Almost two years of challenge and uncertainty amid the pandemic has re-shaped the dining industry and up-ended what consumers want and expect from their drinking experiences in foodservice. As we head into 2022, a renewed focus on health has many consumers seeking out better-for-you alternatives to their go-to tipples, while some pandemic beverage pivots are transforming into viable long-term revenue streams for operators.
A 2021 report by market-intelligence company Fior Markets predicts that the global functional-beverages market will grow by more than seven per cent by 2028 to US$216.7 billion. This growing consumer interest in functional beverages is also driving demand for enhanced alcoholic beverages that combine booze with better-for-you benefits.
As Emily Baadsvik, co-founder of Calgary-based Wild Tea Kombucha, points out, no alcoholic drink can accurately be categorized as “healthy” but many consumers of the brand’s Hard Kombucha Cider appreciate its probiotic component nonetheless. “You’re drinking something that does have probiotics, so it won’t be as inflammatory on your stomach lining,” she explains.
For many, however, the biggest benefit of “functional” alcoholic drinks such as hard kombucha and botanical spirits, which are infused with botanical ingredients ranging from rose petals to tea leaves, is that they allow consumers to enjoy drinks that are flavourful without the use of sugars and syrups.
“Many of our customers are focused on low sugar and low cal,” says Baadsvik. “We target women between 20 to 40 years old that live a healthy lifestyle, but the interesting thing is that when these women are buying it and giving it to their partners, they like it, too. So, it’s attracting demographics from all sectors.”
Baadsvik says that Wild Tea’s hard kombucha is carried by a handful of restaurants in Alberta, where the brand is based, but she expects their presence will expand as operators continue to regain their footing post-pandemic and start turning their attention to new trends and products. “We’re still a new entry player in the market,” she says. “Getting product in mouths [during the pandemic] has been difficult but once people do put it in their mouth, they’re like, ‘oh, this is really good.’”
Low and No ABV
The “sober curious” movement is still going strong, particularly among younger-demographics. “They want to be different than their parent’s generation and so they’re drinking less,” explains Jo-Ann McArthur, president at Nourish Food Marketing in Toronto. “They’re also using cannabis and people are a little more conscious of mixing.”
A 2021 study by IWR Global found that 60 per cent of respondents reported an intention to discover new no- or low-alcohol brands and predicted 3.6-per-cent growth in the category in Canada by 2024.
A wave of craft non-alcoholic beers is hitting retail shelves and gradually making their way onto bar and restaurant menus, too. “I think it’s having a bit of a groundswell in that traditionally, there was a really hard line in the sand as to you either drank or you don’t drink. But that line is starting to become a lot blurrier,” says Mitch Cobb, founder and CEO of P.E.I.’s Upstreet Craft Brewing, which launched alcohol-free craft beer brand Libra in 2020.
“It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg effect, where now that people are more interested in non-alcoholic options, it’s been a catalyst for innovation in the space and now that there are more innovative and interesting products that can replace alcohol, we’re seeing more people choose not to consume,” adds Cobb.
McArthur notes that light and low-ABV beers have been well-established for years, pointing to mainstays such as Bud Light and Coors Light, but, she says the low- and no-ABV trend is starting to make its way into the world of wine and spirits as well. “The other alcohol segments are kind of late to the party, but they’re finally getting there,” she says.
For example, Toronto-based brand Acid League launched a series of “wine proxies,” specialized blends of juices, teas, spices and bitters designed to mirror the flavour experience of wine, in late 2020. The same year also saw the debut of low-alcohol vodka and gin brand 18.8, while Ottawa-based Silver Swallow recently released a non-alcoholic champagne-style drink made from kombucha.
Genna Woolston, co-founder of Silver Swallow, says the pandemic caused many people to re-think their drinking habits and now customers are looking for low- and no-ABV options as they return to on-premise dining. “What we heard when restaurants opened back up is that they’ve never seen so many requests for non-alcoholic options,” she says.
The push for low- and no-ABV drink options is also fuelling an expansion of the mocktail, or non-alcoholic cocktail, programs at many bars and restaurants. “There are so many reasons why someone chooses not to consume alcohol. It’s an opportunity to provide a better guest experience for everybody in the party by giving them something else to drink other than soda water,” says Sabrine Dhaliwal, a Vancouver-based mixologist and bar manager at Chickadee.
Joshua Cartwright, bar manager at Toronto’s Marked restaurant, says his team’s goal is to create non-alcoholic cocktails that appeal to avid cocktail drinkers. “We’re not looking to create ‘mocktails’ because historically mocktails have been sugary and very sweet — more so geared towards children,” he says. His team often draws inspiration from flavours found in their traditional cocktails for their non-alcoholic drinks.
Mirroring Cobb’s observation, Dhaliwal says it’s no longer just consumers who abstain from alcohol completely who are ordering mocktails. She says many customers will begin their evening with traditional cocktails and then switch to non-alcoholic drinks. “They have their limit, but they still want to hang out and have those conversations with friends,” she says. “They’re consuming overall less alcohol, but that doesn’t mean their bills will be less.”
Silver Swallow’s Woolston, who says many mixologists are now incorporating the brand’s non-alcoholic champagne into sparkling mocktails, agrees that non-alcoholic drinks can be a great way for operators to offer their customers more choice. “It’s not all or nothing. If they [restaurant staff] see people who have turned to having water, offer them a high-end alternative. It helps restaurants maintain that revenue as people drink less,” she says.
During the height of the pandemic, alcohol delivery and takeout became a necessary lifeline for many operators, but the trend of enjoying beer, wine, spirits and cocktails to-go seems poised to continue, even as customers return to on-premise dining.
McArthur notes that alcohol takeout and delivery from bars and restaurants opened up consumer access to rare and unique bottles that they might not have been able to source elsewhere, which she predicts will have ongoing appeal beyond the pandemic.
Toronto’s Marben restaurant has seen continued success with its bottle-shop program, which includes wine, beer and cocktails to-go. “We have a massive selection that’s even larger than our in-house dining menu,” says general manager Karen Davidson. She says that as more customers return for dine-in, many are choosing to take bottles to-go with them after finishing their meal. “As the night is coming to an end, people have the opportunity to take a little bit of us home with them and enjoy an extended nightcap,” she says.
Davidson’s observation is supported by data from CGA’s 2021 Canadian Spirits Report + Bar and Beverage Showcase, which shows that 34 per cent of consumers who report ordering spirits on-premise have also ordered a cocktail kit for takeout/delivery.
Davidson says Marben’s bottled-cocktail program has been particularly popular since many of their customers don’t have the knowledge or supplies to create delicious cocktails at home. “People recognize the skill and effort that’s put behind each cocktail,” she says. “So just to be able to have access to that at home is a treat.”
Virtual tastings is a pandemic pivot that’s proving to have staying power. “People have
gotten used to being online and the fact that they have six wines in front of them and they don’t have to spit because they’re sitting [at home] on their couch,” says Michelle Paris, sommelier and founder of Vini Ventures, which offers guided wine tastings via Zoom.
When her in-person tasting sessions were put on hold in March 2020, Paris partnered with Toronto restaurant La Palette to begin offering virtual tastings, eventually launching Vini Ventures. She says that even as in-person tastings and other events have resumed, interest in her virtual experiences remains high.
“I don’t think Zoom [tastings] are ever going to totally go away because it’s going to be a useful way of sharing experiences with people who are not able to come in person,” says Nourish’s McArthur. Paris agrees that virtual experiences have opened up her classes to a wider audience, noting that people who might not have wanted to commute to Toronto to attend in-person classes are now able to join in the tastings.
She adds that virtual tastings also allow participants to easily interact with winemakers from all over the world. “It’s so much cheaper than flying somebody in, to do it online instead,” she says.
BY JESSICAA HURAS