At the beginning of the decade, it seemed like the biggest trends in drinking were about extremes: Craft breweries competed to create the bitterest, hoppiest double IPAs; mixologists with mustaches poured stiff negronis and turned their noses up at anything that didn’t taste like straight liquor. Meanwhile, college kids scoured bodega aisles for cans of Four Loko that would get them the drunkest while keeping them awake enough to party the longest.
2019 was different. Phrases like “sober curious” and “low ABV,” a descriptor referring to a lower alcohol-by-volume than other beverages of its kind, were everywhere. Hard seltzer, which has less alcohol than beer and even fewer calories, was the hottest drink of summer. Multiple alcohol-free bars opened around the country. In the face of declining beer sales among millennials, beer started to look and taste more like juice. We saw the rise of sober influencers.
In short, nobody, it seemed, wanted to get drunk anymore. While alcohol consumption may not be declining, maybe we’re beginning to regard alcohol more similarly to the way Europeans do, which is to say as a part of life or a meal, rather than its own separate category. What may seem like a rapid about-face from the first half of the decade, however, is actually indicative of a much slower shift in the way Americans consume alcohol — or don’t.
Like everything, it’s about “wellness”
It’s impossible to talk about the trend towards lower-ABV beverages without mentioning the rise of “wellness,” the idea that in the 2010s everyone suddenly started caring about what they put in and did to their bodies. While that’s a vast oversimplification, the way diets, fitness, and beauty has been marketed to us has changed drastically over the past decade, touting products and regimens as valuable tools for “self-care.” It is not only cool to care about one’s health, but with it comes the message that it is an almost moral obligation to practice the tenets of mindful eating and frequent exercise. The language, while divorced from the traditional goal of weight loss, often ends up meaning the exact same thing.
Thus, we get alcoholic beverages marketed to us as things to drink after doing some kind of athletic activity, like hiking, kayaking, or running. As Jaya Saxena notes in her Eater piece on the subject, marketers tout hard seltzers as a workout recovery tool, one that also works seamlessly into trendy diets like keto or Paleo. “This makes sense from a business perspective,” she writes. “‘Wellness’ is for financially secure people with time to spare — on their skin, on their bodies, and on their diets.” That it is also lower calorie — most cans of hard seltzer hover around 100 calories, which is pretty much the baseline for a serving of alcohol — is also a big part of the appeal.
The wellness-minded are the target market of San Diego-based craft beer company Ballast Point, who released their first low-ABV beer denoted with a calorie count, Ballast Point Lager. James Murray, the company’s brewing VP, told me in April that more people had been requesting lighter beer options in its tasting rooms, and that lower-ABV beers had been starting to sell better. “We’d been tinkering around with low-ABV, low-calorie beers before; we just hadn’t really marketed them as low-calorie,” he said. “I think we’re starting to see the more health-conscious craft beer drinker, men and women in that 25- to 39-year-old age group who are more concerned about what they’re putting in their bodies but want to enjoy a beer from a craft brewer in social environments.”
Emily Saladino, associate managing editor of Wine Enthusiast, says that the trend toward low-ABV beverages also mirrors the culinary movement over the past 20 years, in which people eat more mindfully and use food as a tool of identity expression. “So instead of just food as fuel, we see food as identity and as culture and I think drinking alcohol is now moving in a similar direction, where we’re no longer consuming alcohol with the express purpose of inebriation,” she says. Though drinking for the purposes of getting drunk certainly isn’t the case for all Americans, she cites the fact that we don’t have as entrenched a casual drinking culture as, say, Europe.
We’re even seeing the inverse of the trend of low-ABV beverages and “near beer”: the addition of alcohol to beverages that are not typically alcoholic. While seltzer is the obvious example, one of the most headline-grabbing news items out of the beverage industry this year was hard iced coffee, which is exactly what it sounds like. Both Pabst Brewing and MillerCoors released versions this year, as did high-end coffee joint La Colombe.
The old definitions around drinking culture are fading away
All of this amounts to a blurring of the traditional boundaries between drinking and not.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the “sober curious” movement, popularized in part by Ruby Warrington’s Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol. The lifestyle isn’t intended for people who are addicted to alcohol — it’s instead for anyone looking to consume less of it, or set rules about how or when they drink.
As Nicole Fallert notes in her Vox piece on the subject, “Sober curiosity may be one of the most accessible paradigms to come from the wellness movement; it’s totally free to go to a bar, restaurant, or party and not drink anything. … The idea is checking in with yourself and finding where the desire to drink is, and then asking where that pressure comes from.”
It’s translating into big business, too: As the US alcohol retail industry slows, Bon Appetit predicts that bottled low- and no-alcohol beverages will grow by about 32 percent between 2018 and 2022, “triple the category’s growth over the previous five years.”
“Sober curious” also may be indicative of yet another generational shift. As owners of Brooklyn alcohol-free bar Getaway, Sam Thonis and Regina Dellea told the Atlantic, “It feels to me like the older people are, the more they see [our bar] as a thing for sober people. They see it as black or white — you drink or you don’t drink,” Thonis says. “With younger people, there’s a lot more receptiveness to just not drinking sometimes.”
Many of the old dividing lines in alcohol consumption are beginning to fade: Beer drinkers don’t only drink beer, whiskey drinkers don’t only drink whiskey, and marketers aren’t just targeting one kind of customer. Hard seltzer, for example, succeeded in part because it sold a lifestyle rather than focusing on a specific demographic. It’s cheap but has a premium ethos, is portable enough to take with you to the beach or a music festival, and is relatively gender neutral: Despite the days of dunking on Zima, the “evolved bro” embraces White Claw with fervent passion. (“No laws when you’re drinking Claws!”)
Even the lines between types of alcohol seem to mean less: One of the biggest drinking trends of 2019 was hybridization like “vodquila” or “rumquila.” The Guardian references Glenfiddich’s single malt whiskey finished in IPA barrels and Nuvo sparkling liqueur (which mixes vodka and sparkling wine); there’s rosé-flavored vodka, bourbon barrel-aged wine, brut IPAs, gin-spiced rum, and dozens of other alcoholic mutts.
These shifts — against single-alcohol consumption and toward “sober” as a porous lifestyle rather than definitive identity — are changing the way Americans drink, and it’s likely for the better. “We’re no longer treating alcohol as this weird, ‘other’ category that you need to be 21 to drink or that you need to do in very certain environments,” Saladino explains. “It’s this lovely decategorization of alcohol. By integrating it into the rest of what we eat and drink, hopefully that promotes more healthful consumption. It’s an evolution of American attitudes towards alcohol.”
A beverage industry that’s less interested in getting people drunk the fastest seems like a change for good, after all.
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