The Pacific Northwest helped pioneer craft brewing, and it’s still a hub for small breweries and small batch distilleries. It should come as no surprise that the region is also a mecca of businesses that brew nonalcoholic beer and distill alcohol-free spirits. It’s a fast-growing category in a huge market of adult beverages. In fact the Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association launched just over a year ago, another indication of this rapidly growing industry of nonalcoholic beers and botanical spirits. Joining us are two alcohol industry veterans who are at the forefront of the nonalcoholic trend. Larry Sidor is the co-founder and master brewer at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend, which produces NA beers along with its many beers that contain alcohol. And Brad Whiting cofounded Wilderton, based in Hood River, which exclusively distills botanical spirits to create nonalcoholic cocktails.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. The Pacific Northwest has a history of making excellent adult beverages for a smaller market. The craft brewing scene basically started here after all. But tastes and attitudes change and brewers and even distillers are seeing a growing market for people who want the taste and maybe the experience of an adult beverage, but without the buzz. Enter the nonalcoholic trend. A recent market analysis predicts a 25% increase in nonalcoholic offerings in this country in the next three years. Joining us are two industry veterans who are at the forefront of this trend. Larry Sidor is the co-founder and master brewer at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend, which produces some non-alcoholic beers and Brad Whiting co-founded Wilderton, in Hood River, which exclusively distills spirits to create nonalcoholic cocktails. Brad, Larry, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Brad Whiting: Hey. Thanks, Geoff.
Larry Sidor: Great to be here.
Norcross: It’s great to have you. Brad, we’re gonna start with you. Set this up for us. Before you and your partner decided to launch this business, what was your professional background?
Whiting: Yeah, you betcha. I spent close to 15 years in the traditional spirits world here in Oregon with some iconic brands based out of Hood River Distillers. Many of the listeners may be familiar with everything from Pendleton Whisky to Clear Creek Distillery to Big Gin and many others. So that was how I came to this and back in 2018, I just thought there was a great opportunity to bring a similar level of craft, and intention to the ‘nonalc’ space that we saw in the traditional spirit space.
Norcross: Why did you think that?
Whiting: Well, selfishly, it was partly for myself. I was a young forties guy with a young kid and loved cocktail culture, loved spirits culture, but I was looking for something on a Tuesday night that delivered that same level of experience, but without the alcohol.
Norcross: Why do you think more and more people are interested in that in the same way that you were?
Whiting: Oh, I think some people would point to post-Covid, I think other people would just point towards a more general drive towards a more balanced, more healthy lifestyle. I think that for those of us in this kind of thirties to fifties range, alcohol has always been a part of our social life. For younger people, GenZ and whatnot, many folks in that demographic are entering social spaces, not looking for alcohol, but still looking for really unique experiences.
Norcross: Larry, let’s bring you in from the beer side. How much nonalcoholic beer did you brew in your career before you started making the ones for Crux Fermentation?
Sidor: I don’t know how to answer that, let’s just say millions and millions of cases of nonalcoholic beer.
Norcross: Yeah, like what?
Sidor: I worked for the Olympia Brewing Company and we produced for the Pabst Brewing Company and Hamms and so on and so forth and I made some very, I’ll call it questionable quality, nonalcoholic beer in my lifetime.
Norcross: What was questionable about them?
Sidor: It kind of tastes like scorched tomato juice.
Norcross: Ow. [Laughing]
Sidor: Somebody that was looking for a malt beverage or something that was close to a malt beverage, I think I punished them by producing those products.
Norcross: A little corporate sabotage?
Sidor: No, not at all. It was all about the parameters I was given to produce these beers. I spent a few million dollars trying to perfect nonalcoholic beer and I will admit that I wasted their money.
Norcross: What did you learn when you were making all those less than delicious attempts at a nonalcoholic beer that you still carry with you?
Sidor: Oh, well, I think the biggest thing is I learned what not to do. I tried several methods, whether it was thin film evaporation or spinning combs, or distillation by fractionization or rested fermentation or different yeast varieties that don’t produce alcohol. That was my misstep, to kind of take the standard product and try to just make it nonalcoholic, instead of starting with your basic building blocks of a product and build up till you get something that replicates a traditional beer product.
Norcross: Obviously I don’t want you to give away any secrets. But generally speaking, how do you take the alcohol out of a beer without taking away the taste?
Sidor: That is an excellent question. And the problem with it is alcohol is a great solvent for many flavors, essential oils, that type of thing. And when you remove the alcohol, you tend to remove the solvent capabilities of the liquid. And so the real challenge is not to have to remove them, to have a product that you produce that generates those flavors that you want without having to remove them.
Norcross: I’ve read many reviews of nonalcoholic beers and how much they taste like, quote, ‘the real thing.’ That seems to be like the key metric, if it tastes like beer with alcohol, success. Is that a fair metric?
Sidor: I think so. But one thing that should be said is that it should be refreshing. I think one of the things that a lot of producers [and] brewers miss is that it’s refreshing. And I think that Brad would back me up on this - there’s so many products in life, whether it’s wine or spirits, that it has to be balanced. If you don’t have a balanced product and it’s cloying, you don’t have the acidity right, or you don’t have the carbohydrate blend right, it’s going to be a product that well, it tastes really good on the first sip, but you never finish the complete product.
Norcross: Okay, well, Brad, let’s bring you in because you’re talking to someone who has a hard time getting his head around the idea of a nonalcoholic spirit. How does it work? How do you make it?
Whiting: Sure, so I would actually echo a few things that Larry said. For us it was about, it wasn’t about starting with an alcoholic gin or whiskey and taking the alcohol out. I think myself and one of my co-founders, Seth O’Malley, who’s really the liquid genius here, looked at what we like about spirits, whether it be gin or whiskey or vodka. And like Larry said, it’s about balance, it’s about structure, it’s about length, it’s about intensity. And I think, knowing that, again nodding to Larry’s comment, that without ethanol, without alcohol as an extractive method, and for us, just using water to extract flavors and aromas from botanicals, we really had to use a new set of botanicals with a really novel extraction technique to deliver the same level of aromatic intensity that you’d find in a traditional spirit. But not trying to mimic any existing spirit. So, Wilderton’s three expressions look and feel like spirits, they’re used as the base in cocktails, like a spirit, to deliver that intensity, just without alcohol.
Norcross: You said three basic spirits. You have categories here: white, brown and red. Can you describe those for me?
Whiting: I think because we are not trying to copy a gin, for example, or copy a whisky, the three products that we have are intended to fit the types of drinking occasion or the type of cocktails that you might be familiar with in those categories. So our clear spirit has notes of citrus, herbs, floral notes that play really beautifully, when you might have reached for a gin and tonic or a vodka soda. Likewise, our brown spirit is earthen and has beautiful smoke notes and deep spice notes that might be reminiscent of a whiskey. And lastly our bittersweet aperitivo is a red spirit that is very reminiscent of a Campari or an Aperol spritz type of occasion or cocktail.
Norcross: You mentioned that botanicals are the raw materials that you put into these spirits. Can you give me some examples?
Whiting: Sure. A botanical really is just an aromatic plant. It might be the source of hops, arguably in Larry’s world, is a botanical. For us it would be everything from dried citrus peels to various barks or roots or resins that we source from all over the world, ship here to Hood River, and then begin our production process.
Norcross: We asked listeners on Facebook what they thought of nonalcoholic beer and cocktails. Ryan Hooper says, ‘I don’t see the point. Give me my jasmine, passion fruit, hibiscus salon green tea and I’ll be just fine.’
On the other hand, Kate Comiskey said, ‘When I go to a bar, I ask for the bartender’s favorite mocktail. They are zesty and fun and always a surprise, makes it much easier to be sober and still enjoy a nice cocktail-like experience.’
And Kate Frick said, ‘I stopped drinking alcohol in 2021 but love the taste of beer, especially after a hot day of yard work. Athletic makes some of the best non-alcoholic brews and I always have a few in the fridge. My other goto is soda water and bitters.’
Larry Sidor, that sounds like quite the spectrum of reactions. Is that something you’re hearing too?
Sidor: Oh absolutely. I am completely blown away, impressed with the customers’ reactions to our product. For me, I wanted to produce a nonalcoholic product. I got quite a bit of pushback from my staff, they thought it was not possible. And once we started experimenting, people were pretty enthused. If you think about it, in Europe almost 14% of their malt beverage consumption is non-alcoholic beer and in the U.S., it is less than 1%. The Pacific Northwest is kind of the leader at about 2%, just a little under 2%. So people are paying attention and catching on and having better products has been a very healthy thing.
Norcross: Yeah and there seems to be something in the culture right now where people are experimenting with going without alcohol. There’s this thing called the ‘dry January’ where people just don’t, for a month, after the holidays. Do you see interests are sort of percolating in the culture for products like these?
Sidor: Absolutely. One thing that has surprised us is we got a request for kegs of nonalcoholic beer and to our dismay, a bar or pub purchasing a keg of nonalcoholic beer is a pretty noteworthy situation because obviously customers are coming in and asking for it. And for them not to have to deal with bottles or cans or whatever and they have a volume that would satisfy bringing in a keg is pretty pretty good writing on the wall.
Norcross: Brad Whiting, you started your business in 2020 when obviously so many businesses and especially bars and restaurants were dealing with shutdowns and other challenges related to the pandemic. Why did you open then?
Whiting: I guess that was just when we had the opportunity and it dramatically shifted how we wanted to launch. We, having always believed that we could bring legitimacy to this space of a high quality product, bars and restaurants have always been really important to us. To your point, that was very, very difficult when we launched. So early on we were extremely encouraged by the reception that we had in specialty grocery stores around Oregon; Market of Choice, New Seasons, Zupans, Elephants all carry our products and have done great with them.
I think what’s especially encouraging to me now is that as we are moving towards whatever post-Covid looks like, the bar and restaurant scene is really diving into this in the last year, unlike anything I’d seen. So whether it’s Kahn or Takibi or LaShawn, or Nostrana in Portland, it’s about elevated hospitality. It’s about giving good hospitality to all your patrons and we’re just so thrilled that people are starting to see this and I think that’s where quality comes first. Now we’re trying to build awareness and then availability and those pieces coming together in sort of a triad is really a creating inflection moment for this category.
Norcross: And how do you see that continuing? How do you see consumer expectations around alcohol and the consumption of it continuing to shift?
Whiting: Oh I think, to Larry’s business, and some of his points and in our position is that it’s not about either/or. I think people are on a spectrum and while we certainly appreciate and engage our customers who have chosen to give up alcohol completely, we think the larger opportunity is in people just looking at social drinking occasions as those, drinking occasions, not necessarily alcohol occasions.
Norcross: And Larry Sidor, last word for you, where do you see the nonalcoholic sector in five years, if you had to predict?
Sidor: I would predict that we’re going to see [that] at least10% of consumption of malt beverages will be nonalcoholic. I think that as we, as brewers, progress with the flavor profile, we’re going to see more and more people going in that direction.
Norcross: Larry Sidor, Brad Whiting, cheers and thanks so much.
Whiting: Thank you, Geoff.
Sidor: Thank you.
Norcross: Larry Sidor is the cofounder and master brewer at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend and Brad Whiting co-founded Wilderton in Hood River, which distills nonalcoholic spirits.
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