image copyrightIrene Falconeimage captionIrene Falcone says the quality of alcohol-free beverages has drastically improved

"This stuff is sexy!"

Australian entrepreneur Irene Falcone's enthusiasm is as bright as the labels on the non-alcoholic wine and beer that fill the shelves in her ground-breaking store – Sans Drinks – on Sydney's affluent Northern Beaches.

"This is the first non-alcoholic bottle shop in Australia and I picked a location directly across the road from a major liquor store," she says.

"I am here to disrupt an industry."

The ground is – without question – shifting.

Major Australian brewers are reporting an "explosion" in the popularity of non-alcoholic beer. Retail heavyweights BWS and Dan Murphy's say sales of alcohol-free beer have more than doubled in the past 12 months, making it one of their fastest growing categories.

"Drinking this stuff is fun, it's cool and it is not daggy [unfashionable] like it used to be," says Ms Falcone.

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'Big wave coming'

Australia has a hard-drinking reputation forged from its early days as a British penal colony, where rum was used as a de facto currency alongside English guineas and Indian rupees.

While it's far from the top of global alcohol consumption league tables, Australia can be a thirsty place. Booze is socially acceptable, easy to buy and relatively cheap.

But attitudes appear to be shifting.

"There is a big wave coming," says Alistair Whiteley, who set up alcohol-free distillery Seadrift with his wife Carolyn.

He says non-alcoholic products need to go "head-to-head" with what's offered by sophisticated drinks brands.

Then, they need to recreate the entrenched ritual of drinking without that powerful social lubricator, alcohol.

image copyrightSeadriftimage captionAlistair and Carolyn Whiteley make a non-alcoholic spirit at their Sydney-based distillery

"The viability of this category is going to come down to drinks that you want to drink," says Ms Whiteley.

"It's about socialising, it's about having fun [and] you don't need alcohol to do that," she says.

Still, alcohol is Australia's drug of choice. Health authorities have said while there is no safe level of drinking, they've called time on over-indulgence, recommending that healthy men and women drink no more than 10 standard drinks – or 10g of pure alcohol – each week.

Cutting back

According to The Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University, the number of 18-24-year-old Australians who don't drink has doubled in the past 20 years.

Jess Stor, 27, is among those embracing abstinence. She quit drinking last August.

"I was a G&T loving, craft beer-chugging, martini sipping gal for a big part of my life", she says.

"But anxiety and binge drinking [were] heavily sprinkled through my twenties, and my mental state is so much more balanced these days. It's amazing how once you stop numbing the world, your senses become much more enlivened, too."

Older Australians are also enjoying abstinence.

"I fell in love with sobriety," said 44-year-old Janene Young, a married mother of two teenage children in Brisbane.

She was 15 when she started drinking, and later in life could on some days consume up to two bottles of wine. Two years ago, she gave up.

"It [alcohol] was more of an emotional painkiller. I wasn't very nice. I wasn't as present as I could be for my kids or for my husband. Very moody, extremely anxious and depressed.

"There was so much anxiety – that has all gone since I stopped drinking."

At the same time, there appears to be wider acceptance of the decision to give up alcohol.

"Not drinking is beginning to be seen… as a positive lifestyle choice, instead of something you only have to do if you're an alcoholic," says Sarah Connelly from Sober Upside, an Australian support and advice website.

'Looking for balance'

Covid has also forced habits to be reappraised.

Jaz Wearin is co-founder of the Modus Operandi craft brewery in Sydney. The firm released its popular zero-alcohol Nort beer last September.

"People were drinking a little bit more than they were [before the pandemic], and probably relying on alcohol as a bit of an escape.

"This was my chance to really bring some balance to people's lives… and I knew I could bring out a 'non-alc' that tasted like beer. But we weren't expecting the growth that it has had," Ms Wearin says.

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She says Australians aren't giving up alcohol altogether, but rather "looking for balance".

"People are sick of waking up hungover. They're sick of not being able to go out for a surf. That Australian mindset is shifting. We live in a beautiful country, let's make the most of it."

image copyrightNortimage captionHusband and wife team Jaz and Grant Wearin set up Modus Operandi in 2014

For Carlton & United Breweries, maker of Victoria Bitter (VB), one of Australia's most famous brands, it is also an opportunity.

"We are proud to have helped entrench Australia's moderation trend by launching non-alcoholic beers such as Carlton Zero, which set the trend for the explosion in non-alcoholic beer in Australia just three years ago," said Brian Phan, the company's marketing general manager.

It's a similar message from Endeavour group, which owns the popular alcohol retailers BWS and Dan Murphy's. They say non-alcoholic options are available across a wide range of products – from rosé, to bubbles and bourbon.

Across the industry, retailers say the quality of alcohol-free options is better than ever.

But consumers will have to make up their own minds.

"When it comes to non-alcoholic drinks you do need to kiss a few frogs first," says Sans Drinks owner Ms Falcone.

media captionNikki, a recovering alcoholic, describes how she stopped drinking during the pandemic