These are strange times we live in, with booze-free beer and alcoholic kombucha both tipped for big things in 2020.
You read that correctly. Some entrepreneurial types are taking alcohol out of beer, while others are putting it into supposed wellness drink, kombucha.
Paul Tansley is co-founder of The Bucha of Byron, which up until last year, was purely focused on non-alcoholic kombucha.
But with consumers increasingly wanting to feel good about the alcoholic drinks they consume, the company has launched The Dirty Bucha of Byron, "because you can't be good all the time".
"People these days are more health conscious than they have ever been, that's why the Dirty Bucha is exactly one standard drink per bottle," Tansley says.
"People know what they are getting and can moderate if they choose."
From schooners to scobies
Tansley says Dirty Bucha was a natural evolution for the company, given both he and partners Cam MacFarlane and James Mackinnon all have backgrounds in the alcohol industry.
"We started out building the non-alcoholic Bucha in bars, pubs and premium cafes, so we've always had a view for mixing it with spirits," he says.
Kombucha always contains trace amounts of alcohol resulting from the fermentation process.
As such, most hard kombuchas are created simply by allowing fermentation to continue until the alcohol level is closer to that of a beer.
In the mix
In contrast, Dirty Bucha is made by blending two of the company's existing non-alcoholic products – Lemon Myrtle Kombucha and Tropical Kombucha – respectively with gin and vodka, supplied by neighbouring Cape Byron Distillery (creator of Brookie's Gin).
"We already had bars making up 'low sugar cocktails' with our non-alcoholic kombucha," Tansley says.
"We felt that kind of approach made more sense in Australia, where craft distilling is taking off and we historically have a very strong market for ready-to-drink spirits."
A new brew
Also new on the market is Brewhaha Hard Brewed Kombucha, a brand created by a group of Melbourne professionals new to the beverage industry.
It comes in Cucumber & Lime, Pear & Sour Cherry and Green Apple & Hemp flavours, all of which have been fermented to arrive at a mid-strength ABV of 3.5 per cent.
"We've seen such incredible growth coming from this lower alcohol, better for you segment overseas," says representative Emma Day.
"We worked with a brewer who has great experience with making non-alcoholic kombucha, to develop our own recipe for Brewhaha."
Alcohol-free beer meanwhile, is a global trend that is slowly making its way to Australia.
The world's biggest brewer, AB InBev, believes 20 per cent of its sales volumes will come from low or no alcohol beer by 2025, up from eight per cent in 2019.
Local subsidiary Carlton and United Breweries launched Carlton Zero in 2018, selling 3.2 million litres of the stuff in its first 12 months.
"Research shows the most common reason people drink non-alcoholic beer is because they're the designated driver, and we're seeing this predominately in people aged 18-34," commented CUB's Chris Maxwell.
Broadening brew horizons
Spying the trend, smaller brewers are beginning to try their hand at non-alcoholic beers that still deliver on flavour.
Melbourne's Dainton Brewery recently launched the New Age IPA, which at 0.9 per cent ABV is legally considered a non-alcoholic beverage in most of Australia.
"It sold out pretty quick, so we're remaking it," says founder Dan Dainton.
"I think there's a gap in the market. There's lots of reasons why people may not want to drink alcohol, but they still want to enjoy a good craft beer and feel like they are part of the social occasion."
Dainton has twice won the coveted trophy for Champion Australian Indie Beer. On both occasions, it did so with beers in excess of eight per cent ABV.
But while he may be better known for brewing higher alcohol styles, Dainton says he is increasingly finding occasions where low alcohol beers are better suited to his lifestyle.
"If I've got to study or work or I've got the kids in the morning, it's great to be able to enjoy a drink without having to worry about it," he says.
Dainton says he would love to produce a zero per cent ABV beer, "but from the research I've done you need a fair bit of equipment, which costs a lot of money".
"I don't know how big the market is yet," he says.
Scottish craft beer company Brewdog, which recently opened a brewery and taproom in Brisbane, is banking that the market potential is significant.
It recently held an alcohol-free beer and spirits festival in London, and last year launched its second alcohol-free beer, Punk AF.
"We've got a couple more coming; an alcohol-free hazy [ale], and then a coffee stout as well," says co-founder Martin Dickie.
"It's quite a tricky thing to make a really drinkable non-alcoholic beer, so we've been working super hard on that. It's really exciting."
James Atkinson is creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and a previous editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® and 2017 winner of the Australian International Beer Awards media prize, James regularly contributes to other publications including Halliday, Good Food, QantasLink Spirit and more.