‘Being sober or sober curious doesn’t mean boring’: Conn. companies offer nonalcoholic alternatives

Society is shifting to put a focus on healthier lifestyles with the rise of meal kit subscriptions, produce subscriptions and a passion for local farmers markets, but now produce infused mocktails and nonalcoholic beverages are finding their way into the spotlight.

As people become increasingly health conscious, some are participating in the “sober curious” trend, where individuals are reducing or removing alcohol from their lifestyle. While Connecticut has a number of breweries the state is also home to sober-friendly beverage companies.

Bill Shufelt, the co-founder of Athletic Brewing Company, the only nonalcoholic brewery in Connecticut, said he created his company because he wanted an alternative to alcoholic beverages when he was having a night out.

“Nonalcoholic beer emerged as an authentic need in my lifestyle. I was turning 30, about to get married, taking my job more seriously as I got older, and starting to monitor the quality of my diet more,” Shufelt said. “I noticed that everything in my life was pointing towards performance-oriented, healthy decisions, and mindfulness ... except one thing — alcohol.”

Shufelt said he decided to quit drinking for a month and found that he felt “incredible” and decided to stop drinking for good. The problem was when Shufelt went out to bars and restaurants with friends, he didn’t really have many nonalcoholic alternatives available to him that weren’t soda or water.

“The dearth of options was a major pain point. It’s very tough to go out to a nice restaurant and have to pair the meal with a sugary soda. Having been a craft beer lover ever since going to college in Vermont, I really missed having a delicious beer,” he said.

The realization inspired Shufelt to quit his finance career and found Athletic Brewing Company, which is based in Stratford.

Steve Gaskin, co-founder of the East Coast Kombucha Company based in South Norwalk, said his company was created because he wanted to have a healthier alternative to nonalcoholic beverages.

“When out on the town being sober or sober curious doesn’t mean boring,” Gaskin said. His company makes and sells seven flavors of kombucha, a fermented tea that’s low in sugar and is packed with probiotics.

“Non-drinkers or designated drivers out socializing with friends up until now have had limited and not-so-exciting options; tea, sugary soda, coffee, juice or a mocktail, and due to social pressure, may not feel as included as their beer/cocktail drinking friends. Kombucha is a delicious and exciting new option,” Gaskin added.

Charlie Hibbin, the founder of Charlie’s Chaga, said he doesn’t drink alcohol and created his Chaga soda to be a healthier soda alternative. The Westport-based craft soda company sells soda containing Chaga mushrooms that offers a low sugar, antioxidant filled beverage.

“I wanted to create a craft soda that anyone can drink and not feel guilty about,” Hibbin said. “It doesn’t give you the caffeine or sugar rush that is typical of other sodas, but a steady light energy from the melanin and healing compounds in the Chaga.”

Athletic Brewing Company sells nonalcoholic beer as three different craft offerings. Shufelt said that he thinks the “sober curious” trend is gaining more traction because nonalcoholic drinks allow individuals to drink as they please without having to worry about hangovers or excess calories.

“I had really never thought about nonalcoholic beer or even known I wanted an option, and I think that’s why it’s resonating so well with people — it’s just a huge unmet need they aren’t even aware they have. Everything about nonalcoholic beer is aligned with modern health trends — low calories, organic, refreshing, delicious and functional,” Shufelt said. “You don’t have to compromise and deal with a hangover, being tired, or less healthy options to enjoy great taste. People are loving having a healthy, mindful option to enjoy at any occasion.”

Gaskin noted that East Coast Kombucha has worked with a mixologist to develop a cocktail and mocktail menu using its kombucha.

“Because it’s low sugar, all-natural, made with organic ingredients and tastes great by itself — it also is a fantastic cocktail/mocktail mixer,” Gaskin said.

Hibbin said he’s also used his healthy soda products to make a variety of mocktails including Rootyceps Beer Floats, Chagatinis and a Chaga White Russian, “I created this product as a unique craft soda with an amazing taste that in my opinion blows out mainstream soda. I wanted to give people the option of a super-food soft drink. The way it makes me feel is far superior because it is full of the purest and richest antioxidants that nature intended,” he said.

As nonalcoholic beverages gain in popularity, they reduce the sober stigma for recovering alcoholics, those who abstain for religious reasons, designated drivers or those who simply don’t want to drink when they’re having a night out.

“Our society is based so much less on being an “alpha” and people are proud to make decisions that reflect them in responsible, healthy, mindful and high-performance light,” Shufelt said.