With the announcement Brunswick Aces Distillery are to open Australia’s first dedicated non-alcoholic bar in Melbourne, and fellow non-alcoholic craft pioneers Sobah are looking to do the same in taproom form at their planned cultural hub on the Gold Coast, Beer & Brewer takes a wider look at what is happening in on-premise sales of the booming category. By Gifford Lee

True story. A woman in mid-to-late-term pregnancy walks up to the bar at lunchtime on a Friday in the newly revamped Harbord ‘Hilton’ Hotel in the Sydney beachside suburb of Freshwater. Scanning a booze-laden drinks menu she looks up at the bartender and asks: ‘Do you have Heaps Normal?’. When she’s presented with one of their alcohol-free XPAs in a can, with a chilled schooner by its side, the look on her face spoke volumes of the feelings she was clearly experiencing on the inside. And suitably chuffed off she walked back to her table and carried on with the great Australian pastime of catching up with friends in a bar with a drink in hand. Heaps normal.

And there it was for me, six to 12 months of incredible growth in the non-alcoholic drinks sector in this country explained and encapsulated in one moment in time. I had been tasting the beers and writing the stories but now I actually understood why it was happening.

Like it once was in terms of food for vegetarians, vegans or people with Coeliac Disease, those choosing to moderate their alcohol intake, or abstain entirely, for whatever the reason, are largely met by poorly curated drink options when they frequent venues.

But with a swathe of excellent, often Australian-owned options that span the full gamut of styles now flooding the domestic market to meet actual demand it’s now possible for bars to not only refrain from excluding a whole section of society but to also make their day at the same time.

Having only launched in late July last year, when many venues nationally were either shut or only partially open, the Canberra-based dedicated non-alcoholic beer company Heaps Normal is now stocked in over 400 establishments across the country. They’ve even had reports from two well-known Sydney pubs that their sole release – the Quiet XPA in cans – has been their highest selling, over-the-bar packaged beer – period.

Andy Miller

“On-premise sales have been absolutely out of this world and blown all of our expectations away. We could not have imagined when we launched that we would be where we are right now,” Heaps Normal co-founder and CEO Andy Miller told Beer & Brewer.

Heaps Normal’s well-documented standpoint, of being less sober-centric and more focussed on having an impact on drinking culture from a complementary stance, means a venue of their own isn’t necessarily on the horizon. For now they’re more interested in establishing a production facility (rather than contract brew with Brick Lane) and release at least one more style this year.

But Andy understands better than most why Brunswick Aces Distillery have shown their hand and made the decision to open a bar in the inner Melbourne suburb that shares the same name in late April.

“One hundred per cent I feel like now is the time. And I think it’s a little bit easier for us to see that and identify that the time is right because Australia is really playing catch up with the rest of the world. We’ve already seen that this is not a passing fad in more mature markets like in the UK and other parts of Europe and the US.

“It’s a real sign of the growth in the industry and where we’ve landed in terms of consumer appetite for something like a dedicated bar – which 12 months ago just wouldn’t have been there. Culturally we weren’t really ready in Australia then and I think the number of people that would have felt comfortable going to a bar like that probably wasn’t enough to sustain it as a business.

“Whereas in the last six months, due to various things that have catalysed that growth, we’re at a point now where a non-alc bar is a viable thing.”

An artist’s impression of the new Brunswick Aces Bar

‘We realised now was the time’

Brunswick Aces Distillery launched in 2017 with a selection of non-alcoholic sapiirs before adding 40% ABV gins to their range as well. They’ve always considered an alcohol-free venue as part of their long-term plans – just perhaps not quite so soon.

“The influx of new brands and the uptake from the public in drinking non-alcoholic has just pushed our plans forward a bit. We realised now was the time to open this bar,” Brunswick Distillery’s brand director Stuart Henshall told Beer & Brewer.

“We hear from our customers, and we look at the statistics coming through, with the number of people that are moderating or giving up alcohol, and we realise all we’re doing, ultimately, is meeting demand.

“Roy Morgan research shows the decline in alcohol consumption and they predict in the next few years that it’s going to be a 30 per cent uptake of non-alcoholic drinks. There’s 25-plus million people living in Australia – there’s going to be a subset of that, surely, that want to enjoy something like what we produce.”

They may be breaking new ground Down Under but what they’re doing on-premise mimics multiple, long-running ventures in other parts of the world. In just the UK alone Scottish craft beer brewery BrewDog opened BrewDog AF Bar in central London last year – the world’s first alcohol-free beer bar – while even supermarket giant Sainsbury’s got in on the act in 2019 with their pop-up pub The Clean Vic.

“What we want to do with our bar is become that hub in Melbourne for NA drinks,” Stuart said. “If you are sober-curious, or want to begin moderating, but find it hard, in terms of temptation, to go to a bar that serves alcohol, then we want to be that place where you can still come and challenge yourself with interesting drink options but not feel tempted to go back to a beer or a gin after you’ve had a few sober drinks.”

In explaining why the pregnant woman in the Hilton with a Heaps Normal in hand probably glowed even more than she already was, Stuart added: “Our whole brand ethos is about making people feel welcome. What we want to achieve is the feeling that you’re part of something and you’re not being left out or that you’re something other than the norm if you choose to not drink alcohol at that particular moment in time.”

Sobah’s Clinton Schultz with Lyre’s Jeremy Shipley

From ridiculed to revered

Similar to Brunswick Aces, Sobah Beverages were pioneers in the crafted, non-alcoholic sector in Australia when they launched in late 2017 with their range of releases that mixed traditional beer styles with native ingredients all wrapped up inside a brand that raised cultural and indigenous awareness. What’s not to love?

“A lot actually, to begin with anyway,” co-founder Clinton Shultz said. “Seriously, I’ve gone from being ridiculed, by my own friends and family, to the point where I was at a combined hens and bucks at the weekend where the vast majority of people were drinking Sobah or Lyre’s or whatever and it was pretty awesome to witness.

“Some of the people at that event used to run me up about the non-alc thing and whether it would work. So there’s definitely been a shift in acceptance.”

That shift, which Clinton said has led to huge growth in on-premise sales as the reopening of cafes and bars coincides with a surge towards products like his, now sees Sobah looking to bring their brewing in-house for the first time. They plan to open a production brewery and combined cultural hub on the Gold Coast where they would also open a taproom by the end of this year. They are currently seeking investors to help raise the required $5 million.

“It’s about having the full operational brewery as much as it is about having the taproom. The taproom will be just another aspect of the bigger project that aims to draw people to the cultural hub and allow us to promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, food, products, art and healing remedies.

“That’s what we’re about and we feel we’re at that point where there’s likely to be greater acceptance of what we’re doing as well.”

And the UpFlow of all this is what?

For non-alcoholic craft beer brand UpFlow’s co-founder Julian Sanders all of the above can be put down to Australians coming of age as they cast off previous cultural norms by creating all-new ones.

“No and low alcohol sector growth is not a fad or a trend, it is a reflection of Australia’s natural maturity and self confidence,” Julian told Beer & Brewer.

“We have moved away from drunk behavior toward drinking behaviour – not that much difference really, but a big difference the next morning and on the national health bill’s annual account.”

For Julian, any bar that doesn’t already stock the likes of alcohol free beer and spirits needs to: “They just aren’t aware of that yet”. He said by doing so they won’t cannabalise sales but rather add another string to their bow.

“They open up more consumption occasions and make pubs more accessible to more people. This is only a good thing. There is no down side.”

Just like Heaps Normal and Sobah, recent on-premise UpFlow sales have exceeded their targets as big ticket clients come back, again and again, to restock.

“Australians are hugely dynamic and adaptive. With our self confidence to define our own beer culture and lead the old world, the sky’s the limit for this space.”

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