Non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers are becoming increasingly mainstream, finally breaking their social stigma and general disdain. Although a seemingly insignificant fashion in our drinking behavior, the rising popularity of these beverages reflects changing consumer practices and social norms. As such, we need to understand the deeper social and cultural foundations that explain the appeal of non-alcoholic beer.
Eating and drinking are intimate issues for most, as they are an everyday practice and closely related to culture and tradition. In many countries, especially in the West, the consumption of alcohol is deeply ingrained in social, cultural and even religious practices (e.g. the transubstantiation of Jesus Christ’s blood into wine during the Eucharist). Of these alcoholic beverages, beer is the most prevalent. However, non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic beers are becoming increasingly popular. There are various reasons why consumers are choosing non- or low-alcoholic beer over regular beers (containing 5% of alcohol).
Beer companies are playing into the growing thirst for non- and low-alcoholic beers and invest heavily in R&D in order to unbundle the taste of alcoholic beer, at the molecular level, and then rebundle this into beer without alcohol but with the same taste. Combined with lower prices because of lower taxes (because it does not contain alcohol), non-alcoholic beers thus become more attractive from a utilitarian perspective. However, there are deeper reasons, driven by more fundamental social and cultural trends that explain the appeal of these non- and low-alcoholic substitutes.
The first is that no- and low-alcoholic beer ties in with the rising “wellness mentality”, in which consumers want more control over their physical and mental health. This holds more for younger generations, who increasingly spend their time in virtual habitats, and thus place higher value on their physical and biological constitution and wellbeing. As such, many of them no longer find that the pleasure of consuming beer or alcohol in general outweighs the costs (e.g. a hangover, reduced concentration, worse sleep), and instead focus on those activities and refreshments that actually increase physical wellbeing (e.g. sports, healthy food).
Furthermore, digital technology empowers consumers to critically examine the effects of our consumption and practices to ourselves and others. Generally, we are living in a time in which traditions and habits are increasingly challenged, and consumers are applying this mindset to the health aspects of particular consumption products, exemplified by the rise of veganism and eating less meat or drinking decaf coffee.Technological rationalization creates a “risk society” according to the modernization theory of Giddens, as well as a society that is less willing to permit socially harmful behavior and practices.
As data on alcohol consumption tends to have a will of its own, unveiling that alcohol consumption renders the highest socially detrimental effects and costs, social norms are increasingly biased against alcohol and thus in favor of non-alcoholic beer. More fundamentally, consuming beer is also an important cultural practice, especially when it isn’t related to tension reduction, but to societal expectancies. As such, drinking beer can be considered a rite of passage: these are rituals or ceremonies that inaugurate the individual in the world through the three-step process of separation, transformation or liminality, and finally incorporation back into the world. There are numerous social activities – especially in the West – in which one is supposed to consume alcohol that have the characteristics of a rite of passage (e.g. champagne on New Year’s Eve, “vrijdagmiddagborrel” as the inauguration of the weekend or “hazing” at fraternities and sororities). From this perspective, non-alcoholic beer enables those who want to abstain from alcohol, but want to be included in these socio-cultural rites of passage without subpar experiences.
This also points to the most fundamental element: our experience of consuming beer and alcohol. Phenomenologically, these are substances that “numb” or “anesthetize” us, blurring our experience of the world. However, consuming alcoholic substances does not befit our digital living world that continuously stimulates our senses (e.g. social media, ads) and invites us to act in the real as well as in virtual worlds. One could even claim that other types of intoxicating substances, such as XTC or weed, fit better with the markets emerging around hyper experiences and spirituality. Indeed, other intoxicating substances besides alcohol could actually help fulfill our longing to find holiness and meaningful experience.
• Non-alcoholic beer could also become another “culture war phenomenon”, like LGBT rights, eating meat, vaccinations, drug legalization, stem-cell research, euthanasia, or sexual education. More radically, beerand alcohol could even come to have a new social stigma, given their harmfulness to health and society. Untangling this discussion and providing a meaningful narrative for understanding this polarization makes the tradition of hermeneutics all the more relevant in our times.
• Non-alcohol beer is another exemple of a trend in which food (e.g. meat) and beverages (e.g. milk) are unbundled into their fundamental tasteful (or (un)healthy) components, and then rebundled into new tastes. Combined with 3D-printing technology, this could lead to wholly new designs for food and drinks, such as squared tomatoes for efficient transportation, food printed in the form of merchandise (e.g. action figures), or tasty medicines.