The Sober-Curious Movement Has Reached an Impasse

At Hopscotch, Daryl Collins’s bottle shop in Baltimore, he happily sells wine to 18-year-olds. If a customer isn’t sure what variety they like (and who is, at that age?), Collins might even pull a few bottles off the shelves and pop the corks for an impromptu tasting. No Maryland law keeps these teens away from the Tempranillo, because at this shop, none of the drinks contain alcohol.

The number and variety of zero- and low-alcohol beverages, a once-lagging category that academics and the World Health Organization refer to as “NoLos,” has exploded in the past five-plus years. The already growing “sober curious” movement—made up of adults who want to practice more thoughtful or limited alcohol consumption while still socializing over a drink at home or at a bar—snowballed during pandemic shutdowns. Today, about 70 NoLo bottle shops like Hopscotch dot the U.S., along with several dozen nonalcoholic, or NA, bars, most less than four years old.

Nearly all of the products they’re stocked with were designed with adults in mind. But broken down to their most basic ingredients, many are hardly different from juice, soda, or kombucha. In theory, these are teen-friendly drinks. But not every bar or shop owner will sell to under-21s; state laws, too, when they exist, differ on what kind of alcohol-like beverages are appropriate for people too young to drink actual alcohol. As nonalcoholic adult beverages become more mainstream, they’re forcing a reckoning over what makes a drink “adult” if not the alcohol, and testing whether drinking culture can truly be separated from booze.

Picture, for instance, a Shirley Temple, the consummate children’s drink. Add a shot of vodka, and it becomes a Dirty Shirley. Now replace the vodka with about an ounce of cinnamon-infused “Zero-Proof Vodka Alternative” from a sexy glass bottle. Can a 10-year-old have that Shirley Temple? What if the add-in is instead an ounce of tap water with an identical-tasting cinnamon extract?

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This puzzle is a diagnostic for how zero-proof entrepreneurs approach the allures and dangers of drinking culture, along with the role they’d like alternatives to play in changing it. Some think brand or bottle design makes a beverage “adult,” and worry that packaging elements more frequently associated with alcohol could open the door to consuming it. Others make decisions based on a drink’s name, how it was created, or what it’s an homage to—a mocktail with a distinct identity is preferable to one that impersonates a well-established recipe. The atmosphere matters too: Is the bar modeled more closely after a family-friendly taproom or an upscale cocktail joint?

The decision to sell booze-like substances to under-21s is constrained by law. The federal government defines an alcoholic beverage as a drink with 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, in line with your average kombucha and lower than some apple, orange, and grape juices. (Beer alternatives are subject to additional regulation by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau—which, among other requirements, bans the word beer from the packaging unless it’s part of the phrase near beer.) But state definitions of specific alcoholic beverages can zero in on processes and ingredients (such as malt) in a way that fails to distinguish between the real deal and NA alternatives. NoLo manufacturers keep their products below the 0.5 percent federal cutoff, but the drinks can still end up with murky legal status once they arrive on local shelves. Pennsylvania, for example, has a law that makes it illegal to supply under-21-year-olds with a NoLo analogue of any real adult beverage—something no other state prohibits.

In Lafayette, Indiana, Rob Theodorow splits the policy at his combination bar and bottle shop, Generation NA, down the middle. Any NA beers, wines, and spirits (say, a six-pack from Athletic Brewing Co., Noughty’s Sparkling Rosé, or Seedlip’s ginlike Spice 94) are off-limits to under-21s. Customers over 18 are welcome to purchase drinks that are less reminiscent of those in a real liquor store—like wellness sodas made by brands such as Recess and Kin Euphorics—or to sample the beers at free tastings.

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Selling NA drinks to younger people isn’t explicitly illegal under Indiana law, but even if he had a clear green light, Theodorow would draw the line at selling any product that ever contained alcohol—even fully dealcoholized drinks such as Heineken 0.0—to under-21s. “I am a big believer in trying to steer people away from alcohol,” he told me. To him, that means treating products that taste and look just like alcohol with the same discretion as those that actually contain alcohol.

Some proprietors worry that developing a taste for NoLos will make young people more likely to desire the real thing. “When it comes to children, permitting them to consume any versions of beer or wine or spirits can normalize or desensitize them to the concept of alcoholic beverages,” says Cate Faulkner, a co-founder and the director of Zero Proof Collective, an industry group in Minnesota. Others are mostly concerned that selling younger people NoLo beverages could still feed the toxic side of drinking culture: Imagine 15-year-olds shotgunning NA beers in the backyard. “It’s not about the liquid so much as it is about the ritual,” Laura Silverman, the founder of the NA information hub Zero Proof Nation, told me.

[From the July/August 2021 issue: America has a drinking problem]

Still other advocates and entrepreneurs see NoLos as a way for young adults to form healthier habits. One of them is Laura Willoughby. She’s the director of partnerships at Club Soda, a shop and bar she co-founded that hosts many 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-birthday parties in London, where the legal drinking age is 18. “Once you take alcohol out of beer,” Willoughby told me, “it’s got four ingredients, no sugar, it’s hydrating, and it’s full of vitamin B-12. Aside from water, it’s the healthiest thing you can drink in the pub.” But she, like Theodorow, won’t offer anyone under the legal drinking age a nonalcoholic beverage made by a brand that also sells alcohol.

Both abroad and in the U.S., these conversations are rooted in old questions about the “right age” and way to introduce young people to alcohol: Should it be done gradually throughout childhood, or all at once at 21? Research has yet to provide a clear answer, let alone one that applies to NoLos too. A few international studies have shown that, for young people, consuming NoLos is associated with drinking real alcohol, but the cultural role of alcohol varies greatly around the world. Some early evidence from Europe suggests that NoLos can worsen existing substance cravings in adults with alcohol-use disorder, but the zero-proof community is also full of people—including Silverman—who credit the drinks with helping them maintain sobriety. The answer will probably never be clear-cut. Molly Bowdrig, a clinical psychologist and postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, just wrapped up one of the first-ever studies of U.S. consumers of nonalcoholic beverages; her strongest finding was that the way NA beverages change people’s relationships with alcohol is nuanced and varied. (Her research has yet to be peer-reviewed and published.)

Without a firm consensus, Willoughby and other shop and bar owners told me that they often err on the side of caution and let parents make decisions about what their underage kids can drink. But even for parents deeply enmeshed in the NA industry, the decision isn’t straightforward. Collins’s own daughter is 9, and even after months of running Hopscotch, he struggled to describe what he would or wouldn’t let her drink. When I asked him, he paused, then collected four cans from the fridges along a shop wall. In his house, a nonalcoholic Bee’s Knees would be for adults only, because it shares a name with a real cocktail and has just 15 percent juice. But a Fauxmosa, with 65 percent juice and a distinct mocktail name, is kid-friendly in his book. White Claw’s new nonalcoholic seltzers, though functionally the same product as LaCroix or Spindrift, would only get the okay from Collins if served to his daughter in a glass. (“Imagine my daughter going to school and telling her teacher, ‘Hey, I had a White Claw on Saturday,” he says.) And he classified the last can, a seltzer flavored with hops, as an adult-only beverage “because of American culture,” in which the flavor of hops is closely associated with beer.

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It was enough to make my head spin, even though the cocktails Collins mixed me when I arrived didn’t contain a drop of alcohol. His answers made sense, but others would have too. As long as these drinks exist in a liminal space in our culture, norms will grow and change in real time along with the kids subject to them. Maybe one day, we’ll look back to find that they’ve changed for alcohol too.