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How Alberta’s booze industry is pivoting to meet alcohol-free demands

Alcohol-free White Claw, Tanqueray and Heineken — those who are going dry, damp or forgoing alcohol altogether may have noticed a lot more zero-proof drink options on grocery store shelves, in liquor stores and even in breweries. 

And just like the heavy-weight liquor brands, those in Alberta’s booze industry are also working to keep up with new demand.

Sam Agarwal, a director at market research firm Ipsos who manages the Alcohol Consumption Tracker for the North American market, said they’ve been monitoring drinking habits since 2011. 

LISTEN | Changing alcohol habits and a local brewery whose top-seller is non-alcoholic:

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Since then, they’ve seen a decrease in the number of people drinking alcohol, and how much people drink per outing. But that “moderation” attitude isn’t across the board, Agarwal said. 

“It’s much more prevalent in a gen Z or a millennial,” she said. 

Ipsos’ Alcohol Consumption Tracker also found an increase in the consumption of alcohol-free beer both nationally and in Alberta by people who drink alcohol. 

Graham Sherman, founder and owner of Tool Shed Brewing Company in Calgary, said the brewery’s two alcohol-free beers are among its top-selling products. 

A man poses with a beer.
Graham Sherman is the founder and owner of Tool Shed Brewing Company, which includes alcohol-free beer in its offerings. (Tool Shed Brewing)

“It’s an interesting time where people are making more social, responsible choices,” he said on CBC’s The Homestretch

And even as a brewery owner, he said, he’s glad that non-alcoholic drinks are taking off, as he invested in the necessary technology a few years ago. 

“It still allows us to take tremendous pride in local Alberta barley, the amazing farmers we have in our community here in Alberta.… It still speaks to the authenticity of craft local beer, it just has less alcohol,” he said. 

Market Wines in the University District has been hosting alcohol-free tasting events throughout “Dry January,” a time when many forgo alcohol between New Year’s Day and Feb. 1. 

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Kristina Munro, manager at Market Wines, said the events have been so popular, they’ve had to add more time slots. 

“It’s definitely been a lot busier than we thought it would be,” she said. 

Some are looking to abstain altogether, while others are mixing alcohol and alcohol-free drinks to overall drink less, she said.�  

“It’s really cool that I can go and have a margarita and order a cocktail at a restaurant that sounds the same as everybody else — and no one’s the wiser,” she said. 

LISTEN | We ask two shops what they’re seeing regarding interest in non-alcoholic drinks:

The Homestretch8:15Dry January: non-alcoholic liquor store sales

Data from Statistics Canada shows the volume of alcohol sold between April 2021 to March 2022 dropped 1.2 per cent, the largest decline in more than a decade. 

Munro said she thinks the alcohol industry is now catching up to the demand for alcohol-free drinks that was already there. 

According to Jake Rose, bar manager at Donna Mac, there’s a lot that goes into making a good mocktail. 

“I’ve discovered that making mocktails is far harder than making an original cocktail,” he said. 

The downtown restaurant has a menu dedicated to non-alcoholic drinks — in some cases using acids and herbs that emulate the taste of certain liquors. For example, to emulate the taste of gin, they’ll create a tea-based syrup that uses botanicals like juniper, coriander and fennel seed. 

WATCH | Making mocktails: 

Donna Mac bar manager explains how a delicious mocktail is made

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Downtown Calgary restaurant has menu dedicated to alcohol-free drinks.

“There’s kind of two different philosophies when it comes to mocktails. One being do people want something that replicates a cocktail?” he said. 

“The other being, do they want something that’s completely different, a different experience that you can’t really get with a cocktail itself, with alcohol?” 

Dr. Kevin Shield, scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said research on the use of alcohol-free drinks is limited. 

A series of multi-coloured rainbow cans full of alcohol free beer on a shelf.
Grocery stores in Canada now offer sections full of mocktails or alcohol-free mixed drinks, from zero-proof beers to spirit-free soda concoctions. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

But, he said, these types of drinks could work at the individual level for a person who is looking to reduce their own alcohol consumption. 

“For certain individuals, it may be a very effective way of reducing your alcohol consumption. If you can, instead of all alcoholic drinks, have non-alcoholic drinks, or have one alcoholic and then a non-alcoholic drink. That would be a very effective strategy for reducing your alcohol use,” he said. 

The World Health Organization looked into zero and low alcohol drinks (NoLo) from a public health perspective and found that while there is an expanding market, their effects on public health are not currently known. 

In its report, the WHO said these types of drinks could normalize alcohol consumption and act as gateway products.

And the extent to which substitution between NoLos and higher strength beverages occurs remains unclear.

“Heavy users seem to consume NoLo on top of their regular alcohol consumption,” the report read.

“On the other end, NoLo beers did not seem to act as a gateway to regular beer consumption but rather replaced the purchase of the higher ethanol beverages, especially when made relatively more available.”

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