Grant Caunter had the beer-lover’s dream job, travelling the world sampling the best craft brews on offer. He tells Chris Schulz why packing it in and boarding the zero-alcohol train was the best decision he ever made.
Grant Caunter sits down and takes a sip of the cold beer in front of him. Four years ago, this would have indicated that another big night was beginning. As the global director of craft beers for Heineken, Caunter was among the world’s top beer dogs, and his high-flying job involved many nights out that began like this. “I was the craft guy going to South Africa, Mexico, Sweden … France, the UK, Brazil,” he says. “We would enjoy everything that the craft industry has to offer.”
Caunter was a beer guy and he knew the craft beer market intimately. For years he’d watched the trend for batch brewing, IPAs and hazies grow across Aotearoa, so when he was offered the opportunity to move to Amsterdam with his wife and kids to help Heineken educate their brewers with his knowledge, he jumped at the chance. “We had the blueprint for how to grow a craft programme globally,” he says.
It was a dream job, “the pinnacle of 25 years in beer,” Caunter says. So he made the most of his punishing schedule. That meant constant travel and big nights out with clients sampling their wares, before ending his evenings asleep on a couch. “We would probably end up with a kebab at some point,” he says. “You finish the last morsel the second you fall asleep.”
All that changed in 2020. As Covid spread and lockdowns began, Counter found himself stuck in his Amsterdam apartment. The travel stopped. So did the socialising. “Instead of all go-go-go, it was 1,000 steps a day, not going anywhere, worry,” he recalls. “My happy hours were getting earlier every day.”
One day, he took a look in the mirror and realised all those IPAs he’d been drinking had helped him pack on the pounds. “I was 145kg … a big boy. I remember trying to run around Vondelpark (a huge park in the middle of Amersterdam) averaging 12 minutes a kilometre. I think you can walk around it in 11.”
Stressed about his job, worried about what might happen to the craft beer industry with bars closed around the world, and bored with wondering where his next beer or bottle of wine was coming from for his stay-at-home happy hours, Caunter decided to do something that had seemed unthinkable just months before: he and his wife Nicky quit alcohol.
“I just stopped,” he says. “For me, the obvious thing was the weight. I had no health scare, I didn’t have a doctor tell me anything. I just knew that, in my late 40s, it wasn’t going in the right direction. I gave myself a yellow card. I said, ‘You’re bigger than this.'”
Inspired by Australian rugby legend Peter FitzSimons’ book The Great Aussie Bloke Slim-Down, Caunter stayed off the booze, cut out sugar and began regular exercise. It worked. “I was literally losing one kilogram a week,” he says. Soon, he gave up using his sleep apnea machine, something he’d come to rely on. Instead of talking beer, he started telling his workmates about his weight loss.
But Caunter didn’t want to give up socialising. His job depended on it. Overseas, he found he could get a wide range of zero-alcohol drinks, including beers full of hops and flavour. “I shifted quite quickly into being an advocate for zero,” he says. When his contract at Heineken ran out, he and his family returned to Aotearoa and found the beer industry here a little behind on zero-alcohol options. So he started his own.
Today, over drinks at Ponsonby’s Chapel Bar, that means the beer Caunter’s drinking isn’t a hoppy eight percenter but a zero-alcohol IPA. State of Play has a hit of citrus, malts and hops, but comes with one key difference: its alcohol content is just 0.3%. When he asks beer drinkers to try it, Caunter says the response is often the same. “People go, ‘Fuck, that tastes like a beer,’ because it’s so different.'”
Caunter’s lifestyle change comes at a time when many are rethinking their relationship with alcohol. Media personalities Patrick Gower and Guyon Espiner both gave up the booze after making frank documentaries that admitted to their drinking problems. The growing trend has seen the first 0% bar open in Aotearoa, and local brewers like Sawmill and Behemoth say their zero-percent beers are now among their top sellers.
After 25 years in the alcohol industry, Frankie Walker, the owner of entertainment and cocktail brand Black Pineapple, also embarked on a sober-curious journey recently. Low-alcohol beers helped him overcome any social anxieties about admitting he wasn’t drinking, he says. “You can put it in your glass, drink it from a bottle. No one knows, no one cares,” he says. “I’m a better networker, more socially capable … I’m a better listener.”
But 0% beers still have some alcohol in them – the limit to be called a “zero” beer is 0.5% – meaning they may not be suitable for those with addiction problems. “We always caution our sober friends who are drinking zero alcohol beers and wines to be careful and watch closely for whether it’s triggering, causing cravings to intensify or linger for longer,” Lotta Dann, the author of three books about her journey to becoming sober, recently told the Sunday Star-Times. “… Vigilance and honesty is important for sober people drinking these beverages.”
They’re also not ideal for losing weight. While 75% of a normal beer’s calories come from its alcohol content, stripping out the alcohol doesn’t remove all the calories. Each can of State of Play contains 59 of them. But Caunter says that’s far fewer than a normal IPA, which can contain up to three times as many. He’s found he’s able to have regular zero-alcohol drinks without impacting his weight. Recently, he and Nicky celebrated their two-year sober-versary with rounds of zero alcohol cocktails at a Mt Eden restaurant. “It’s about getting used to new habits,” he says.
State of Play has only been out for two months, but it’s already stocked in 53 Countdown supermarkets, bottle stores and many online stores. Caunter has sold out of his first batch, and most of his second, and while the CO2 shortage is affecting supply, he’s hoping to take on staff and grow profitable within the next 12 months. He’s using the same knowledge from watching the craft beer market grow to analyse the 0% trend. “It’s 2% of sales [now]. In 12 months it will be 3%, 4% in 18 months, 7% in three years…”
While sales are improving, it’s Caunter’s message that really seems to be resonating. Recently, he posted before-and-after photos of his weight loss on LinkedIn, explaining how he lost his 45 kilograms, and how it inspired him to start State of Play. It went viral, with many telling Caunter they were on the same journey. “My story is no different to millions of others that pushed the boat out a little bit in terms of no exercise and eating and drinking [too much during lockdown],” he says.
Ultimately, lockdown helped Caunter realise he’s in charge of how he feels when he gets out of bed in the morning. “If you don’t like your job or where you’re living or how you’re feeling when you wake up in the morning, you can do something about it,” he says. “Fuck it. That’s what I did.”