At 1 p.m. on a recent Monday I found myself drinking a beer. Of all the luxuries that come with working from home, the ability to crack a beer during work hours is not one I typically take advantage of. But this was in the name of research. My hypothesis: This beer would not get me buzzed—so I figured drinking while sending emails was as good a test as any.
Not to get too pedantic, but the beer in question shouldn’t even be called “beer” to begin with. “There are regulations that say you can use language like ‘brew’ or ‘malt beverage’ [on the can],” says Robin Ottaway, president of Brooklyn Brewery, one of the oldest craft breweries in the country. “But ‘beer’ is not allowed.” Ottaway is talking about Special Effects, the company’s first nonalcoholic “lager-style brew.” After a year and a half of development, Special Effects is about to hit the shelves in U.S. stores, and it’ll be a test of just how eager people are to embrace NA beer.
Statistically speaking, people have been ready for something like Special Effects for a while. The demand for nonalcoholic beverages has been steadily growing over the last five years; meanwhile, beer sales have flattened. One report found that while NA beers claim just 5% of the current global beer market, the category is experiencing growth of 3.9% on average annually, making it the fastest growing segment of the beer market. Consumer habits back that up. Research from Brooklyn Brewery found 44% of 21- to 34-year-old beer drinkers (read: a very monetizable demographic) actively take time off from drinking alcohol. Fifty-four percent of beer drinkers are looking for ways to reduce their alcohol consumption.
The “sober curious” movement is well documented, and booze brands have started to notice. In 2017, Heineken launched Heineken 0.0, its first NA beer, and sales have been growing ever since. Last year, NA brewery Athletic Brewing was so in demand it couldn’t supply stockists, prompting it to install bigger fermentation tanks. Even the old NA standby O’Doul’s recently embarked on a temporary makeover campaign to ensure its beer speaks to a younger audience. And that’s just in the United States, where NA beer is still a nascent category. In Europe, demand for NA beer is already more established (Brooklyn Brewery soft-launched Special Effects there this past winter), and has become part of a post-workout routine for some athletes who believe it helps quell inflammation.
The point is, Brooklyn Brewery didn’t come to the idea of Special Effects without doing its research, but there was still the question of how a NA beer should be framed when coming from a brewery with a long history of making boozy beverages. Ottaway and his team had been noticing for a while that the stigma around NA beer was fading away and being replaced by something that felt almost like smugness. Suddenly not drinking, or drinking NA beverages, was like a secret life-hack for people who wanted to go out at night and still get up in the morning feeling good. “It used to be like, “Oh, sorry, I’m not drinking,” says Stephen Doyle, a graphic designer whose studio Doyle Partners worked on Special Effects packaging. “Now it’s like, ‘I’m not drinking because of all these other benefits.'”
Brooklyn Brewery enlisted Doyle and his team to create a whole new graphic architecture for its line of NA beers (Special Effects is the first, but they have plans to launch more styles of NA beers in the future). They wanted it to feel like part of the Brooklyn Brewery family—Milton Glaser’s swoopy “B” is still there—but with an edge that made it stand out. A pendant across the front of the can clearly states that the drink is nonalcoholic, which was key to the beer’s branding. “On some of the other NA beers you really have to hunt for it,” Doyle says. “We really wanted to go out swinging.”