Long-time liquor importer Mark Kuspira is the founder of the Calgary-based Crush Imports. Since 2003, his company has garnered a reputation for helping all sorts of spirits, wines and beers from around the globe find their way into restaurants, bars and liquor stores across Western Canada.
This past summer, he launched a new leg of his company called Soft Crush. The offshoot has a sole focus on low-alcohol and no-alcohol products that stand out from the pack in a subsect of an industry that continues to grow.
The decision to expand his import focus was one part personal and one part taking note of the growing trend that is sober drinking.
“I started down the path of being sober-curious [earlier in the pandemic] and tested the waters a week, a month, dry,” Mr. Kuspira says. “That’s a challenge in the traditional alcohol-beverage business, for sure.”
Though not yet household names in Canada, brands such as Britain’s Big Drop alcohol-free craft beers and the zero-per-cent sparkling chardonnay by Thomson and Scott as well as Germany’s Undone No. 1 Not Rum have been happily embraced by many hospitality businesses here in the Prairies.
“We are thrilled with the new listings at restaurants like Calgary’s Teatro and River Café, nationally with Hy’s Steakhouse. The Hotel Fort Garry in Winnipeg has jumped on board and has a whole ‘soft crush’ section [on its lounge menu],” he explains. “We have some strong e-commerce partners that have allowed us to ship across the country and we are about to launch our own e-commerce site by month’s end as well.”
Aside from Benjamin Bridge’s Piquette Zero “wine-style” beverage being produced in Nova Scotia, there isn’t much to be excited about when it comes to Canadian-made wine products in this vein.
He predicts that there will be more.
“I think we will see more producers make some moves to make artisanal no/low alternatives. Remember the days when the vegetarian or vegan at the table had such few options when dining out? It is the same for non-drinkers. Long gone should be the sole options of juice and soda for people that [do not consume alcohol] for whatever reason,” he says.
Mr. Kuspira said Soft Crush has seen explosive growth since launching just months ago and expects 30-per-cent growth annually for the next five years.
Calgary’s Marina Beck is another example of a premier importer who has begun expanding her no/low alcohol offerings over the past year.
Through her company, Wine Alliance, she’s been seeking out interesting products such as Britain’s Mockingbird Spirit and Sir James 101 Bitter Aperitif, WellBeing Non-Alcoholic Brew (from Missouri) and Lumette! – Canada’s first alternative gin product, which is produced on Vancouver Island.
“Two years ago [the retail side of the liquor industry] had little to no interest, but as their own clients have been asking if they have a non-alcoholic section, the tone has changed,” she says. “Our partners in industry are listening and are more open-minded to provide their customers with what they want.”
She said she has been sampling non-alcoholic products from around the world for three years and has seen the quality rise substantially. She applauds creations such as Wilfred’s Aperitif and Sovi (sparkling “rosé” in a can) as being perfectly satiating substitutes for people wanting to sip on something that feels like the real, boozy thing.
“[Drink products like this can] provide you with the sophistication of adult beverages without the loss of time, productivity and wellness,” she says. “Whatever the reasons for these lifestyle shifts, we can and should help bring premium beverages to the market.”
She adds – and echoes Mr. Kuspira’s sentiments – that when it comes to the drink trends, Canada is typically behind countries such as Britain and the United States. Thus, we can expect more locally made products to hit the market in a year or two.
On the same day that I began putting this article together, a package from Libra non-alcoholic beer arrived on my doorstep. The sub brand of Charlottetown’s popular Upstreet Craft Brewing had launched a Pumpkin Spice Ale just in time for the holiday season.
I am not (yet) one to reach for an alcohol-free beer over a traditional one, but still, it piqued my interest. A growing trend embracing an established – albeit seasonal – one suggests to me that this relatively new wave of no/low alcohol alternatives won’t slow down any time soon.
“This is not a trend,” Ms. Beck says. “This is a category that is going to continue to elevate and expand, people are asking for alternatives and artisans and the mainstream industry are now listening and acting rapidly to respond to their demand for options in adult beverages. This is a lifestyle enhancement.”
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said alt-spirits from Lumette! are produced by Sheringham Distillery. In fact, they are separate companies.