Stéphane Duchesne likes to tell the story of one particular client at his Magasin Général de Castelnau, in Montreal's Villeray Borough.
The client, whose elderly father would come over for dinner, liked to indulge in a few cold ones with his meal.
The son, not wanting his father to drink and then drive home, would pop into Duchesne's shop and load up on zero-alcohol beers, which contain less than 0.5 per cent alcohol.
"[The father] thinks he's drinking real beer. So he can drive back to Laval, no sweat, and the son can sleep soundly," recalled Duchesne.
Today's microbrew near-beer scene is far from what it used to be as recently as five or six years ago.
There were only a few options, likely produced by a major brewery, and they often tasted like insipid, uninspired attempts at beer.
That's not the case today. Duchesne has roughly 15 different types of zero-alcohol beer in the antique, wood-lined fridges in his shop. Quebec microbreweries are pumping out a wide range of zero-alcohol beers, ranging from stouts to IPAs to blondes.
"Before it was a sugary beer, they weren't able to put the hops in it. Today a [non-alcoholic] beer without hops is almost impossible," said Duchesne.
Now, he says his non-alcoholic microbrews are among his best sellers.
"What's interesting nowadays is that you can purchase a non-alcoholic beer that has all the flavour and details of a craft beer and made only with four ingredients," said Sébastien Paradis, vice president of the Association des microbrasseries du Québec.
"In the craft world, we pride ourselves on making beer with four ingredients, which are malt, yeast, the hops and water."
The segment is gaining in popularity. More and more people are reaching for the zero beers when looking for a refreshment, thanks in part to how the microbreweries have embraced the challenge.
"I've been talking to people who have drunk non-alcoholic beers for 15 or 20 years that said it was a boring thing to do. You'd almost hide your non-alcoholic beer," said Paradis.
"Nowadays, it's actually pleasant to drink a non-alcoholic beer because the craft segment got interested in the category and started making beers that taste like cereals and like hops."
Trend driven by consumers
Like many consumer products, the craft breweries segment got interested because of consumer interest. The COVID-19 pandemic drove people toward adopting a healthy lifestyle, according to Max Coubes, a bartender and zero-alcohol drink connoisseur.
He said it got people thinking more about their own wellness, and that's being reflected in more zero-alcohol beers on store shelves.
"Because it's been so long, I think that people have been thinking more about taking care of themselves and what they consume," said Coubes, who believes the microbreweries are adapting to a booming market.
"People just just found themselves alone at home or with their family, which drove them to reconsider their own consumption in general."
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The perception around zero-alcohol beers is changing too with their artsy labels and funky names such as Montreal's Sober Carpenter, Drummondville's Le BockAle and Quebec City's Bluffeuse.
"If I make the parallel to 10 years ago, you'd see someone drinking a non-alcoholic beer. It often resonated with someone who had a history of alcohol problems, who could not drink alcohol," said Paradis.
"Now we're seeing a consumer who is drinking alcohol, but instead of drinking alcohol five, six days a week, they're saying, 'well, I'm going to try to cut down to only three or four days a week, and on those other three or four days, I'd still like to enjoy a beer or something good'."
Paradis says his association hasn't kept track of how the zero-alcohol beers have grown on the market but, based on the number of products available, he believes it's grown tenfold over the last four or five years.
And while the zero-alcohol segment might not occupy a huge portion of the national market, it is growing.
Sales hop up 50%
Luke Chapman, of Beer Canada, a trade association representing 45 brewing companies, said sales of the zero-alcohol beer grew by 50 per cent in 2020 over the previous year.
However, Chapman said they still only occupy 1.7 per cent of total beer sales in Canada. He calls it an underdeveloped segment of the market.
"It has been identified by both big and small brewers as a potential area of growth, and particularly for those Canadians that are interested in leading a more kind of health conscious lifestyle," said Chapman.
"It's not only about the alcohol, but a lot of these non-alcoholic beer products also are quite low in calories when you compare them to other products."
The zero-alcohol beers do have one other advantage. Because they do not contain alcohol they are not subject to the SAQ's monopoly, and micro-breweries are allowed to ship their products by mail across Quebec and Canada.
"It's definitely a good opportunity for Quebec brewers to show what they can do for the rest of the province, the country and North America," said Paradis.