With growing interest in low-to-no alcohol beverages, consumers are looking for more high quality, better tasting and widely available options. Toronto's Partake Brewing is leading the non-alcoholic Canadian craft beer market.
After forming the idea in 2013, founder Ted Fleming launched Partake’s first near-beer to retail in 2017. The IPA is now one of five varieties available online, and in retail and on-premise locations in Canada and the US.
Fleming told BeverageDaily that throughout the brand’s life, Partake has had a lot of interest from US customers, sharing that “we started from day one with the view that the US market was a big opportunity for us.”
Taste education for expansion
The non-alcoholic beer market has since welcomed many new brands and varieties, and is growing in popularity in Canada and the US. Fleming sees a lot of similarities between the North American countries.
“What we have tended to see in Canada is that product launches from the big international beer companies tend to come into Canada first, and then follow into the US,” he said.
This could be down in part to a higher penetration rate in Canada overall for non-alcoholic beer, he says; but also due to the fact the population is concentrated into a few urban centres (the US, in comparison, being a much larger and populous country).
With the introduction of big beer alcohol-free launches, category awareness is trickling down to the smaller craft operations like Partake. This has supported the brand’s expansion to the Pacific Northwest region of the US.
Partake is now available in more than 2,000 locations in Canada, Whole Foods stores in Oregon and Washington state in the US, and Total Wine & More. Fleming said sampling events at the Seattle and Portland marathons have been crucial for educating American consumers on the products’ high quality.
“We get really strong and positive feedback about the taste of our beer and it being more or less indistinguishable from alcoholic beers for your average beer consumer. From a style perspective, there’s definitely some regional preferences. In the Pacific Northwest, our IPA does particularly well,” he said.
“People know what beer should taste like, we just have to educate them through trial that our beers do taste the way beers are supposed to taste. That’s why the sampling is fundamental.”
Shifting Partake on-premise
Partake’s five styles include the IPA, a Pale Ale, a Blonde Ale, a Stout and its most recent launch, a Red Ale. Each 12oz can is between 10-30 calories and 0.3% ABV. Fleming sees a lot of opportunity in the industry for even more health-conscious, low-alcohol options.
“I totally think it has room to grow, I think we’re just at the tip of the tip of the iceberg with respect to what opportunity there is out there for us. You’re seeing the convergence of several trends right now. There’s a generation that’s growing up on craft beer taste and profiles, and there’s an authenticity that comes with craft brewing companies that resonates with people,” he said.
In Canada, Partake has noticed a few alcoholic beer brewers dabbling in non-alcoholic products, but it’s a small movement and mostly regional. Fleming said Partake is the only option in the craft non-alcoholic space that has a national and international footprint.
More breweries are taking small steps with lower alcohol beers in the 2%-4% range, rather than cutting the alcohol content completely.
“We’re not seeing the non-alcoholic space being adopted by established breweries in a significant way at this point,” Fleming said.
This has bolstered Partake’s on-premise business, however. Fleming shared that as recently as a year ago, a lot of breweries with their own taprooms “didn’t want to have anything to do with [them].” But in 2019, Partake saw a ‘huge number’ of brewery taprooms bring in Partake beverages.
Fleming called it a ‘fundamental shift’ in how beer brewers viewed Partake, coming to the conclusion that they were not going to invest in a separate in-house non-alcoholic beer, but an alcohol-free was still valuable to offer to customers and keep up with demand.
With the health and wellness movement, people are actively trying to drink less alcohol and use it in fewer social situations. The low calorie and carb counts are attractive to those following special diets for diabetes, or paleo and keto.
For the US in 2020, Partake is looking to expand in Whole Foods nationwide, as well as Wegman’s, Sprouts and regional Walmarts.
“It all starts with taste, and there’s been a long standing stigma around non-alcoholic beer being an inferior product and a compromised product. And I don’t think it is a compromise anymore.”