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An Ex-Drinker's Search For A Sober Buzz

Can the booming market for non-alcoholic drinks offer a safe way to return to the bar?

Just inside the Athletic Brewing Company’s headquarters, in Stratford, Connecticut, there is a long wooden bar with a selection of non-alcoholic craft beers on tap. When I visited the brewery and public taproom on a sunny afternoon in June, during our fleeting summer of freedom before the emergence of the Delta variant, I could smell the hops—the flowers that give beer its sour-sweet fruit flavor—while I was still outside.

Behind the bar, Bill Shufelt, a thirty-eight-year-old former hedge-fund trader, who co-founded Athletic in 2017, drew me a pint of Two Trellises, one of the company’s seasonal N.A. brews—a hazy I.P.A. that he and the other co-founder, John Walker, Athletic’s forty-one-year-old head brewer, were test-batching. I had not raised a pint drawn from a keg since I quit drinking alcohol, exactly one thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight days earlier. The glass seemed to fit my palm like a key.

For the North American non-alcoholic-beer drinker, who was until recently shut out of the craft-beer revolution of the past twenty years, these are hoppy times. Back in 2016, you’d be lucky to find an O’Doul’s—the non-alcoholic swill brewed by Anheuser-Busch—in the far back corner of the deli beer fridge. Five years later, the Total Wine & More chain of superstores carries biscuity stouts and hops-forward I.P.A.s from more than a dozen N.A. craft brewers across the continent, including Athletic, Partake, Bravus, Surreal, WellBeing, and Brooklyn’s Special Effects. Although the N.A.-beer market in the U.S. is still tiny, at around two hundred and seventy million dollars, compared with Europe’s multibillion-dollar industry, it has grown by a third in the past year. American disdain for the liquid called “near-beer”—a derisive tag that is a hangover from Prohibition days, when non-alcoholic beer, defined by the 1919 Volstead Act as beer containing up to 0.5 per cent alcohol by volume (A.B.V.), was the only beer Americans could legally drink—appears to be finally lifting. (That 1919 definition of non-alcoholic beer remains the standard today.)

I swirled the beer and admired the lacery of foam, as the bubbles slid slowly down the side of the glass. I took a deep whiff—the Cascade hops, from the Pacific Northwest, had notes of pineapple and hay. I brought the glass up to my lips, and took a long swallow. A tingle of good cheer seemed to spread through my hand up my right arm and into my chest.

The beer, though near, was delicious.

It felt good to be conducting an interview in a bar again. As a reporter, I had relied on interviews over drinks as a way of loosening a subject’s tongue. But alcohol only works as a disinhibitory lubricant if all parties are drinking.

Abstinence turns out to mean a lot more than giving up alcohol. It means forgoing a whole range of social and professional activities that you associate with drinking, because the place, or the people, or the occasion—after-work drinks at six, say—can trigger a craving for alcohol, according to the same process that caused Pavlov’s dog to salivate in anticipation of food when it heard a buzzer associated with chow time. Although the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous never mentions Ivan Pavlov, B. F. Skinner, or the science of behavioral conditioning, its anecdotal accounts of triggering events and relapses, collected by Bill Wilson and his circle of a hundred former drinkers, are remarkably consistent with conditioning experiments performed on rats in cages.

So, no more interviews in bars. No bars at all. No dinner parties where adults are drinking, and no children’s parties, either—they make ideal day-drinking affairs. I could manage a meal in a restaurant, but if anyone proposed a toast I felt as if I were inviting bad luck to the table by raising my glass of water. No professional events involving alcohol, namely book parties, where you could once find me by the bar. Even watching sports on TV was a visual and auditory minefield of ads featuring foaming beer manes and streams of whiskey splashing on the rocks. Maintaining abstinence in an alcohol-soaked society can feel like serving a medieval sentence of banishment, and many heavy drinkers fear the cure more than the sickness.

Above all else, I missed the cocktail hour, the Waspy rite my parents observed every night, and one that I had inherited. Without that tradition, my day felt wounded.

How long do cravings last? The answers are as variable as the drinkers. An abstaining young person might master the urge to drink within a matter of months, but if you drank for forty years, as I did, the Pavlovian groove is deeper. After I’d gone three years without alcohol, my cravings seemed to have been extinguished, but I waited five years—the length of time that some cancer doctors use to declare a patient cured—before I tried to return to the rituals of social drinking, without the alcohol.

Still, when I mentioned my upcoming visit to Athletic’s taproom to a friend, a psychiatrist who is a twenty-year veteran of A.A.’s twelve-step program, which he credits with saving his life, he replied, “Non-alcoholic beer is for non-alcoholics,” a line I had heard in “the rooms.” It was like playing Russian roulette with your sobriety, even if the bullet in the chamber was a blank. He also reminded me, as people in recovery say, “If you hang around the barbershop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.”

During my alcohol-free years, I had sampled some of the better N.A. brews available in the United States, including lagers such as Beck’s Non-Alcoholic, St. Pauli N.A., Clausthaler “Original” Non-Alcoholic, and Heineken 0.0, which was featured at this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament. If the bottle was really cold, the first swig was nice, but returns diminished steeply with each subsequent swallow.

That changed in 2019, when two brews from Athletic, Run Wild and Upside Dawn, showed up at my local Whole Foods, in Brooklyn. The former is a malty, amber-colored I.P.A., and the latter a fruity, golden ale. Though lacking the depth and complexity of an alcoholic craft beer, Run Wild offers a breadth of flavors that partly makes up for alcohol’s absence, along with the mouthfeel of real beer: frisky, foamy, pillowy. I wanted to know how Athletic had figured this out.

Shufelt drew pints of Two Trellises for himself and Walker and pulled up a stool near mine. He said that on graduating from Middlebury College, in 2005, he had gone to work for a financial firm in Jersey City, and then for a hedge fund in Stamford, not far from Darien, where he grew up. “Everyone I knew was in finance, so I went into finance,” he said.

After a few years of trading health-care stocks, Shufelt started to wonder if he was drinking too much. “I was going on work dinners three or four nights a week, with multiple glasses of wine, and then drinks with family on weekends,” he said. As he approached thirty, the hangovers seemed to get worse. “I was sick of having down days and not being at my best.”

In September, 2013, he took a monthlong pause from alcohol. “And I felt amazing. I slept for eight hours straight. I used to wake up at 3 A.M. stressed about the day.” He felt so good, he said, that he just never went back to drinking.



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