By Jaymie Baxley
North Carolinians who participated in Dry January — a monthlong sabbatical from booze with proven health benefits — had plenty of nonalcoholic alternatives to pick from this year.
Gone are the days when O’Doul’s and club soda were the only alcohol-free options at the bar. Many taprooms and taverns in the state’s major cities — and even in smaller towns — offer a range of nonalcoholic craft beers, “mocktails” and zero-proof wine.
That wasn’t the case when Ben Colvin launched Devil’s Foot Beverage Company in 2017. The idea for the business came to Colvin after he learned his wife was pregnant and the couple went to a brewery to celebrate the news with friends.
“There was nothing nonalcoholic there but water on tap,” he said. “That was the lightbulb moment.”
Devil’s Foot has since become one of the state’s leading producers of ginger beer and zero-proof craft drinks. Colvin said demand for the Asheville company’s “farm-to-can” products, which are made using ingredients sourced from regional growers, is “skyrocketing.”
“In the last five years, it’s exploded,” he said. “Now we’re seeing tons of local breweries taking their shot at it and seeing if they can produce a zero-proof or nonalcoholic beer.”
Pandemic drives booms
Surveys from the Pew Trusts found that about two-thirds of U.S. adults drink, a rate that’s been more or less consistent in the eight decades that the polling organization has asked about alcohol consumption. The same surveys show that the South is the region of the country with the lowest per capita consumption of alcohol, and according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, North Carolina ranks 44th in the country in per capita consumption.
A national report from Nilsen IQ showed that annual, off-premises sales of nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits topped $500 million for the first time in 2023 — a 31 percent increase over the previous year.
In North Carolina, evidence of the growing demand for liquor-less libations can be found in businesses like Umbrella Dry Bar. The establishment opened on New Year’s Eve in Raleigh, becoming the city’s first nonalcoholic bar.
While events like Dry January and Sober October have played a part in the rise of alcohol-free beverages, the sector’s biggest boost may have come from COVID-19.
Like other states, North Carolina saw a surge in alcohol consumption while people were isolated at home during the early months of the pandemic. The trend contributed to a spike in alcohol-related emergency department visits in 2020.
“In the middle of [the crisis], I think everybody realized, ‘Well, why am I still drinking alcohol at home here?’” Colvin said. “The non-alcoholic side really boomed then.”
Another factor is the “sober curious” movement, which has gained traction in recent years with younger adults who want to cut back on alcohol or stop drinking entirely. In a survey by the marketing company NCSolutions, 61 percent of Gen Z respondents said they planned to drink less in 2024.
That’s consistent with what Gallup found about people aged 18 to 34; fewer of them drink than in the past and if they do, they’re drinking less often.
Popular restaurants like Kipos Greek Tavern in Chapel Hill have responded to the cultural shift by expanding their menus to include mocktails and other nonalcoholic offerings.
“That’s just the industry in general,” said Sean Rogers, a bartender at Kipos. “People have gone after people that don’t drink a lot more.”
Benefits of a break
There are health benefits to abstaining from alcohol for a month.
For example, one study done in London found that for people who were casual drinkers (eight drinks a week for men and six for women) a single month of abstinence resulted in weight loss, lower blood pressure and better insulin resistance, which can decrease a person’s risk of developing diabetes.
Nonetheless, reports vary on people’s success with Dry January.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the University of Sussex, 70 percent of respondents reported “generally improved health” after completing Dry January. However, a survey by the opinion analytics platform CivicScience found that only 16 percent of respondents who participated in the event in 2023 managed to go the whole month without drinking.
“Something stressful happens, and it breaks them,” Rogers said, adding that people also fall off after shedding a few pounds. “They look in the mirror by the third week and they’re like, ‘Oh, damn, I lost some weight. I look good. Let’s get a drink’ — and then it’s back to reality real quick.”
Colvin said Dry January, though “still a thing,” is far from a windfall for Devil’s Foot.
“It’s not necessarily like only one month out of the year, we’re going to totally destroy beer sales,” he said. “It’s become a thing where people are essentially like, ‘I’m gonna take a break’ at any time of the year for health reasons or dieting or because they’re having a baby.”
A study published in October by the journal BMC Public Health found that nonalcoholic beverages “significantly reduced alcohol consumption” among excessive drinkers. “The effect persisted for 8 weeks after the completion of the interventions,” according to researchers.
“Providing non-alcoholic beverages may be a strategic option for reducing alcohol consumption among people with excessive drinking,” they wrote.
Colvin has heard success stories from people who were able to overcome their addiction to alcohol with help from his company’s zero-proof products. At the same time, he said, Devil’s Foot is hardly an anti-alcohol establishment.
“That’s not how we position ourselves,” Colvin said. “When we look at statistics from this past year, in cocktail bars, in particular, the research was showing that nonalcoholic drinks were being mainly consumed in a mix [with alcoholic beverages]. It was a way of people starting to get smart enough to say, ‘How do I stay out longer and safely?’”
He added that companies like his are often “pitted against” traditional craft breweries. In reality, Colvin said, their interests are aligned.
“All of us have the exact same problems,” he said. “We’re always fighting somebody that’s trying to do [it] bigger, faster, cheaper and of less quality and less values-based, but they have more power. And the little guys gathering together are starting to realize it.”
‘To be part of that moment’
When Tiffany Delgado quit alcohol in July 2022, she didn’t want to give up the social ritual of drinking with her friends in downtown Raleigh.
“You can drink soda or juice anytime you want throughout the day, but when I’m hanging out with friends and they’re having alcoholic drinks, I kind of want to be a part of that moment,” she said. “With a mocktail or nonalcoholic beer, I feel like it’s something I can do with my friends without compromising my health or getting a hangover.”
Through sobriety, Delgado has seen significant improvements in her physical and mental health. She said her cholesterol levels have dropped and her sleep has improved.
While Delgado noted that zero-proof beverages tend to be more expensive than their alcoholic counterparts, she believes they’re well worth the “extra couple of dollars” in the long run.
“At the end of the day, I’m saving so much money on my health and preventing major issues down the line,” she said.
Her husband, David, still drinks, but he began cutting back after seeing the positive effects sobriety had on his wife.
“It definitely helps when you don’t have somebody enabling your impulse to start drinking,” he said, adding that his reduced alcohol intake has also yielded health benefits. “I work out more often, and I sleep a lot better.”
He said his wife’s experience has made him more open-minded about alcohol-free beers, but he has no interest in drinking them on his own.
“I’d rather just save my money,” he said. “Either I drink or I won’t drink is just how I feel about it.”
Editor Rose Hoban contributed reporting.