Zero proof

Photos: Bruce Murray

Growing numbers of Haligonians are enjoying local craft drinks minus the booze  

Forget the sickly sweet, ointment-pink, pina colada-flavoured drinks you were confined to from the kid’s menu when ordering an alcohol-free beverage. Even the word “mocktail” is a relic these days. Instead, zero-proof and spirit-free drinks of all kinds are getting an upgrade. 

Perhaps because we’ve been appraising our pandemic drinking habits or making health a priority, many local drinkers are re-examining their relationship with booze, and a wave of local companies are seeing this space as a growing opportunity. 

“That hard line between who drinks and who doesn’t is quickly disappearing,” says Mike Hogan, co-founder and brewmaster of P.E.I.-based Libra and Upstreet Craft Brewing, which also has a brewpub in Burnside. “People come into our taproom for a beer after work, followed by two non-alcoholic beers. So, the stigma around who drinks alcohol-free beer is vanishing, and the most rewarding thing for us is allowing people to be social on their terms. They no longer have to stick with water or pop and can still enjoy the party and avoid the hangover.” 

Developing Upstreet’s non-alcoholic beer brand, Libra, happened naturally for Hogan and partner Mike Cobb. In the craft beer business, there was always an opportunity to be social and have a few drinks, and they wanted to find that balance between being social and healthy and didn’t like the options. 

“As brewers, we couldn’t find a non-alcoholic craft beer that was delicious and true to style, so we made our own and found out we weren’t alone,” says Hogan. 

They make Libra with the same techniques that brewers have used for centuries. They steep malted grains to extract sugar, boil the wort, add the hops, and cool the mixture before pitching the yeast. After that, they leave it to ferment, which creates a tiny amount of alcohol. More importantly, the fermentation smooths out the overall flavour, reflecting Hogan’s belief that zero-proof shouldn’t be defined by the absence of anything. 

“Craft brewing is always a blend of art and science,” Hogan says. “We spent two years researching (and countless pilot batches) breaking down the traditional craft brewing process, modifying it, and putting it back together to capture the taste of craft beer without the alcohol.” 

The result is the release of seven different styles, from pale ale to a new cherry sour. The brewing community is also taking notice, with Libra claiming three medals at the New York International Beer Competition as Upstreet earned the title “Canadian non-alcoholic brewery of the year.” 

Halifax-based Good Robot Brewing is also in tune with the non-alcoholic alternatives. 

“We have a ton of Good Robot guests who love our hospitable team, ambiance, food, and values, but who are off drinking alcohol, whether because they’re pregnant, for health reasons, or taking a break,” says co-founder Joshua Counsil. 

Good Robot’s answer to this: Fancy Water. It’s a bit like Schweppes. First, they chill local water (which, according to Counsil, has a similar mineral content to the Pilsen region of the Czech Republic, known for its softness). Next, they pressurize the water in a tank with carbon dioxide, which dissolves at low temperatures. Then they add natural fruits and extracts. The alcohol-based extracts are in small enough quantities to keep the beverage near zero, while giving it the character of alcohol. Fancy Water Lime Rickey is pretty much a cocktail in a can with flavours of cucumber, lime, and gin-style botanicals. 

“Many alcohol enthusiasts love blending Fancy Water with gin, vodka, or other spirits,” Counsil says. “So, we’ve stumbled into two audiences. Non-drinkers deserve the experience of drinking, the camaraderie and the fun, without the alcohol. And for drinkers like me, we’re happy our non-drinker friends have a product they can enjoy without feeling weird at a party.” 

Alcohol-free wines that taste just like their alcoholic counterparts are notoriously hard to make. 

In just a few years, Nova Scotian producers have begun offering a variety of booze-free craft drinks.

Still, that hasn’t deterred Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, Benjamin Bridge’s head winemaker, from creating Nova Scotia’s first alcohol-free wine, Piquette Zero. De-alcoholized wines usually lose their character, but Deslauriers tapped into his knowledge and experience by making artisan light wine refreshers. Piquette and Pink Piquette feature a naturally reduced alcohol content while maintaining flavour. Deslauriers applied the same winemaking principles to Piquette Zero, like keeping the grape skins in the wine, which provides structure and aromatics. 

“The zero-proof market is seeing exponential growth because of a cultural shift towards wellness, mindfulness, and provenance of ingredients,” says Deslauriers. “Like ourselves, consumers are seeking to drink moderately, buy locally, and make social gatherings inclusive. So, it makes sense that folks who can’t or don’t drink alcohol still want to gather with their wine-drinking friends.” 

Bulwark cidery also had the sober-curious market in mind when developing a sparkling alcohol-free cider, among the first of its kind in Nova Scotia. 

“The no-alcohol sector is definitely in a growth period in Halifax and across Nova Scotia,” says sales manager Jes Hunt. “We’ve seen several new non-alcoholic beverages hit the market.” 

Bulwark makes its cider much like wine, using fermentation to create bubbles and textures but keeping the alcohol level at 0.5 per cent, which is considered non-alcoholic by the Canadian Food Act. 

“There were non-alcoholic products out there, but a lot of the public’s concerns were with the taste, and they really weren’t satisfied with a lot of them,” says Hunt. “What makes our Bulwark product unique is that it tastes like alcohol, but it is not and yet still delicious.” 

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