Garage Project
Jos Ruffell and Pete Gillespie sample Garage Project’s Tiny, a hazy beer with just 0.5% alcohol content. Image: Supplied/Treatment: Archi Banal

BusinessFebruary 26, 2022

Why everyone’s drinking ‘fake’ beersies now

Garage Project
Jos Ruffell and Pete Gillespie sample Garage Project’s Tiny, a hazy beer with just 0.5% alcohol content. Image: Supplied/Treatment: Archi Banal

Non-alcoholic beer is selling faster than local brewers can make it. How long will the craze for IPAs and hazies that won’t get you drunk last?

Brewers at famed Wellington beer spot Garage Project love a challenge. In 2020, they found their biggest yet: could they make a hoppy, hazy beer with no alcohol in it? It wasn’t going to be easy. “We tried all sorts of things,” says co-founder Jos Ruffell. “It’s easily been the most involved, intensive R&D we’ve ever put into a beer.”

Over 12 months, they hit multiple road blocks. Many batches were tipped straight down the drain. The biggest problem was balance. With normal beer, a high alcohol content can mask faults. Take the alcohol out and any issues quickly become obvious. “There’s nowhere to hide,” says Ruffell. Alcohol’s also a preservative. “You’re operating in a very delicate environment.”

By November last year, they thought they had it. Brewed using natural methods, with pilsner malts, golden naked oats and American mosaic, strata and simcoe hops, it was good, and their expert tasting panel agreed. “They were blown away,” Ruffell says. “When you crack the can, the aroma explodes. We knew we had something there.”

Garage Project
Tiny, a non-alcoholic hazy, is one of Garage Project’s top-selling beers (Photo: Supplied)

“Tiny” is the name chosen for Garage Project’s first non-alcoholic beer. They thought they had enough cans for launch, but they were wrong. Word spread quickly. New World ordered enough for every store around the country. Sold out signs started going up. “It went crazy from day one,” Ruffell says. “It became very apparent we had nowhere near enough.”

It’s stayed that way. Right now, Tiny means huge: it’s among Garage Project’s most popular beers. They’ve allocated as much tank space as they can to make it. When they update their website, slabs of 60 cans sometimes sell out in 20 minutes. Fans send messages of desperation. “They’re hunting down Tiny,” says Ruffell. “It’s the only beer they want to drink at the moment.” On its current trajectory, it will soon become their bestseller. “If you’d told me that three years ago…” he says, shaking his head.

Garage Project
The sold-out sign is up for Tiny on Garage Project’s online shop

Tiny has entered a booming marketplace. Once dismissed as a “fake” drink for teetotallers and sober drivers, demand for low- and no-alcohol beers has officially exploded. “Beer under 1.15% alcohol grew 1116% in the last five years,” reports a recent Brewers Association of NZ survey. With the local beer industry worth $2.8 billion, the trend seems unlikely to stop there.

“Supersonic” is how Michael Donaldson describes the rise. The editor of The Pursuit of Hoppiness beer magazine says he watched the trend take off overseas, and wondered when it might land here. Now it’s happened. “It’s just gone ‘whoosh’.” Donaldson’s experienced this first-hand: one of his site’s most popular stories is a short review of Mac’s Gold’s Stunt Double, a no-alcohol lager.

Why now? “All the data suggests people are way more conscious of lifestyle choices around alcohol,” says Donaldson. Like so many things, the pandemic also helped. “People aren’t going out with friends, to the pub. The more you drink at home, on your own … it’s not that satisfying. There’s a general mood to be healthier.” His own beer fridge includes three no-alcohol options: Tiny, Sawmill’s Bare Beer, and Bach Brewing’s All Day IPA. “I like beer,” he says. “I also like having no-alcohol days.”

So do many others. A cottage industry is opening up around non-alcoholic drinks, with restaurants, bars and sports clubs finding they’re selling faster than ever. Over summer, those hosting dry weddings used them to offer guests more than just juice and soda. In The Spinoff’s office, Friday afternoon fights nearly broke out for leftovers from a recent no-alcohol beersies taste test.

That’s not all: a dedicated zero-alcohol bar opened in Greytown just a few weeks ago. “Once they taste it, they are usually back for a second round,” founder Adam Blackwell told TVNZ. “People just love it.”

If you can’t make it to the Wairarapa, Ricky Bartlett and Donna Weston are open for business. Eight years ago, Ricky gave up drinking after a couple of scary experiences while drunk. “It was something that overcame me,” he says. “Alcohol was becoming far more important to me than it should have … I didn’t have an off switch. I couldn’t stop.” He found himself getting nervous if there was no alcohol in the house. One morning, he woke up and said he was done.

Ever since, the Kāpiti Coast real estate agent has tried to find a healthy replacement for his evening ritual. The results were disappointing. After talking about it for years, he and his wife Donna opened an online delivery service for others wanting non-alcoholic drinks. Open since August, Clear Head Drinks has amassed an eye-popping range of options: lagers from the UK, IPAs from Holland, stouts from America, pilsners from Australia. They also stock wine and spirits, all averaging below 0.5% alcohol.

Clear Head Drinks
Ricky Bartlett and Donna Weston launched Clear Head Drinks at last year’s Beervana festival (Photo: Supplied)

It’s a side hustle, but business has grown every month, so it could soon be their main hustle. They’re finding more and more people are discovering that you can still enjoy a drink, and stay sober while doing so. “You don’t feel the need to go on and have six of them,” says Weston, who gave up with her husband and finds alcoholic drinks taste strange to her now. “You’ve had that taste, that mouthfeel, the ritual of having a beer after a hard day’s work. It’s satisfied you, but it doesn’t trigger you to carry on bingeing.”

Up at Sawmill Brewery, they’re finding their no-alcohol beer offering has other benefits. Bare Beer, a non-alcoholic IPA, was a year in the making, going through multiple iterations before hitting the market late last year. With citrus, pine and tropical notes, it’s been popular too. “It’s absolutely huge,” says quality manager Scott Sharp-Heward. “It’s continuing to grow, even in what is a difficult hospitality market.” They’re already discussing what they might work on next — perhaps a zero-alcohol stout.

sawmill brewery
Sawmill Brewery’s Scott Sharp-Heward with a bottle of Bare Beer (Photo: Supplied)

But it’s not just customers enjoying Bare Beer – the brewers are too. “I’m not that old but I’m getting older,” says Sharp-Heward. “I don’t feel like I need alcohol every day after work.” It’s also the perfect drop for after-work drinks at Sawmill, based in Matakana, north of Auckland. “The brewery’s in the middle of nowhere, someone’s commuting or having to drive, so it’s a really good option to have.”

Like everyone else frothing over “fake” beers, Sawmill Brewery’s own staff say they’re getting a full beer experience, despite there being no chance of getting even faintly tipsy from them. “It’s the dream … to still be able to enjoy it and get all the bits you want out of a full-strength beer without having to worry about the hassle of alcohol.”

Read more: In search of the best non-alcoholic beer in New Zealand

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