The ‘sober curious’ generation is reimagining Australia’s drinking culture, and the alcohol industry is racing to keep up

The ‘sober curious’ generation is reimagining Australia’s drinking culture, and the alcohol industry is racing to keep up
  • Generational changes are transforming drinking culture, as an increasing number of Australians explore the ‘sober curious’ movement.
  • Globally non-alcoholic drinks sales are climbing and Australian brands are getting onboard.
  • “We wanted to be the alternative, and to provide something that was able to hold its own,” said Yolanda Uys, founder of non-alcoholic gin company Banks Botanicals.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Influencer Olivia Rogers decided to stop drinking earlier this year, after another hungover Sunday. It was the catalyst for her to begin exploring the ‘sober curious’ movement.

With a brand that centres heavily on lifestyle and fitness content, she’d been feeling a dissonance between the life she presented on social media and her reality for some time, but hadn’t “put two and two together,” she said. 

“I had never really challenged that decision-making process that my weekends were just guaranteed to involve drinking,” she told Business Insider Australia.

“It was just not something that had really crossed my mind which some people might find strange, but then most of my friends were the same.” 

After conducting some online research and reading books on the subject, she decided to challenge herself to stop drinking for 30 days, which quickly turned into 50, and then 200.

“I sort of realised that it wasn’t helping my intentions to be healthy, to be the best version of myself, and for my mental health, that I was doing something that was so detrimental.”

She now regularly posts about her experiences embracing sobriety to an audience of predominantly young Australian women. 

Rogers is part of a growing cohort of the ‘sober curious’: those who are looking to interrogate their relationship with alcohol and by extension drinking culture, without necessarily identifying with narratives around addiction.

While the movement has experienced growth in recent years, a swell of public figures, including influencers using their platforms to document their own journey away from drinking has given it a new identity, and pushed it toward the mainstream.

Ingrid Kesa, a 32 year old self-employed brand strategist, told Business Insider Australia she gave up drinking three years ago after a similar period of self-reflection. 

“It was more about interrogating the general mainstream, cultural relationship to alcohol, and how ingrained it is in everyday life,” Kesa said of her experience. 

“There’s a lot of grey areas between what is a healthy relationship with alcohol and what is actually not enjoyable. And what is detrimental to your health and your happiness and your well being and all of those things.”

‘Sober curious’ as more than just a trend

Even before the pandemic shut down the world’s bars, alcohol consumption has been on the decline as millennials and Gen Z seek healthier habits and binge less. 

Global drinks market analysis firm IWSR found that the low and no-alcohol segment in Australia grew 2.9% in 2021, with alcohol sales declining by 1.4%.

It forecasts that between now and 2024, it will grow by 16% and become one of the fastest growing segments in the market. 

AB InBev, the world’s largest beer conglomerate, says it expects sales of no- and low-alcoholic beer to represent 20% of sales by 2025, triple its current share. 

Michael Livingston, an associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, is part of a team that’s sought to better understand an ongoing trend observed in wealthier Western nations. 

Young people, starting in the early 2000s, began drinking significantly less than previous generations.

“It’s a question that’s puzzled us for a while now,” Livingston told Business Insider Australia.

“It’s a trend that we’re seeing globally, or at least in high income countries with similar drinking cultures to ours,” like the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand, he said. 

And while there are “a bunch of theories” around why this is the case, including growing awareness of the health risks of alcohol, Livingston says there’s a compelling case to be made that the perception and performance of identity through the prism of social media has contributed in some way to this shift. 

“We’ve theorised and I…suspect that the shift towards social lives lived out at least partly online,” is a contributing factor.

“What comes through more in qualitative interviews is this idea of surveillance, of whatever you do being photographable and shareable. 

“And so the idea of being out of control is more concerning and the idea of something going viral.”

Livingston’s research also found the decline in alcohol consumption also did not translate to an increase in other practices like vaping or taking recreational drugs. 

No other drug is “nearly big enough of a thing to be substituting for the amount of drinking that’s declined,” he said. 

“It doesn’t seem like there’s been a simple substitution from one year from alcohol to another substance.”

New entrants to the market 

Ben Kraus, founder of Victorian brewery Bridge Road Brewers, based in Beechworth, told Business Insider Australia he developed a non-alcoholic beer for the business after he and his family became trapped in Austria during the first lockdowns of the pandemic in 2020.

Kraus, whose wife and business partner is Austrian, visits Europe often and uses the opportunity to conduct market research. In 2005, when he founded the brewery, it was bringing craft beer – already well-established overseas – back to Australia. 

In 2020, it was non-alcoholic beer. 

“I started to see this growth in non-alcoholic beer before we really saw much in Australia,” Kraus said. 

“I’m always watching how people buy at supermarkets or what they buy at a bar,” he said. 

“One year no one had alcohol-free beer, the next year, a couple, and the last year I was there, I could not have gone to someone’s house who didn’t offer alcohol free beer as freely as they would offer beer.”

A stint at a German brewery over the European summer led to the development of the company’s first non-alcoholic beer; a pale ale using a recipe that uses a fermentation process similar to traditional beer, but halts the process before the alcohol content reaches 5%. 

Banks Botanicals was founded in 2020, part of a growing market of Australian-based companies looking to speak to an emerging high-end market of consumers looking for a non-alcoholic equivalent to premium alcohol brands.

Yolanda Uys, the company’s founder, said she wanted to create a product that mirrored the aesthetic and quality of the many homegrown craft and premium gin brands flooding the Australian market. 

“It’s organic, it’s non alcoholic, it’s vegan, it’s gluten free, and made in the Yarra Valley,” Uys told Business Insider Australia, explaining the appeal of her product to a growing customer base.

Echoing Kraus, Uys said she thinks sophisticated products like hers appeal to a mainstream, along with the ‘sober curious’ that would consider it alongside other gin brands.

“It’s not just about non alcoholic drinkers,” Uys said. “We wanted to be the alternative, and to provide something that was able to hold its own.”

Uys said her research showed almost 65% of Australian consumers said they were interested in no or low alcohol brands. And almost 70% want to either decrease  or maintain lower alcohol consumption. 

“So what that means is that this isn’t just for people that are not drinking,” Uys said. “This is about moderation.”

Simple drinks penetrating the sophisticated market’

Kesa said she’s noticed a subtle evolution in how companies are marketing their non-alcoholic drinks — and the types of companies selling them.  

She referenced Melbourne-based wine company NON, which was founded in 2019 to service the high-end non-alcoholic wine market. 

William Wade, the label’s founder and a former chef who trained at Noma in Denmark, wanted to create non-alcoholic wine for a younger customer than that of traditional non-alcoholic beverages. 

“All of the non-alcoholic wines are designed specifically to be matched with food,” Kesa said of the brand, adding that she sees it as an example of companies offering “more sophisticated” options and “really elevating” that market. 

Kraus said that the rise of non-alcoholic beverages generally and the ‘sober curious’ trend, along with low ABV hard seltzer, is a sign that “beverages as a whole [are] starting to blur a little bit.” 

“It’s happening in the wine industry, not from an alcohol perspective but from a market perspective, where we’re seeing these fun wines being produced like pet nats and natural wines.”

“You see it in seltzer infiltrating markets; really simple drinks penetrating the sophisticated market.”

Kraus said he’s seeing a broader shift in mainstream drinking culture, towards non-alcoholic beverages as simply another choice to be made when ordering at the bar. 

“It’s not exclusively the one drink. It’s not the dominant drink. It’s just another option that people can have.”