Beer Brands Get Sober About Dry January—and Learn to Adapt

Sales have dropped between December and January, but experts point to a larger trend

Actor on couch
Miller64 encourages people to try a "Dry-ish" January. Miller64

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People in the business of selling alcohol cannot feel great about the following statistic: Between 2015 and 2019, mentions of Dry January on social media increased by 1,083%, according to analysis from market research firm Mintel.

Add to that Nielsen’s estimate that about one in five U.S. adults participated in Dry January last year, and the month of sobriety starts to feel like a phenomenon with enough weight to drag down a company’s bottom line.

Brands and analysts, however, argue that Dry January isn’t an isolated occurrence but part of a larger movement that’s beginning to transform the industry.

“Historically, January is a slower month for beer sales—that was true before the rise of Dry January,” said Stephanie Petropoulos, an associate brand manager at Molson Coors who oversees the Miller family of brands.

Indeed, Nielsen figures show that for the past two years, U.S. beer sales in liquor, grocery and convenience stores declined between December and January. In January 2019, off-premise (meaning not at a bar or restaurant) beer sales amounted to $2.3 billion, down 11% from $2.6 billion in December 2018. Likewise, in January 2018 beers sales dropped 14% to $2.2 billion when compared to December 2017 ($2.6 billion).

In February 2019, beer sales remained relatively flat (-1%) compared to the month prior. In February 2018, on the other hand, beer sales saw an uptick (5%).

Numbers like these aside, experts say, place Dry January in the context of a bigger shift in consumer behavior toward healthier options.

“Whether it be Dry January or Sober October, or just for overall health and wellness, consumer interest in low- and no-alcohol products has definitely been on the rise, particularly over the last year,” said Brandy Rand, COO of the Americas at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “It’s all about moderation, and has become socially acceptable to not drink for periods of time.”

Petropoulos added that while Dry January is certainly popular, many younger people who embark on the month of abstaining from alcohol “aren’t actually successful.” Nearly a third of millennials who attempt it fall short of accomplishing their goal, according to Petropoulos.

Still, Dry January has grown enough in cultural prevalence that some beer brands feel the need to address it.

Last month, for instance, Molson Coors’ Miller64 brand released a spot staring actor Nicholas Braun, famous for his role on HBO’s Succession. In the ad, which will run on social and online video throughout early February, Braun encourages viewers to have a “Dry-ish” January with an extra light can of Miller64, which contains 64 calories and 2.8% alcohol by volume.

“Even though the Dry January trend has been around for a couple of years now, we know that not everyone is interested in following the movement to a tee,” Petropoulos said. “Many people are looking for a happy medium and more moderate options. Miller64’s Dry-ish January is a monthlong phenomenon that allows drinkers to still ‘enjoy’ the Dry January movement, but in a way that’s not as extreme.”

In a statement from Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser and Bud Light, the company said that as demand for alternative offerings continues to increase, it would ensure that its portfolio of products keeps pace: “As Anheuser-Busch continues to innovate and finds new ways to meet the evolving needs of consumers, we’re excited about the role that our non- and low-alcohol beers will play.”

Recently, the company debuted four new no- and low-alcohol beers: So-Lo ( 3.0% ABV), Gilt Lifter (3.4% ABV), Resolution Blueberry Acai Golden Ale (3.5% ABV) and Mango Cart Non-Alcoholic Wheat Ale (less than 0.5% ABV, which is considered alcohol-free).

As part of its Global Smart Drinking Goals initiative, Anheuser-Busch aims to generate 20% of its global beer volume from no- and low-alcohol products by 2025.

Last December, in its first show of “support” for Dry January, Heineken released a January Dry Pack—a case of 31 cans of Heineken 0.0 beer, which contains no alcohol. The limited-edition packs were available for free on a custom website, and according to a spokesperson at Fast Horse, the creative agency that partnered with Heineken on the campaign, all those cases were “claimed in a matter of days.”

@hiebertpaul Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.