Fine, Zero-Proof Ferments Taking their Place beside Wine & Cocktails
For restaurant and bar patrons looking to moderate or avoid alcohol, choices used to be limited to water, soda pop, tomato juice or an “Arnold Palmer.” Too often, restaurant or bar staff wishing to make their guests feel comfortable didn’t have good options to offer the person, and diners could feel relegated to the childrens’ table.
However zero-proof drinks, mocktails, and other options for the “sober-curious” are rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance in fine dining. Many restaurants & bars are responding with offerings for those who want a drink for grown-ups, that A) doesn’t have alcohol, B) pairs well with food, and C) isn’t cloyingly sweet — in short, drinks that are interesting and enjoyable.
Outside of the effects of alcohol, we choose beer, wine, or cocktails because they are great with food, provide interesting, complex flavors, and bring along a body of craft culture and connoisseurship that enhance both our food and our social connections. When was the last time you told someone about this amazing cola or mineral water that you tried one night at dinner with friends? The things we choose to drink with food, in a social setting, are as much (or more!) about the story they tell — about the producer, about us, about the place — as they are about the alcohol.
What are the options?
Until recently, there have not been many options for someone looking for zero-proof options: “near beer” always tastes like it’s nearly beer, but not quite. Non-alcoholic wine is a depressingly awful substitute for the real thing. Too often the market has offered us a drink that is defined by what has been taken out, not by what is inherently there.
I’ve seen three interesting approaches to these kind of non-alcoholic drinks: distilled, blended, and fermented. By way of example, Seedlip drinks are blends based on ingredient distillations. Curious Elixirs present blended mocktails in a bottle. Real Kombucha is another UK company taking the fermeted approach, as is Iggy’s Alive & Cultured, which has been making fermented food & drink on an island in Washington State since 2012. What is in common with these and many others like them is a respect for sophisticated palates, innovations to traditional craft skills & techniques, and utilization of noble ingredients.
In the spirit of full disclosure: in addition to being passionate about their ferments, I work with Iggy’s. Because I know their products best, I’ll use them as an illustration.
At Iggy’s Alive & Cultured, they’ve taken traditional fermentation techniques and developed beverages that — by their very nature and process — do not have alcohol. They’re defined by what they put in to them, not what they take out.
Currently they produce Honeybrew, which uses a fermentation and brewing technique similar to kombucha, but ferments exclusively with honey: no refined sugars. Furthermore, the “mother ferments” of these honey-based drinks are aged from two months to over a year, and blended for their unique qualities; it’s a technique not unlike the Soleras that lend fine Sherries their complexity and flavor. Using only whole ingredients and carefully blended herbal extractions, their Honeybrew is designed to be a range of off-dry drinks with crisp acidity that pair with almost any food.
Iggy’s is also one of the very few producers of Beet Kvass, using single-sourced beets from local farms. Kvass is a word with origins in Eastern Europe that’s used broadly to describe several very different fermented beverages. Iggy’s Beet Kvass is made with whole, raw beets and a carefully tended probiotic culture unique to Iggy’s.
Now, Kvass is not wine, but it works like wine: it pairs beautifully with a steak or other hearty flavors, it expresses the terroir of the main ingredient, and it has aromatic complexity and interest to explore. If you were to drink Kvass expecting it to taste like wine, but without the alcohol, you’d be disappointed. However, if you try Kvass expecting it to taste like a craft beverage — you may be delighted: complex aromatics, true terroir that expresses itself with slight differences season to season, bold flavor, body and structure with good acidity that complements food.
If you are a wine lover: do you remember the first time you tried wine, maybe as a kid? I suspect that for many, the experience wasn’t initially promising. Have you heard discouraging things about the taste of most kombuchas out there, or find the idea of a “beet drink” daunting? There are products out there that may warrant a cautious approach, but don’t let fear limit you! Try to recall the interest, the pleasure of discovering the first wine that was delightful to you — the story of the wine, the company you shared, teasing out the aromas and flavors that were present.
Both Kvass and Honeybrew offer rewards when appreciated from a traditional tulip glass as is used for wine tasting: named ingredients and other aromatics present themselves in the initial bouquet, and the flavors address themselves to your palate as they open up over the course of a meal.
For those of you who are looking for a sophisticated drink at your next night out (or in) but without alcohol — a drink defined by what is there rather than what has been taken away — I invite you to try these crafted beverages with story, complexity, and flavor to complement both your food and your company.