Non-alcoholic beer sounds about as pointless and un-Australian as Pauline Hanson. Since the first settlers unloaded flagons of grog, we’ve proudly defined ourselves as a nation of drinkers – an idea even the 1800s temperance movement couldn’t stamp out. After all, Slim Dusty didn’t sing about having “a zero-alcohol-by-volume beverage with Duncan, ‘cos Duncan’s looking after his health”.

But times and palates – and perhaps even this aspect of our national identity – are changing.

Though its market share remains modest, sales of non-alcoholic beer have increased by 57 per cent over the past five years. This isn’t a trend being led by a handful of small craft breweries, either. Low and mid-strength beers now make up 25 per cent of revenue for Australia’s largest brewer, Carlton United Breweries.

In August last year the company doubled down and introduced Carlton Zero, the first non-alcoholic beer in its 180-year history. The beer generated $10 million in sales in its first six months. Perhaps not too surprisingly, crusty old blokes haven’t been the leading buyers thus far. “Our market research reveals adults of all ages are drinking Carlton Zero,” says CUB’s Reid Sexton. “[But] particularly men and women between 25 and 34 with fit and active lifestyles.”

Overall, Australians are drinking less, and are much less likely to drink to excess, than in the past. Back in the ’70s, the average Aussie drank 13.1 litres of alcohol per year. Since then the figure has dropped 28 per cent, to just 9.4 litres per capita. Two in 10 Australians now abstain from alcohol altogether.

Why? There’s a bunch of possible causes, including the rising cost of alcohol, government-led campaigning, increased education around alcohol’s effect on mental health, and the craft movement encouraging people to savour fewer higher-quality beers or spirits each time they drink.

But if you wanted to pick a moment in recent history when the nation began to reconsider its relationship with alcohol, 2008 would be a good choice. That’s the year annual campaigns Dry July and Ocsober launched, encouraging Australians to take a month off drinking and raise money for cancer patients and the drug and health body Life Education, respectively. Feb Fast, which challenges participants to take a break from alcohol or sugar, launched the previous year to raise money for the Youth Support and Advocacy Service.

Since then these grassroots campaigns have gone viral in the true sense of the term. They’re not just being spruiked by a few public figures or media outlets – every participant in Dry July, Ocsober and Feb Fast becomes an evangelist for teetotalling, if only for a month. Last year at least 40,000 people took part across the three campaigns.

As almost any of these people will tell you, giving up alcohol, even just temporarily, can be a minor revelation. You have more energy. Your moods are more stable. Your bank account looks better. You eat better and exercise more. The only problem is saying “no” day after day. Alcohol is deeply entrenched in Australian culture, socially and professionally, and touches all levels of society. Dry July et al. have found success in part because they provide a readymade excuse that’s not “I’m pregnant” or “I’m driving”: “I’m raising money for charity.” Outside of these times, peer pressure can be a formidable force.

“If you put your hand up and say you’re not going to do it anymore, there’s a perception that you’re saying you’re better than everyone else. You don’t want to be part of the club,” says Brendan Cowell. Several years ago the actor and writer decided to take a year off alcohol, and ended up making a semi-autobiographical film about it.

2015’s Ruben Guthrie is funny, touching, and perhaps, for many Australians, a bit too familiar. It’s about a Sydney ad man who gives up the drink, at first to get back in his ex-girlfriend’s good books, and then just for self-improvement. All the while, his colleagues, friends and parents are the proverbial devils whispering in his ear, telling him to chuck it in and get back on the booze.

For people who’ve experienced these sorts of trials, non-alcoholic beer is a godsend, letting them participate in social situations normally, with less judgement.

Queenslander Clinton Shultz is a former chef, youth worker, and drug and alcohol counsellor. He quit alcohol in 2014, in part because he felt like a hypocrite, and because his kids urged him to. After switching to non-alcoholic beers, he quickly became “very bored with just the normal, run-of-the-mill profiles that were available”. Most of what he could access were bland European imports such as Heineken, just “de-alcoholised versions of their alcoholic brothers”.

Shultz’s background in food and his Gamilaroi heritage led him to establish Sobah – non-alcoholic beers made for, and from, Australia. The three-strong native-ingredient-rich range includes a lemon aspen pilsner, a finger lime lager and a pepperberry IPA. Where Carlton Zero is made by brewing regular beer then removing the alcohol with a high-tech method called vacuum distillation, Sobah beers don’t contain alcohol in the first place. “We use a type of yeast than refuses to consume maltose,” Shultz says. “Therefore we don’t let the production of alcohol get going.”

Shultz has already had interest from British grocery giant Tesco, but says Sobah isn’t quite ready to hit international markets. “We’re still Australia’s only craft non-alcoholic beer producer.”

Shultz’s story illustrates where we’re headed: towards non-alcoholic drinks that are desirable in their own right, rather than being a disappointing fallback for those occasions when you can’t drink.

The London-based Seedlip, launched in 2015, is a pioneer in this space. Top bars and restaurants all over the world, including New York’s Eleven Madison Park and the historic American Bar at The Savoy in London, have begun using the distilled – yet non-alcoholic – spirit in cocktails, where it performs like a gin. Three versions, all crystal clear with the texture of water, contain botanicals such as ginger, allspice, hay, rosemary, thyme, hops, grapefruit and cardamom.

Hot on Seedlip’s heels, Melbourne brand Brunswick Aces entered the market last year with a non-alcoholic spirit it calls “sapiir”. The concept arose during a dinner party with friends – one of whom was training for a marathon and abstaining from booze. “We actually started by making real gin,” says founder Stephen Lawrence. “[But] our chief distiller, Doug, couldn’t join in.” So the group began experimenting with non-alcoholic alternatives. They settled on Hearts – which emulates a “spicy warm gin” – and Spades, with notes of green cardamom, parsley, sweet citrus and native lemon myrtle.

But how much does it taste like gin, really? “Neat, it’s quite different because you don’t have the mouthfeel associated with alcohol and sugar,” Lawrence says. But when mixed with tonic or in a cocktail, the delicate aromatics add the same nuances and layers of flavour you’d expect from a gin.

Sydney-based company Altd also launched last year with two booze-free spirits – one flavoured with lemon myrtle, native thyme and Tasmanian pepperberry, and the other with strawberry gum and honey myrtle.

Both companies’ spirits retail for close to the price of their intoxicating counterparts. Non-alcoholic distilling requires custom equipment, which doesn’t come cheap. But makers are at least able to skirt the costly government excise paid by traditional producers – Australia’s is among the highest in the world, along with Japan’s and Scandinavian countries’.

Non, launched earlier this year, is a Melbourne-based brand keen to normalise the idea of zero-alcohol wine. Sold in crown-sealed 750-millilitre glass bottles, its products look like sparkling pét-nat wine: pastel-coloured and sometimes cloudy.

Co-founder William Wade was originally a chef and wanted to work at Noma, the world famous restaurant in Copenhagen. When he finally blagged his way into the kitchen in 2015, he spent all his time juicing fruit and veggies for the restaurant’s non-alcoholic drinks pairing. He hated it. “It was so fucking tedious,” he says.

Non makes tisanes – dried fruit, herb and spice infusions. But it does it in a far more sophisticated way than dunking a peppermint teabag. First, the fruit is roasted, dehydrated and slow-cooked in a sous-vide machine. Then it’s steeped in hot water with herbs and spices, filtered and (sometimes) carbonated. The range includes salted-raspberry and chamomile; caramelised pear and kombu (“Great with cheese – it’s like liquid pear paste,” Wade says), and a digestivo-style toasted-cinnamon and yuzu.

Like Sobah, Seedlip, Brunswick Aces and Altd, Non retails for about the same price as its alcoholic counterparts. But the enthusiastic take-up of these products shows there’s demand for alternatives. You can already find Non at good restaurants and bottleshops around the country, including Supernormal, Sunda and Blackhearts & Sparrows in Melbourne, and Alberto’s Lounge and P&V Liquor in Sydney. Going forward, the company wants to act like a brewery, producing seasonal and limited releases, and collaborating with other venues.

The way Wade and business partner Aaron Trotman see it, as much as Non is about producing full-flavoured drinks that rival wine’s complexity and deliciousness, it’s about replacing the usual ritual of putting a glass to your lips every few minutes with a less harmful one. “People still want the motion – to be drinking from a wine glass [without] the shit that can come with it,” says Trotman.

altdspirits.com
brunswickaces.com
non.world
seedlipdrinks.com
sobah.com.au

This story originally appeared in Melbourne print issue 28 and Sydney print issue 20.