Bill Shufelt keeps a running list of articles that mention non-alcoholic beer and “Dry January.”
Shufelt, the co-founder of Connecticut-based non-alcoholic craft beer company Athletic Brewing, is obsessed with monitoring the conversation around alcohol moderation. Every month, he selects the most interesting pieces of content and sends them along to his investors.
When we grabbed coffee earlier this week, Shufelt opened his laptop to show me the list of stories from the end of last year. There were dozens of links. And then he scrolled to the January list, which was easily three times longer.
That’s because Dry January – a 31-day sobriety challenge that began as a public health campaign in the United Kingdom about seven years ago – has become a badge of honor for American influencers and imbibers alike.
According to market research firm Nielsen, 21% of U.S. drinkers participated in Dry January in 2019.
If you also consider that 30% of the country doesn’t drink, and that another 30% of American adults consume less than one drink per week, it’s probably safe to assume that as many as eight-in-ten people you encounter throughout the month of January are remaining (mostly) sober.
For the record, I’m not one of those eight, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that most Americans aren’t consuming much alcohol throughout the year.
The entire U.S. booze business, for all intents and purposes, is propped up by 20% of American adults who collectively consume upwards of 90 drinkers per week. That data, albeit troubling, comes from a 2014 Washington Post article citing research by Philip J. Cook, author of “Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control.”
So, if the majority of Americans aren’t consuming much alcohol, why then do we keep hearing about a so-called “sober-curious” movement and the growing interest in all-or-nothing abstinence efforts like Dry January or “Sober October?”
“More so than ever before, people are examining their relationship with alcohol,” said Jeff Stevens, founder of Wellbeing Brewing, another non-alcoholic craft beer company that is based in Missouri. “I have never seen a movement like this, where everyone is thoughtfully exploring their relationship with alcohol. Some people might not quit drinking, but they are mindfully drinking.”
Indeed, a quick look at Google Trends for the term “non-alcoholic beer” show steadily growing interest in the product over the last decade. And according to Mintel, social media mentions of ‘Dry January’ increased 89% from 2018 to 2019, and 1,083% between 2015 an 2019.
But have all those searches and social posts translated to increased sales, particularly during the month of January when more people are moderating their alcohol intake?
According to Nielsen, year-to-date sales of non-alcoholic beer through January 18, 2020, were up 39% versus the same time period last year. Meanwhile, IRI recently said off-premise dollar sales of non-alcoholic beer grew more than 23%, to $132 million, in 2019.
Considering all of those statistics, the shift toward sobriety would appear to be a trend that is poised to stretch beyond just the first month of every year.
“We are not a soapbox company at all,” explains Shufelt. “But when you objectively look at alcohol, it is in contrast with a lot of performance elements — like health, fitness, and endurance — that people value in their lives.”
According to Shufelt, Athletic Brewing grew its revenue tenfold in 2019, in part because of explosive e-commerce sales. The company’s e-commerce business will likely grow more than 50% between December, 2019, and January, 2020. Meanwhile, this month’s online sales are up about 480% versus last January.
“I think people definitely want to take a break from alcohol and focus on their goals,” he said of the Dry January surge. “It is a time where people are really receptive to brands like ours.”
For his part, Stevens said he’s seen increased interest from wholesalers and retailers who want to capitalize on the Dry January momentum.
“It had been brand-led up until this point, and the retailers are really leading it this year,” he said, noting that many have expressed gratitude for helping boost sales during a traditionally slower month.
Both Stevens and Shufelt believe their products are creating new sales opportunities, and not converting beer drinkers into teetotalers.
“I think the beer world is so effective at reaching those Friday and Saturday night occasions,” Shufelt said. “The bulk of our drinkers are finding new occasions. We could be their weeknight beer, their day drinking beer, or their golfing beer. There are a lot of occasions the beer world is missing, and we are addressing the 50% of adults who don’t drink.”
Similarly, Stevens pointed to recovering alcoholics, pregnant women, and other would-be beer drinkers who have — until recently — replaced their alcohol occasions with soda or other non-alcoholic beverages.
“We are trying to fit in where people are drinking iced tea or soda water,’ he said. “We are trying to take market share from the soda gun.”
Despite its recent growth, the non-alcoholic beer segment remains a very small percentage of overall beer sales, representing 0.5% of category dollars through the first three weeks of January, according to Nielsen (the entire non-alcoholic beverage category is worth about $7 billion).
Brewers Association chief economist recently acknowledged the growth of non-alcoholic beer in a tweet, but said it “isn’t going to be huge anytime soon.”
Regardless of the size of the segment, Shufelt will still compile his list of links for investors every month. And who knows, maybe the continued push behind Dry January will change thousands of people’s relationships with alcohol for the better.