The no-booze beverage market peddles H2O disguised as lager; `I didn’t want to get made fun of for drinking Poland Spring at a punk show’
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL // AUGUST 19, 2022
NEW ORLEANS—Hundreds of visiting revelers hit the House of Blues blowout that kicked off the cocktail industry’s biggest annual conference, bobbing to ’90s hip-hop and throwing back tallboy cans of Liquid Death.
Makers of the scary-sounding beverage sponsored the opening night gala, hoping to persuade more bartenders and restaurant owners to serve Liquid Death back home. Whatever their pitch, the truth is there’s nothing better in nature to quench a thirst.
The cans, covered with a skull-and-crossbones logo, are filled with water from the Swiss Alps. At a glance, few would guess they carry no alcohol. That is the point, said Liquid Death founder Mike Cessario, 40 years old, of Los Angeles. “We’re using packaging and brand psychology to make something healthier, not feel like it’s healthy,” he said.
Mr. Cessario’s company competes in a no-booze beverage market that includes brands Ghia, De Soi and Athletic Brewing Co. Ghia and De Soi are made with a mix of herbs, shrubs and fungi said to relieve stress without creating a buzz, ingredients such as reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, yuzu and lemon balm. Athletic beers use water, hops, barley and yeast.
The beverages cater to partygoers who seek the conviviality of social events without drinking alcohol, either for health reasons or to avoid risking hangovers, regretful behavior or flashing red lights on the drive home. Many prefer to disguise their teetotal beverages and avoid the nosy why-aren’t-you-drinking? interrogators.
Bob Lugowe, 37, bought a Liquid Death tallboy at a recent Megadeth concert and said toting around the can, adorned with gothic heavy-metal style lettering, made him feel as much a part of the crowd as carrying a beer.
“I didn’t want to get made fun of for drinking Poland Spring at a punk show,” said Mr. Lugowe, who runs an indie record label out of Philadelphia.
One welcome feature, he said, was being able to crush the big can on his skull alongside all the other happy hell-raisers.
The drink’s disguise is so convincing it sometimes looks taboo in other settings. While giving a music lesson to an 11-year-old, in Beaverton, Ore., Niah Klotz noticed the student’s Mom eyeing his can of Liquid Death suspiciously.
“I had to explain it and show her the label,” said Mr. Klotz, 26. “She was like, ‘Oh, OK, that explains it. It just really looks like a beer.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, they do that on purpose.’ ”
Allison Gruber, 46, saw one of her seventh-grade students drinking what looked like a beer during a Zoom class last year.
“I had seen some egregious behavior and thought to myself, ‘My God, now kids are just wantonly drinking alcohol on Zoom at 8:45 in the morning,’ ” said the Chicago writer and now-retired teacher.
She wrote in the Zoom chat, “Miguel, what is in your hand?” He wrote back “Liquid Death!,” said Ms. Gruber. “Which did not answer the question because I had never heard of this before.”
Ms. Gruber now sees the cans everywhere, she said, and suspects part of the attraction for middle-schoolers is the chance to fool adults. A Super Bowl commercial last year showed a group of elementary school kids whooping it up with cans of Liquid Death.
“I remember candy cigarettes,” Ms. Gruber said. “Part of it was a shock value like, ‘Is that a kid smoking a cigarette?’ ”
The new beverages aren’t like the low-alcohol lagers introduced by beer companies back in the day or distilleries peddling fake gin or whiskey, said Tim Caulkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Real drinkers know something is missing in those beverages. “It’s like fat-free mayonnaise,” he said.
Bottles of Ghia or cans of Athletic IPA, on the other hand, have never included alcohol, a zero-proof status that sates growing consumer demand.
Almost a quarter of respondents to a NielsenIQ survey said in January that they were cutting back on drinking alcohol. That might have contributed to the 1.9% fall in total alcohol sales since August of last year. Sales of nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits, meantime, are up 20.5% over the same period.
Athletic Brewing, launched in 2018, is now the most-sold beer at Whole Foods. The beverage company made more than $40 million in revenue last year and is on track for 100% growth this year, said CEO Bill Shufelt.
Liquid Death earned $45 million in 2021, and is on track for 300% growth this year, Mr. Cessario said. A 16.9-ounce can of the original flat or recently released carbonated water costs about $2.
Ghia in its own survey estimated that about 85% of those who drink its alcohol-free cocktail also drink alcohol, according to Mélanie Masarin, who started the company in 2020. Sales are on track to reach $5 million this year, she said.
Lauren Finney Harden, a 38-year-old content strategist in Atlanta, discovered Ghia when she was pregnant in 2020. She said she found the ritual of opening the bottle and pouring it over ice helped ease herself out of the workday.
There are plenty of industry skeptics. Nick Hamon, 43, who owns a bar in Fayetteville, Ark., stopped by the cocktail conference’s big opening night party sponsored by Liquid Death. He joked that maybe he should make his fortune filling cans with Arkansas tap water and calling it Liquid Life.
The only trouble, Mr. Hamon said, was that he doubted his customers would be happy paying for something they were accustomed to getting free.
Write to Rachel Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 20, 2022, print edition as ‘The Latest Innovation in Beer Is Water in a Can’.