Joshua James didn’t know exactly what to expect as he lifted the drink to his lips. The veteran San Francisco bartender had been on the wagon for more than a year. Taking a sip of the “Jasmine” a familiar, warm and tingly sensation crept down his throat and filled his chest.
James knew this was a pivotal moment, as he had managed to reproduce the qualities of one of his favorite cocktails without the alcohol. He was onto something.
Years ago, if a non-drinker wanted a virgin Jasmine cocktail, he would have told them to dream on. The refreshing, citrusy concoction is known for its potent, tangy punch, and aside from the juice of a fresh-squeezed lemon, each of its pleasant piquancies is derived entirely from gin, orange liqueur, and Campari.
In his bartending days, the drink was James’ go-to cocktail recommendation for just about every person who walked into his bar — except, of course, for those who didn’t drink. And as James remembers, there were plenty who didn’t on any given night.
He always endeavored to make his sober customers something up to par, grinding ginger, mint, and rhubarb to create beautifully presented mocktails. But well before James himself decided to dry out, he wished he could make them a drink as spectacular and flavorful as the Jasmine.
“No one was able to make drinks like that in the non-alcoholic world because the products never existed,” says James. “It wasn’t possible. But now it is.”
The Jasmine mocktail is once again at the top of James’ recommendation list — and it’s the most popular drink at his new San Francisco restaurant, the Ocean Beach Cafe — but it’s far from the only non-alcoholic option.
Over the past year, James has cultivated an impressive collection, and selection, of non-alcoholic beverages. His vast assortment is proof that the no-proof market has grown volumes since the dawn of O’Douls.
Bottles in all shapes and sizes line the cafes’ bar and deli counters. There are non-alcoholic spritzers, wines, bitters, and even spirits. The fridges are packed with dozens of non-alcoholic IPAs, champagnes, and seltzers. Some of the booze-free brews are even on tap.
“When people hear that it takes a second to really register,” James says. “There’s never really been a non-alcoholic beverage culture in America. All of a sudden, it just blew up.”
Fans of NA beers and cocktails can thank the pandemic — at least in part — for giving the trend a boost. Over the past 16 months interest in booze-free adult beverages has bloomed, and dozens of new brands have seized on the opportunity.
James, for his part, is uniquely positioned to champion these liquor-free libations. He says customers have driven to Ocean Beach Cafe from all over California just to stock up on the latest non-alcoholic beer or try a mocktail that actually delivers a flavorful kick.
MOMENT OF CLARITY
James’ new business venture was inspired by his decision to put down the bottle. In December of 2019, he had set out to quit drinking for a full year after spending a damp couple of decades in serving craft cocktails, brewing beer, and managing wine companies.
In February, he checked himself into the Friendship House, a Native American rehabilitation center based in San Francisco. Two weeks in, the pandemic hit. And although it couldn’t have been planned, James says it was the best place for him to be.
“I didn’t think I was that bad of a case, but thought it probably would only be a positive thing,” James says. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I got super into learning about the science of addiction. I thought I knew a lot about alcohol, but I could not believe how much I didn’t know about its effects on the body and on the brain.”
James left the facility in June with a commitment to a healthier lifestyle and resolved to drop alcohol for good. But unlike many before him, he soon realized he didn’t need to give up on his love of mixology in order to maintain his sobriety.
At that point in time, non-alcoholic beer was on the rise — thanks in part to well known brands like Heiniken recognizing the potential of a mostly untapped market. In addition to the Heiniken “0.0” brand, dozens of no or low (0.5 ABV) IPAs were also making their way into refrigerators around the country.
In 2020, the overall nonalcoholic beer market grew almost 39 percent, to around $187 million, according to the market research company IRI. Most were advertised as lower calorie, cleaner alternatives to beer, which would actually promote gut health — all while delivering the taste of a pretty damn good IPA.
Using his expertly honed pallet, James began reviewing these beverages on social media as “Josh the Non-Alcoholic.” Within months, he became well known in the non-alcoholic beverage community and many up-and-coming beer brands began sending him their products.
Wines and spirits weren’t far behind. Although the market is currently much smaller than that of beer, it’s growing rather quickly. And in James’ eyes, new alcohol-free spirit brands are revolutionizing the sober drinking realm.
James’ beloved Jasmine mocktail is made using no-proof spirits from a brand that launched in late 2020 called Dhos. Through a distillation and infusion process, Dhos has curated non-alcoholic gin, flavored liqueurs, and aperitifs.
Unlike many before it, Dhos has been able to create a gin with a powerful kick. The trick isn’t exactly rocket science. It turns out spices and botanicals, such as juniper berries, impart their flavors to a drink even if it doesn’t contain any alcohol. Other spirits are a bit more tricky to emulate. No-proof vodka and tequila, for example, contain hints of chilli pepper or habanero.
James was only a few months into building his collection when he opened the Ocean Beach Cafe in January. Since then, it’s become a haven for those practicing sobriety but not looking to give up the taste of a great cocktail or the social aspect of drinking.
Located on La Playa street between Balboa and Caprillo, the cafe offers an atmosphere informed by James’ Hawaiian roots. Succulents and radiant art cling to the cafe’s seafoam green walls, and customers can enjoy their beverages at the parklet out front, which features beautiful woodworking curated by his father, Ron.
“I had this guy come in two days ago, and he said, ‘I have been sober for 12 years and I go out all the time. And for the last 12 years, it’s always just been, yeah, they don’t have options,’” says James. “And now he’s like walking in and he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this. This is amazing.’”
But while James has gathered many patrons in recent recovery, his popularity isn’t solely due to chip-carrying reciters of the Serenity Prayer.
“It’s not always people who have a problem. I’ll tell you that’s actually a minority of the spectrum,” says James. It’s a part of the wellness industry. People just want to do something better for themselves. Millennials are the ones driving us.”
As it turns out, millennials aren’t just interested in the cafe, they’re driving the market itself. Fewer and fewer younger people are opting for traditional alcoholic beverages, and the demand for low or non-alcoholic beverages keeps climbing. According to Nielson data, 66 percent of millennials have made an effort to reduce their alcohol consumption, and the trend is expected to creep backward into the Gen-X crowd and continue with Zoomers.
Trends such as “Dry January” and “Sober October” have increased in popularity over the years, normalizing and setting a positive tone for sobriety. They’ve only become more popular over the pandemic-era and are attributed to the “Mindful Drinking Movement.”
“It’s so nice to be drinking a cocktail and not be worried about how much alcohol you’re putting in your body or how inebriated you are,” says local college student Elinor Ford. “You’re just focused on the person in front of you and the conversation you’re having and you get to fully enjoy the drink without worrying about how it’s going to affect your body.”
Ford stumbled upon the Ocean Beach Cafe last month and already counts herself as a regular. She says she had no idea such a selection of beverages even existed.
As a college student in San Francisco, Ford is no stranger to parties and has witnessed her fair share of binge drinking. She’s always enjoyed a good cocktail, but over the pandemic, her thoughts on alcohol began to shift.
“I realized that I had to be very conscious. And I remember thinking that it would be really easy to drink a lot, ” says Ford. “I wanted to be intentional about how much alcohol I was putting in my body. It definitely drew me to non-alcoholic drinks.”
After Ford’s first visit, she knew exactly who to tell about the selection — her roommate Abigail Bradshaw, who almost completely abstains from drinking.
With a history of alcoholism in her family, Bradshaw has always felt strongly about abstaining, but it doesn’t stop her from having a good time with friends. When hitting the town with Ford, she typically opts for a non-alcoholic option.
“It’s been so exciting to find somewhere that had sophisticated and really unique drinks that weren’t just like a sugary, virgin pina colada,” says Bradshaw. “I think what’s so unique about what they’re offering is it’s not just the cocktail with the alcohol removed. It’s the actual flavor of the tequila or vodka shot. It was something exciting that I could compare to what my friends were drinking.”
Bradshaw’s first drink at Ocean Beach Cafe was the Jasmine mocktail. And ever since, she’s seen her future of sobriety not as a chore or challenge — but something exciting.
“It feels so much more like you’re part of the group when you are having a drink with your friends rather than feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m the designated driver, I’ll have a Coke,’” Bradshaw says. “It feels so much more like you’re a part of the social event when you do have a drink in your hand.”
Enthusiasm from newcomers such as Bradshaw has made James realize his bartending days are far from over. And this time, he’s able to serve drinks like the Jasmine to all of his customers, regardless of their age or commitment to sobriety.
Lily Sinkovitz is an intern at SF Weekly. Twitter @LilySinkovitz