exercise, get up early, make the most of the day, was really common across a lot of the data that I collected and a lot of the people that I spoke to.

CHAKRABARTI: Ah, okay. I’m very glad that you pointed to that, because that’s not the first one that would have popped to mind when thinking about this. So it gives us a more realistic view about what’s driving this trend.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Emily, couple more reasons which I’m seeing young people share about why they’ve decided to stop or drastically reduce drinking. And one of them is actually a strange positive unification between health awareness and social media.

I’m seeing a lot of young folks, Gen-Z’ers, saying due to social media we want to be healthier, we’re working out more and we get all these messages all the time about the negative effects of alcohol on the body and how that’s informed their decisions. What do you think about that?

NICHOLLS: Yeah. I absolutely agree. Absolutely. And I’m reporting similar findings in my own data collection that health, both mental and physical, are a huge factor in decisions to stop drinking or reduce drinking. I think younger people are much more aware, as you suggest, of the kinds of impacts of alcohol on the body and the associated health risks.

And I think we see an interesting divergence here where, in relation to mental health and being, older generations might have actually used alcohol as a coping mechanism, whereas the younger cohort associate alcohol with risks to both mental and physical health. So they move away from using drinking in that way.

I’ve certainly found in my own research that amongst the young people I’ve spoken to, there is definitely discussion of physical health, but actually mental health has come through more significantly. Maybe there’s variation here across different countries and settings.

And it’s not to say that physical health is not important, but for me, what’s really struck me is the associations they make between excessive drinking and poor mental health and the kinds of proactive choices they’ve made to stop drinking or reduce drinking to manage that.

CHAKRABARTI: I think that is a commonality across the Atlantic here, also in the United States, Emily. I’m also wondering if a significant factor is that if not alcohol, there actually still are other options.

Here in the United States, one particular option has grown dramatically in its availability and legality. For example, there’s been some articles written in the U.S. where young people are saying, I’ve given up drinking. However, I will occasionally take cannabis. Because A, it’s legal and I can get it and it provides some of the sense of a momentary pause or relaxation or what have you that alcohol once did, but they believe that it’s a better way to achieve that.

What do you think?

NICHOLLS: Yeah, this is such an interesting question, and the number one thing I get asked when I say that young people are drinking less is, okay, what are they doing instead? Are they doing drugs? Are they engaging in other so called risky behaviors? And I guess the picture might be quite different in places like the States. But certainly, in the UK and other parts of Europe, where most of Europe, where the rules around and legislation around marijuana use are much stricter.

We’re actually not seeing a transfer to other kinds of substance use. And actually, we’re seeing a decline in risky behavior, if you like, across the board. So young people taking less substances of all kinds, engaging in less risky sexual practices, for example. But it would be interesting to think about whether there is some variation there in countries where marijuana is legal.

So I’m not sure about that exact picture, but overall, I think we are seeing a decline in all those kinds of behaviors.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s so interesting. Just to put a data point on what’s happening here in the United States, obviously the use of cannabis amongst younger adults has grown with its legality and availability.

The federal government says that almost 30% of young men and women across the country say they use cannabis, or they use marijuana at least occasionally. Almost 30% of young people here. You said that there’s also a decline in overall risky behavior, Emily. Very interesting, because I hear, in the zeitgeist, I hear a lot of people say it’s because these people, these generations are really perfectly digital natives, right?

They’re just on their phones all the time. They may be home more often. Everything they need, they can get through streaming or through apps, et cetera, that it’s just a reduction in adventurousness. Maybe I can put it that way, that we’re seeing. That is partially translating into the choice of living a zero-proof life.

NICHOLLS: Yeah, I think there’s definitely something there. So we’re seeing a lot of shift of, a shift to socializing online, for example, to video games, young people socializing more at home, remotely with their friends. So I guess alcohol might have less of a place if you’re socializing online or playing video games.

Also, with young people staying at home longer, we’re seeing research reporting changes in parenting style, where parents are being less permissive. So young people have less access to alcohol in the first place. They might be socializing less in public spaces where they get their hands on alcohol underage.

And we know that certainly young people are initiating drinking later. So I think, yeah, there’s a whole kind of raft of changes that have moved young people back into the home or kept them in the home for longer and more where they’re socializing externally less. And I imagine that’s definitely impacting on young people’s drinking or nondrinking practices.

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. Okay. Emily, stand by for just a moment because we also want to talk about how with this pretty significant change that doesn’t seem to be losing steam anytime soon, that there are new markets growing up around that change. So Let’s talk about some businesses, in particular.

ARIELLE ASHFORD: When we opened the Volstead in 2022, finding the brands to bring them into Philly at first was a challenge.

Like we were like the only stop in Philly on their delivery route, right? Now, all of a sudden, like it’s opening up other restauranteurs minds, of, “Oh my goodness, I had never thought of that.” And there’s money to be made by offering these other forms of drinks, of these zero proof cocktails.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Arielle Ashford.

She’s the co-founder of The Volstead, the first zero proof bar in Philadelphia, which opened in 2022. Since then, she’s seen remarkable growth in zero proof options from big alcohol makers themselves.

ASHFORD: Now, two years later, you have zero proof White Claw. That wasn’t a thing a couple of years ago. (LAUGHS) You have these big brands that are taking notice.

So I think that’s what’s really exciting, being on the other side. Is like, oh, these movements, this sober curious movement is absolutely making waves.

CHAKRABARTI: Still, Arielle says that she thinks the zero proof drinks are in their infancy. The industry may be seeing an opportunity, but the demand the opportunity is trying to meet comes in waves.

ASHFORD: Dry January, sober October, like it is standing room only. You need to have a reservation like a month in advance. Like it’s popping. Just like I think with most restaurants, depending on where in the nation you are, you have your up months and you’ve got your down months. But what I think is exciting is that then we have to remember there’s also like pregnant and nursing moms.

They are just opting not to drink right now because of the life stage of their body right now. So there’s always these different constituencies. Maybe there’s friends who don’t drink because of religious reasons. And we don’t need to dislike the othering for people who are not drinking for whatever reason.

CHAKRABARTI: So we asked Arielle one more question. From mocktails to zero proof beers and wines, is the alcohol-free movement here to stay?

ASHFORD: I think it’s here to stay. I think we will continue to see numbers growing. I really got to shout out, like Gen Z really is they’re looking at all the angles.

Like they have stories from their parents or maybe aunties or uncles. They’ve lived through some stuff, and they want to make sure that they are, like, set up and moving through life in ways that they would be proud of. Hey, what’s the natural next step? Zero proof drinks.

CHAKRABARTI: Arielle Ashford. She’s the co-founder of The Volstead, the first zero proof bar in Philadelphia.

Now, Emily, I want to bring another voice into the conversation. Elva Ramirez joins us. She’s a journalist and media consultant who covers spirits, hospitality, and the growing zero proof industry. She’s also author of “Zero Proof: 90 Non-Alcoholic Recipes for Mindful Drinking.” Elva, welcome to On Point.

ELVA RAMIREZ: Hello. Thank you for having me. So happy to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, how would you describe the growth in zero proof sales amongst alcohol makers?

RAMIREZ: Let’s put it this way. So sometimes the no and low categories are grouped together for market data. So low, meaning low ABV, which would be something like a Campari or a vermouth.

So a number that I can give you is that in terms of the no and low markets, it’s valued at $10 billion in research, right? And retail right now. So that’s a lot of money. And that’s, of course, combining those two categories, but it definitely shows the momentum behind. The interest in no and non-alcoholic spirits and non-alcoholic spirit substitutes.

So the market is growing. And one other really quick number I’ll throw at you because these stories that you’ve been sharing are absolutely fantastic. And they’re talking a lot about, if you look at it from a really big picture point of view, it’s really about consumer choice. People want more choice. They want more options. And one of the biggest drivers of the nonalcoholic market actually are people who still drink. So about the IWSR, and Distill Ventures released a study in October of 2022, and they found that about 82%, over 80% of consumers who drink nonalcoholic cocktails also drink alcoholic, or traditional cocktails.

And so people just want more options. They want to be able to have the freedom to switch back and forth and be able to extend their nights. So even if, I liken it to the success of Oatly, for example, or Impossible Burger, where people who, people who still want oat milk might also still drink dairy.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. No, that’s a really good metaphor for it. Actually, I think we should pin down some definitions here. Because you’re right when you said low or no, I haven’t, we haven’t actually described what that is. So how would you, what is no alcohol? Is that truly zero proof or below what, 0.5%?

What is it?

RAMIREZ: Even lower. It’s a little hazy, but it’s about less than 1%. Let’s put it that way. So it’ll be the non, it’ll be the completely nonalcoholic beers and spirits and distillates like Seedlip, for example they will, they basically will go through the process as if to make a fermented or a distillate, but they stop before their alcohol actually comes into the equation.

So it will have that complexity and that mouthfeel and the botanicals, but they stop the process before the alcohol actually comes into play. And then low is things that do have alcohol, like Campari is an example, or vermouth. And I only bring that up not to muddy the conversation, but only because that data point that I mentioned, it combines the two, but it just, I wanted to point out that it is $10 billion and there is significant interest in people drinking less.

CHAKRABARTI: Compare that $10 billion though to the overall alcohol market, pick your country or worldwide because while $10 billion sounds big, my guess is that it’s still small in comparison to alcohol sales overall.

RAMIREZ: It is, and the martini isn’t going anywhere, people still love the martini. But the major alcohol conglomerates, including, I include here, spirits, but also people, the beer makers like AnheuserBusch, they are predicting that in the next few years, by 2025, 2030, non-alcoholic products will make up as much as 30% of their total sales.

So that’s why many, there are small businesses such as Ritual whiskey, Ritual, I should say that comes out of Chicago, but there’s Heineken has as it, has a non-alcoholic beer. Anheuser-Busch has several non-alcoholic beers and Diageo, for example, is the majority investor in Seedlip, which really kickstarted a lot of these non-alcoholic distillates for cocktails.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, we’re going to come back to some of those brands in just a second. But at least here in the United States in 2022, I’m seeing that the sale of alcoholic beverages was, it touched almost $260 billion in that year. So it’s a comparison point. Elva, hang on here for just a minute.

Emily, can I turn back to you and just ask you quickly, have you tried some of these products?

NICHOLLS: Yes, I certainly have and received multiple recommendations from many of my participants as well. I think, in terms of what Elva has been saying, the picture is very similar in the UK. It’s a growing market, so supermarkets have been reporting, doubling of sales since 2021, for example.

And I’m finding similar findings as well in terms that it’s often people who still drink, actually, who are using these products. I call them hybrid drinkers. And we’re certainly seeing the particular growth in the beer segment. And I can attest that I think an alcohol free or zero proof beer tends to taste fairly close to the real thing.

Spirits are taking off, but I think at least in the UK, we’ve been a little slower on the zero-proof wine. And that’s one thing where the taste and the mouthfeel perhaps aren’t quite there yet. So I’d be really interested to see where that market develops.

CHAKRABARTI: Emily, I’m only smiling. I’m smiling on this end of the radio because I completely agree about the wines.

Full disclosure, everyone. I actually decided to also go zero proof in October of 2022 and do not regret it one bit. But Elva, to the point that Emily made, and actually Ariel the owner of the Volstead in Philadelphia, the different kinds of zero proof drinks are very much in different phases of development.

I completely agree with Emily that the good zero proof beers are excellent. They are very good, but the wines, can you tell me a little bit more about, I don’t know, not the manufacturing process, is there recognition amongst makers that they still have a long way to go with some of these drinks?

RAMIREZ: Yes. And if you, if when Emily was speaking, I was nodding along saying, absolutely. Cosign everything she says. She’s absolutely right. Right now it’s interesting, and I can’t really get into the process because everyone does things completely differently. And unlike say when people understand how gin is made, gin is made the same way, you tweak a little details. Not alcoholic, they really, they do everything. It’s really, everyone’s completely different. It’s hard to predict how they choose to make their products, but I would say, leaving wine aside for a second, but you can either have things that are classicists that are made to represent some of our proper substitution, like a fake gin, or you have new flavors that are meant to be floral and just stand in to be completely new flavors.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.