Look out stouts and hefes. Millennials and Gen Z are trying to make healthier lifestyle choices, and they may be looking for more than a buzz. Some estimates suggest that the market for low or no-alcohol drinks will increase by nearly a third between 2018 and 2022 — three times the category’s growth over the previous five years — with young people driving the trend.
Local Seattle area companies like Cleen Craft (CBD soda), San Juan Seltzer (hard seltzer), and GloryBucha (kombucha) are among the alcohol brands setting their sights on this demographic. They all serve their beverages on draft, in a taproom, at the same location where the products are created. Utilizing a brewery-like format with no beer in sight, these businesses are hoping to reel in big money, while positioning themselves like the “craft brewers” that younger generations trust over bigger corporations.
These businesses say they chose the taproom environment to provide more control throughout the product lifecycle and create opportunities to get real-time feedback from customers. They’re also making a calculation that a physical gathering space — which are important to younger generations, despite their digital tendencies — can bolster sales in one of the country’s most taproom-dense regions in the country (there are 200 breweries in Seattle alone).
Below, a run down of the frontrunners of this trend in the Seattle vicinity:
2230 2nd Ave
This CBD soda company’s Belltown taproom and production facility opened in August, serving up carbonated lime, ginger, and cola-flavored beverages infused with industrial hemp extract. CBD is a THC-free cannabinoid (the non-psychoactive chemical compounds from the cannabis plant), believed to offer a range of benefits, from anxiety relief to pain reduction. (Note: the science around CBD is not totally conclusive.) Cleen Craft’s drinks have 16 mg of CBD, extracted from hemp, in each can. While there’s no standard dosage for CBD and the chemical affects people differently, in general, that amount is considered on the low side — just enough to notice slight effects.
A statewide marijuana reform initiative passed in 2012, making it legal for licensed businesses in Washington to sell CBD and other cannabis-related products. Within this landscape, Cleen Craft thinks it provides a unique experience in a historic building, marked by big, wooden beams overhead.
Founder Marcus Charles, a 45-year-old Seattleite whose been in the cannabis business for seven years, says he wants to appeal to a younger crowd. With its taproom format, patrons can see Cleen Craft’s production process, and Charles has more control over the end-product. Instead of co-packing, where a third party produces and packages a company’s offerings, Charles’s sodas are created on-premises using machines from Belltown Brewing (one of his previous ventures). Everyone leaves with a free pint glass, to boot.
Cleen Craft intends to be a healthier alternative to bars and breweries, but its taproom isn’t booze-free. There are cocktails that mix spirits like Five Roses bourbon and Tito’s vodka with the CBD sodas, meaning Charles is branding it as both an alcohol alternative and a mixer. When mixing, Charles says the effects kick-in more quickly, which would theoretically lead to a decrease in overall consumption.
San Juan Seltzer
3901 1st Ave S
A testament to the meteoric rise in popularity of hard seltzers, now a $1 billion industry, San Juan Seltzer opened its sleek, minimalist taproom and restaurant in the SoDo neighborhood in September — just a year after its flagship flavors launched as distribution-only products in Seattle. The seltzery (a term that San Juan actually trademarked) has 15 rotating flavors on tap, including a handful of taproom-only flavors like cucumber mint and peach rosé. Pints are $6, and cocktails, like the Snug Harbor made with bourbon, lemon, aperol, and San Juan Seltzer fuji apple, start at $11. The seafood-focused menu from celebrated Seattle chef Ethan Stowell (How to Cook a Wolf, Tavolàta, and others) reflects the seltzery’s San Juan Island-nautical theme, complete with a fire pit, blankets, and scattered driftwood.
Made with regional ingredients (peaches from Yakima, WA, pears from Oregon), the company emphasizes that its seltzers have zero carbs, no sugar, are gluten free and just 4.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). “Today’s consumers like to have fun, but they’re not getting smashed,” president of sales Kyle Enger says. Research is a bit less conclusive than that, as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that millennials who reported consuming any alcohol in the preceding month stayed steady from 2015 to 2017 at more than 60 percent. (The data doesn’t indicate whether the amount of alcohol consumed changed during that time.) As one article recently put it, millennials may be curbing their drinking habits, but they’re not abandoning booze entirely.
San Juan is certainly trying hard to appeal to this audience, even younger parents. Indie rock songs emanated from the speakers on one recent visit, while an indoor play area with a toy tent was set up, along with some activities for toddlers. In general, the crowd was decidedly 30-and-under. If this location is successful, San Juan’s goal is to open more taprooms around the area.
116 E 5th St, Arlington, WA
Chef-turned-brewmaster Lowell Profit opened a 2,200-square-foot kombucha brewery and taproom in 2016, the first in Snohomish County and one that may be well-timed. The global value of the kombucha market hit $1.24 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach nearly triple that figure by 2025. Made with probiotics thought to aid digestive health, the ancient, fermented tea is often seen as a lower sugar and carb alternative to sodas, beer, and wine.
Kombucha’s association with wellness may resonate with younger generations, who feel more attached to companies that have a strong mission (in a recent survey of 343 millennials, 81 percent said they feel a successful business needs to have a genuine purpose). As such, Profit’s vision behind GloryBucha reflects his own belief that kombucha promotes better health. Recent research suggests that more than half of older millennials drink the beverage.
The taproom’s magenta, orange, and pink walls mirror the hues of the beverage brews and bottles on-site. Twelve flavors, including Berry Mix-a-Lot and Marley Ginger, are available on tap for $5 per pint or $6 for a flight. Similar to San Juan’s methods, Profit’s teas are created with locally sourced ingredients, like pears and ginger from Garden Treasures in Arlington, WA, and honey from Snohomish Bee Company. With the popular Skookum Brewery and a new Elemental Cider taproom nearby, Profit wanted to put a stake in the ground with GloryBucha.
“Craft breweries have been around for ages,” he says. “These different types of taprooms coming onto the scene are cultivating a new following and pushing something different.”