The VinePair Podcast: Non-Alc and Low-Alc Need a Trial Separation

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On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss why the practice of grouping low-alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages is a bad idea and needs to stop. Tune in for more.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: This is the Friday of the VinePair Podcast. Stop grouping no and low together. Stop it. Just stop it.

J: Or jumping right in.

A: Yes, because this is Friday and we just get straight to the point people have sh*t to do. That’s what we want to talk about today, which is that there’s been this trend forever now since we’ve really started covering low- alcohol, no-alcohol, that we group them together, we treat them as the same category.

J: It started with the data. That’s where it came out of but I think now we’re seeing it more in marketing which is I think even more problematic.

A: Marketing, story pitches. Everything is like, “Oh, this is the no and low category.” No, you either have alcohol in you or you don’t. If you’re low-alcohol, there’s trends in that direction. Then I think when you combine them, you actually really muddy the waters for anyone who’s actually trying to understand the space and the industry and what’s happening because you then make it seem there’s a trend that may or may not be occurring. I think that’s what we’ve talked about before in the past as well, is like, there is definitely a trend in terms of low-alcohol. The trend of no-alcohol, if you were to break the data out, is not as big as people make it seem. If you look at real data, you can email me at [email protected] and be like “Well, I sell a lot of no- alcohol at my restaurant or whatever.” Cool. That’s awesome. Depending on where you are. If you look at actual scan data, again, we go to the data, the growth is not that big in no-alcohol. Let me again remind everyone, we still do not have the sales volume of no-alcohol that is equal to the number of no-alcohol of just O’Doul’s in the early ’90s when it was at its peak, one brand. Again, that’s not where the trend is actually happening at all. The trend is happening in low-alcohol. There is a desire for people to drink lower-alcohol products and we need to stop this bullsh*t.

J: I think there are dangers in doing this too because when we talked about this in the context of Haus which was low-alcohol, but I think a lot of people thought it was non-alcoholic. I think that’s pertinent for people who are just trying things out, but for people for whom this is important, an important distinction to make for various reasons, sobriety or pregnancy or other things like that, I think that’s where it seems particularly dangerous to me.

Z: There’s also the real issue that low alcohol is very much in the eye of the beholder. What defines low alcohol, like, we’ve had and tasted and talked about on the show low-alcohol spirits, but those are still often 20 percent ABV. That’s low for what we would consider a spirit, but it’s still certainly higher alcohol by percentage than wine or beer. That’s where I think a lot of my issue with this besides muddying the waters as regards data and trends like Adam mentioned, there’s also just the muddying consumer perception part that I find really frustrating. I think that’s what you were to some extent getting at Joanna, but not even to so much confusing people who might think a product has no alcohol in it and in fact, it has some amount that is let’s say fancifully described as low based on the needs of the brand. That is in and of itself, even if people were never confusing those products for non-alcoholic beverages, it would still be disingenuous perhaps because, as I said, what definition of low alcohol are we talking about here? Are we talking about a 3 percent ABV beer? That I think most people would agree is low alcohol. It’s pretty hard to get much lower than that while still having alcohol in the thing. If we’re talking about an 18 percent or 20 percent beverage, a spirit or whatever that — again, depending on your expectations and what you are anticipating might constitute low alcohol — but it still gets you pretty f*cked up if you drink a few of them. That is no joke, especially if you’re drinking significant volumes of it because you’re like, “Oh, it’s low-alcohol.” It’s like the diet cookie problem. You think you’re doing a smart thing by calorie or whatever, low-sugar cookies, but if you eat twice as many you’re still getting at least as much if not more actual sugar, calories, et cetera. You’re just spreading it out over a larger volume of consumption.

J: Is low- to no-alcohol regulated at all?

Z: No.

A: No.

J: No. No-alcohol is, right?

Z: Yes.

J: Okay.

A: That’s why low-alcohol is so fuzzy. I think in terms of what Zach is saying, I immediately jump to what we consider low-alcohol wine and how for a lot of people, it’s like they’ll say low alcohol is around 10 percent. That is triple IPA, right?

Z: Yes.

J: Right.

A: That is a lot of IPA. If you were to have three triple IPAs, you’re going to pass out on the couch. If you have that volume in wine, which a lot of people do because they’re like, “Oh, this is low-alcohol wine.”

Z: I don’t know if anyone’s drinking two bottles of low — maybe some people are, but even if you’re drinking-

A: No, no. I mean, well, I guess wait, because if it’s 12 ounces, you’d be having 36 ounces of wine. Yes, you’re right. No one’s doing that, but if you have three glasses of the wine, still you’re going to be a little toasty.

J: With drinks. Yes, exactly.

A: You just are. That’s, I think, something that we just don’t think about as much because it’s not regulated. There’s no like, “Okay. Under 5 percent is considered low alcohol across the board.” We consider what is low in relation to what is considered normal. In beer-

J: For that category. Yes.

A: Yes. In beer, normal alcohol is anywhere from 4 and a half to 6 percent or 7 percent alcohol. That’s a normal beer. Below 4 and a half, we would say it would be low alcohol before it approaches — no, that’s in wine. What do you say, Zach? 12 and a half or something to 14 or something is normal unless you’re in Napa. Below that would be low. In spirits, 40 percent, 45 percent alcohol is normal. 20 to 30 is like, “Oh, this must be low.” They are actually high in relation to other kinds of drinks. That’s why it just gets — it’s very, very confusing and I think it gives people this pass if they’re drinking it for some sort of either health reason or to convince themselves they’re being responsible. Like, “Oh, I had six drinks, but they were low-alcs, so I’m being more responsible.”

J: Right.

A: Now you can tell me you’re having six drinks and you drink low-alc because you want to be more sessionable. That’s fine.

J: Sure.

A: People that I know, they’re like, “Oh, I drink. We go tailgating and we drink the session IPAs. We have a case amongst four or five of us over the course of a few hours. I get why people do that. They want to maintain the buzz without getting too inebriated, but if you’re like, “Oh, I had a case of Buddies over the course of the hours, we’re better off because we had session IPA.” No.

J: Right. Why do you think this happened?

A: Because I think that we all have guilt about consuming alcohol, just like we have guilt about consuming sweets, just like we have guilt about consuming cannabis. To be honest with you. Yes, this is just a hot take, but I think that, yes, there is this weird little health halo around cannabis right now but the guilt is coming. You can already feel it coming. There’s already articles about the gummies and being out of it and gummies consumed by kids too young and blah, blah, blah. We’re going to have the same thing where there’s going to be a snapback and there’s going to be lower THC and all that stuff. If you will want to consume it, but not the levels they’re in now. With dosing of THC, just like people are now micro-dosing psilocybin and stuff. I think that’s going to happen because it’s guilt. You want to enjoy this, but you want to tell yourself that it’s better than it actually is.

J: You’re making a more conscious decision.

A: I don’t even know if it’s about consciousness. I think it’s a lot of like — I don’t know. I’m trying to explain it, but I can’t formulate the thought in my head. I don’t even think it’s about consciousness. I want to say that I know this is bad for me, but this is a little bit better for me. Does that make sense?

J: The virtuousness of no-acohol rubs off on the low-alcohol.

A: Yes.

Z: I think that’s why grouping them together is attractive. If you’re a brand that is trying to cash in on that. You want to be seen in the same light as a non-alcoholic drink option, be it a non-alcoholic version of an alcoholic beverage or just some other thing. It gives you some more of that cachet. I think what Adam is — at least in my eyes, what you’re trying to say, I think, is very true is that there is a sizable chunk of the consuming public that wants all of its consumption choices to be aligned with how people see themselves. If you see yourself as a health-conscious person you want to believe, rightfully or not, that all the decisions you’re making, all the things you’re buying, line up with that. It’s the reason why we’re seeing a bunch of, I know we’ve talked about it offline, a bunch of pitches for good for you wine, good for you beer, et cetera. It is all of a piece. There is a belief that, or I should say there isn’t a recognition of a fundamental fact, which is like alcohol is not necessarily good for you. There is no way for it to be out-and-out good for you. I think there are ways in which some alcoholic beverages can have some health benefits along with potentially the harm that alcohol does and also that not everything you consume has to be actively good for you. I don’t think it is necessarily the optimal way for you to live life. We’re seeing this all over the place. It’s come out weirdly in a lot of the reporting that’s come out about Silicon Valley and the obsession with immortality or near immortality. This belief that people want to have, that they can in those cases bio-hack their way to endless life, and in maybe a more mundane, everyday way for us, I can still drink the things I want to drink, but if I’m drinking a low-alcohol version of it, I’m making a significantly more virtuous choice. That part of it I don’t really buy. I think that this kind of conversation, or not the one we’re having, but the way that these things are being talked about feeds into that. It fits neatly into that desire that people have to believe that they are making these virtuous choices, even if they’re not. I also want to add one other thing here, too, which is that it’s important when we’re talking about low-alcohol beverages to think for a moment as to whether it’s our role as journalists or as consumers or whomever, about how that product is reaching that state. This isn’t to say that one of these things is better than the other, but there are a lot of ways to get to, say, a low-alcohol wine. One way is to literally blend other things into the wine so that you have additional volume that reduces the level of alcohol by volume in the beverage. Watering down essentially one way or another. You can also mechanically remove alcohol. There’s a few different methods that you can do this.

A: You can centrifuge it.

Z: Yes, or there’s reverse osmosis, et cetera. There are ways to do it. Some people would argue, and I think not totally incorrectly, that that might have other less great side effects for the overall quality of the wine, but that’s certainly one way you can arrive at a lower-alcohol percentage or the third way is you can not fully ferment the beverage and then you have some amount of residual sugar that’s not alcohol. Now, for most people who are trying to look at calories and stuff, that’s not going to do them — that’s going to be at least as bad if not worse as just full-on normal alcohol wine. It’s important for us. Then, of course, the other way you get at it which is not so much in the case of wine or perhaps beer, but in cocktails, is again you just lengthen the drink out. Whether your very tall Gin and Tonic to your whatever. There are lots of other ways to make a drink have a lot of volume without a lot of alcohol. It’s important for us to be aware when we are looking at those things like how the drink we’re talking about or drinks we’re talking about arrive at their punitive low-alcohol state because they’re not all the same.

J: I think this plays into something else that we talk about quite a bit, which is that instead of doing any of those things or doing things on our end to make something lower alcohol, that we’d rather there be a slew of products available to us so we can continue to drink in the same volume but not have to be responsible for the effects of it.

A: I think that there’s always going to be a desire to put health halos around vices and this is-

J: That’s what we’re talking about.

A: This is the health halo we’re going to put around the vice, which is, “Okay, well this one is low.” Cannabis, as I mentioned, has an overall health halo around it right now. Again, I think that’s going to wear, but this is what we do. We don’t know what the effects of tripping balls all the time is going to do to people who are taking psilocybin. That’s now been, but right now there’s a health halo, “Oh my gosh. It improves my mood.”

J: Is that it? It’s a health halo around it.

A: Oh yes. It improves-

J: The streams are better for you.

A: Yes. It improves mood, it changes anxiety, it fixes your brain chemistry, like all this stuff of which there is definitely research that does peruse some of this stuff. The problem with all of these things is that because they are vices, there is not enough medical research to fully support any of these things. There is anecdotal data based on small studies because it is very hard, as the child of scientists and the brother of a scientist who all get NIH funding, it is very hard to get NIH grants for vices-

J: Sure.

A: -to study a vice that you may — Yes, we know that–

J: Because of the harm of the side effects or whatever.

A: We know that resveratrol inside red wine when they give that pure form to mice, does improve heart function, et cetera. There is no study to give that level of red wine to humans in order to see if the wine actually does that. Then we infer, “Oh, well it must be better.” There are some health benefits to wine. We know that from studying humans for generations in certain areas in Greece and Italy, et cetera, and looking at their diet. What we do in the U.S. which is wrong, is we say, “Oh, this community in Crete drinks wine all the time, therefore healthy. Let’s adopt that.” No, but they also follow a Mediterranean diet of-

J: Other factors.

A: Omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods, lots of fish, lots of olive oil, lots and lots of produce. Then they can drink wine daily and at every meal and be very healthy and live till 100 because they do all of these other things. We are just — again, it goes back to this hacking life thing of like, no, but I just want to do this one thing. I don’t want to feel bad about it. I think the other thing about all of this is that we as journalists and marketers, especially as the people marketers are like, “Okay, well what’s the easiest way to sell?” The easiest way to sell is wrapping my product up in this halo because that will move this for me and it will give me some competitive advantage against my competition, then I’m going to do it. We all know the crazy thing with Cameron Diaz and the clean wine. Like, “Oh, my wine’s clean.” “Really? Cleaner than everyone else’s?”

J: A clean one.

A: That’s the same idea. It’s that, but that became a competitive advantage for that brand in order to say, “Oh, well this is why I think it’s better for me,” but with no research because again, it’s very hard to get the funding to have that research. Go ahead.

J: Go ahead, Zach. I was just going to say, so it feels like the low-alcohol movement, it’s two movements happening together and they’re one and the same when that’s not necessarily the case.

A: Exactly.

Z: I think it’s like we need to — I want to reiterate here. I think because it’s important that there are real, I think societal benefits to expanding options for people in both categories. There’s certainly nothing wrong with making more interesting and enjoyable non-alcoholic beverages available to adults because there are at any given time, lots and lots of people who for whatever set of reasons want and need the ability to have a beverage or beverages that they enjoy drinking that are satisfying, perhaps interesting, et cetera, and have no alcohol in them. It’s a market category that even if — Adam, as you’re right, as you’re saying — isn’t as big as it was in the early ’90s. It’s also true that that market deserves more than just O’Doul’s, let’s say. That’s fine. I think it’s important to be accurate and pragmatic about that market and how big it may or may not be, but it is, I think at the same time we should be championing the existence of more options in that market because for so long it’s been a really barren wasteland for interesting, well-made, thoughtful drinks, whether they’re available at a bar, restaurant or on a shelf. The low-alc side is much more, to me, it’s a little bit harder to understand what the broader societal good is in part because this is just my own perspective, but if generally speaking of my attitude has been, hey, if you want to drink alcohol, but you want to have fewer negative effects, whatever those might be for you, then the solution is to either drink things that are lower in alcohol. Sure, fine. There are lots of ways to get there or just drink less, period. Do we need an entire category that is dedicated to providing a 30 percent off alcohol type of offering? That to me is it feels like solving a problem that doesn’t exist, which, let’s be clear, capitalism is great at. Maybe this, I shouldn’t be surprised. I think it is important as we are talking about here to distinguish between the two categories into not just lump them together because it does, especially the non-alcoholic beverage category, a real disservice.

A: I think that’s true. There will always be that problem if people think that it will equate to sales. That’s why everyone’s rushing in. No one’s really doing the work to try to understand why there is a demand for these products. I think a lot of it is that, I think you said this perfectly, Zach, about SnackWells.

J: This is the non-fat and low-fat situation, right?

A: I can’t self-discipline portion control, don’t ask me to do it. Instead, I want to eat five SnackWells because I usually eat five Chips Ahoy. This is the same thing. I can’t not have a full bottle of wine at the end of the day. If I open it, it’s gone. We all know the jokes about when anyone ever posts– When we write articles about saving wine, who has leftover wine? That’s basically all of America. If I open this, why would I ever save stuff? Why would I invest in Coravin, well, dying brand? Why would I invest in a Coravin or a pump or any of these things to be able to save my wine? I want to drink the whole bottle so I will feel less guilty if the wine is instead of 13 percent, 8 percent, 9 percent. That is the SnackWells phenomenon. It will go away because the SnackWells phenomenon went away because everyone realized again, as Zach said, SnackWells sucked. It tasted like cardboard sugar. A lot of these low-alcohol products suck. I’m all for making good low-alcohol products. As we’ve all said here, we should have good low-alcohol products. The problem is most of them suck. Even the ones that are ancient, like f*cking — yes.

A: It tastes like sh*t. There’s a reason we don’t drink it anymore. Piquette sucks. That’s great, you figured out how to make grape water. It’s gross water, but it sucks. Make something delicious. Make me an amazing aperitivo that’s low-alcohol, or figure out how to make something delicious and then I’m all for it. The problem is there’s just too much of it that’s crap because it’s just like a bunch of suits in a boardroom on their whiteboard being like, “The kids like low-alcohol now. Let’s design something,” and they design crap. Let’s just take our normal wine and de-alcoholize it.

Z: Yes, exactly. It’s coming at it from the perspective of let’s take a thing that’s already popular and remove the alcohol as opposed to let’s make something that tastes good that also is low-alcohol. From a marketing standpoint, it’s easier to be like low-alcohol wine, low-alcohol beer, whatever, than it is to say we’re making a product that may not fit neatly into any one of those categories and is low-alcohol, but it has, hopefully, the positive of being actually good at whatever the ABV on the label. Not like just at best sort of a pale imitation of the thing that people are used to.

A: I will say the low-alcohol type stuff that I’ve had that is really good is the stuff that basically is playing with the combination of a few different things in order to make something that’s more delicious. It’s not just taking wine and removing some of the alcohol and then making it or stopping the fermentation. For example, one of the liquids we like here in the office is Le Moné. It is a combination of wine plus a fortification with brandy and then the addition of citrus peels, et cetera, that makes this what used to be a dry white wine at 12 percent up to 16 percent and tastes more citrusy. Now it’s an aperitif. That I think is the more creative way to do this. I think there’s other brands. House honestly did this in a lot of ways.

J: There’s no one-to-one comparison. It’s unique unto itself.

A: Yes. As Zach said, it’s a creation of something new. The problem is there’s too many people that are just saying, let’s just take something that’s already existed and we know people like and make it lower in alcohol and it usually sucks.

J: That’s easier to market, though.

A: Yes, totally. It’s much easier and takes a lot less money to tell someone that this is still rosé. It’s just an 8 percent rosé than this is a new product you need to try to understand.

J: Yes.

A: Anyway, shoot us your thoughts, [email protected]. We have a lot of thoughts about the Dry January podcast. Lots of people emailed in. A lot of you said you thought that you agreed that you haven’t seen a lot of people doing Dry January this year or that while there was a large amount of no-alc in your stores, in your restaurants, et cetera, you still saw a lot more people ordering full-alc. So, I’m curious if there’s any more of you out there that want to hit us up. Let us know what you think about this too, [email protected] and we’ll see you on Monday.

J: Have a great weekend.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast, the flagship podcast of the VinePair podcast network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.

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He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair podcast network. I’d also love to give a shout-out to our editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, who joins us on every single podcast as our third and most important host.

Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.