Over the last few years phrases like “non-alc,” “zero proof,” and the seasonal “dry January” and “sober October” have entered the public consciousness in a big way.
Foregoing alcohol has become a trend for some drinkers and a revolutionary lifestyle change for others, and the reasons for cutting back or going completely sober can be deeply personal and often lifechanging. With alcoholic drinks so intertwined with our social culture, the move towards sober living has created a huge opportunity for businesses looking to create adult booze-free drinks to stand in for alcohol-based beverages. In the world of beer, no one brand has been as successful in this endeavour as Partake, a Calgary-based non-alcohol brewery.
For Partake’s founder and CEO, Ted Fleming, that path towards an alcohol-free lifestyle started with a Crohn’s disease diagnosis about a decade ago. The then-Ontario based engineer (he and his family have since relocated to Calgary where Partake is officially now headquartered), was a social beer drinker, but his health concerns put an end to the ritual of drinking pints with friends. Like many non-drinkers, Fleming found that cracking open a can of pop or ordering a Shirley Temple in a pub didn’t offer the same satisfaction as drinking a crisp cold beer, and most of the locally available non-alc or “near beer” options didn’t taste like the real thing.
Fleming watched from the sidelines as the rest of the world dove into the craft beer revolution, wishing that he could kick back with a tasty IPA or stout. He didn’t miss the way that alcohol made him feel, but he did mourn the taste of a really great beer. “There weren't great beer alternatives at retail,” Fleming says. “And the ones that were out there all tasted the same. There weren’t any craft styles.”
Fleming decided he wanted to do something about his predicament and started a website to seek out and distribute European craft non-alc beers, something that was surprisingly easy since no alcohol means he didn’t have to deal with the headaches that come from importing liquor both internationally and inter-provincially. He was able to form a community of fellow non-alc beer enthusiasts through the site which made him realize that there was a viable market for better brews.
In 2016 he recruited a friend to help him formulate a no-alc IPA, later employing the help of a local college in Ontario to scale up the recipe. Non-alcoholic beer is basically made with same ingredients as a regular beer and after much trial and error, the product that would become Partake was born. “We raised the bar to the point where it's not a compromise from a taste perspective to be drinking a non-ale beer,” Fleming says. “It's a beer that is true to style: it gives you an IPA that tastes like an IPA, and a red ale that tastes like a red ale and a stout that tastes like a stout.”
Launching in 2017, Partake seems to have hit the scene at the exact right time. The market has exploded with alcohol-free products, with zero-proof items like Seedlip’s spirits capturing drinkers and bartenders’ imaginations, and a flood of alcohol-free wines and ready-to-drink cocktails appearing in stores and online. While there are other non-alc beers available, Fleming’s care in making sure that Partake is comparable in flavour and mouth-feel to genuine craft beers has made it a leader in the non-alcoholic beer category. The brewery now offers six core beers — pale ale, blonde, peach gose, red, stout, and that original flagship IPA — as well as rotating seasonals like an Oktoberfest style and some additional fruity gose flavours. This variety and dedication to quality has made Partake the best-selling non-alcoholic beer in Canada.
Partake’s particular success can be credited to Fleming’s ability to create a product that is nearly indistinguishable from regular craft beer in flavour, though it doesn’t hurt that the beers are also low in calories, carbs, and sugar. Fleming says that the company’s growth isn’t just coming from people who “have to” avoid alcohol, but also from drinkers who want to cut down on their alcohol consumptions or stick to a single alcoholic drink before switching to no-alc so they can continue to socialize without getting drunk, allowing them to drive home and avoid a next-day hangover.
“Just like with plant-based eating, we've seen a lot of flexitarians when it comes to non-alc beverages,” Fleming says. “In the early days of my business, the consumers looked like me — people who really had to be in the category of non-alc for health or substance abuse reasons, religion, or what have you. Today it's much more about people choosing to be in the category because the products taste great, are low calorie, and they enable you to do so many other things in your life that you have to be cautious about if you're consuming alcohol.”
Partake hasn’t just seen significant growth in Canada — there are currently production facilities in both Alberta and Ontario to meet cross-country demand — but has also expanded into the United States, most notably hitting the shelves at Target stores. As his own company’s ideal customer, Fleming isn’t surprised that Partake has been so successful. What has surprised him is the response he’s been getting from fellow non-drinkers (and scaled-back drinkers) who have seen Partake make real changes in their quality of life.
“We get a lot of feedback in terms of how impactful the product is on people's lives,” he says. “It has allowed people to still enjoy beer and have a healthier relationship with alcohol, healthier relationship with their family, and in being more present. They’re not missing a beat in terms of social experiences but are telling us how positively impactful our product has been and how they use it to achieve things in their lives that were hard for them before.”
Partake is available in stores, bars and restaurants across Canada and the United States. For more information, visit drinkpartake.com.