No alcohol please, we’re Gen Z

No alcohol please, we’re Gen Z
(Photo: Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay)

Young adults are driving cocktail culture in South Africa, India, Mexico, Brazil, the US and Italy, but in some regions they are shunning alcohol altogether – particularly Gen Z.

A new report from London-based alcohol market researcher IWSR shows that a significant proportion of Gen Z consumers of legal drinking age (LDA) are avoiding alcohol, although there are wide variations between countries.

Unlike older generations, such as millennials who helped drive the trend towards whisky-based mixology, and beer- and wine-loving Generation X, who have a reputation for risky, heavy drinking, Gen Z consumers reportedly have a very different relationship with alcohol and are increasingly showing rising levels of abstention, moderation, experimenting with new categories, and turning away from traditional, high-volume categories.

IWSR consumer tracking data suggests that a considerable percentage of young consumers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, UK and the US are now avoiding alcohol altogether.

Among the 15 countries surveyed, Japan shows the highest level of abstention among Gen Z (aged 18 to 26) consumers, with 63% stating that they had not consumed any alcohol in the past six months, followed by the US at 54% and Canada at 44%.

In those countries, the levels of abstention are noticeably higher than among the total adult population in their overall markets, although the report notes that Gen Z consumers are underrepresented in both the US and Canada due to their higher legal drinking-age thresholds (21 in the US and in Canada, 19 and older except for Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta, where it is 18 and older).

Richard Halstead, chief operations officer of Consumer Research at IWSR, says a surprisingly large proportion of younger LDA communities are now claiming that they abstain from alcohol altogether.

“This is particularly true in Japan and North America, but the moderation trend is also prevalent in other markets across Europe, Asia and Australasia.”

IWSR data also suggest a broader trend of moderation across age groups, with high volume and frequency alcohol categories such as wine experiencing declines in volume and a shift towards a less-but-better pattern of premium consumption.

American and Canadian Gen Z buy less alcohol but in the US, they say that when they do, they spend more on it.

Those Gen Z consumers who do drink are increasingly changing the way in which they interact with alcohol: less beer and wine, and more ready-to-drinks (especially in the US and Canada), white spirit-based cocktails, liqueurs (especially in Spain) and aperitifs.

Younger adult drinkers are now also driving cocktail culture in India, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, the US and Italy.

European Gen Zs appear to be slowing down in terms of volumes, with spending up in France, Germany and Italy; neutral in Spain; and down in the UK, where sales of party drinks, such as Champagne and vodka, are doing well. Consumers in France and Germany are also spending more on sparkling wine (not necessarily Champagne but other sparkling wines too), where beer and RTDs are also doing well in some regions.

Gen Zs in China, India and Taiwan are spending: In China, they are drinking more beer, plum wine, huangjiu (rice wine), grape-based wine and US whiskey, but beer and baijiu (a drinks category that encompasses all traditional Chinese grain spirits) is down. Translated from Mandarin, baijiu means transparent.

Halstead says that while Gen Z drinkers are new to the beverage alcohol market, it will be interesting to see how their tastes evolve.

“However, some of their behaviours – reduction in alcohol quantity consumed, preference for cocktails and premium beverages – is also apparent in the preceding generation known as millennials (aged from their late twenties to early forties).”

Bloomberg reports that sophisticated soft pairings in luxury restaurants are a rising trend.

In Hong Kong it is becoming increasingly uncommon for anyone under 35 to order alcohol in restaurants, which are now pairing seasonal menus with kombucha and other drinks with ingredients such as distilled fig, liquid beetroot, cherry juice, green apple and lapsang souchong.

A city once renowned for its hedonistic lifestyle, Hong Kong’s population has reportedly cut down on drinking: The city’s health department says alcohol consumption has dropped nearly 20%, from 2.84 litres per capita per year in 2018 to 2.29 litres last year, with Gen Z being key to that decline.

One example of a successful transition to the non-alcoholic category is Mindful Sparks, whose founder Winston Lau supplies premium sparkling teas, which have cork-popping Champagne-style bottles, to about 60 restaurants in Hong Kong, 13 of which have Michelin stars.

Lau told Bloomberg that his revenue has tripled since starting his business, attributing it to better education about health, a generational shift and a low tolerance for alcohol including “Asian flush” – a difficulty in breaking down the toxins in alcohol that results in redness in the face.

“If we can provide a high-value, high-end-looking nonalcoholic product, then people will feel they can still have that social status without being looked down on,” he said.

Sophisticated soft pairings in luxury restaurants aren’t new globally – the famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma has had a juice pairing for more than a dozen years – but it’s a change of pace in Hong Kong. For decades, the city’s fine-dining scene has focused on expensive wines (or rare teas) to accommodate a culture where drinking is a hallmark of socialising, and high-priced meals are regularly expensed or used as a gesture of extravagance to treat friends and family.

“Fine dining in Asia is about selling the most luxurious form of overindulgence,” says Cheung, who did stints at NoMad in New York and Husk in South Carolina before opening his own place in Hong Kong. “Fine dining in the West tends to take humble ingredients and elevate it into a way where it’s unrecognisable.”

Those attitudes are shifting – a change that Lau wanted to take advantage of two years ago, when he opened Mindful Sparks in Hong Kong. Fine-dining establishments currently make up about a third of the 60 restaurants he supplies: Thirteen of them have Michelin stars. Lau says his revenue has tripled since starting his business.

Moreover, there are few high-end options for people in more upmarket or socially pressured environments, according to Lau.

At restaurants, Mindful Sparks’ offerings cost HK$80 ($10.23, about R190) to HK$130 by the glass; his Champagne-style bottle costs about HK$600.

Part of the challenge for Lau is encouraging people to treat his sparkling teas with the same reverence as wine by talking about their vintage, origin and what time of year the leaves are picked. That’s part of the narrative when Mindful Sparks’ sparkling lapsang souchong tea is served by the sommelier at Ando, a Michelin-starred Japanese-Spanish dining spot. The smoky, mellow drink with next to no sweetness is paired alongside a Wakame steamed Carabinero prawn and the tomato-based soup salmorejo with duck egg yolk.

Ando’s zero-alcohol pairing of five glasses, including teas, unfermented wine grape juice and kombucha, costs HK$468. It accompanies the restaurant’s HK$1,888 presentation dinner menu, where one dish changes every four to six weeks.

The desire of Hong Kong diners to trade in too-sweet mocktails for more upmarket alternatives goes beyond fine-dining circles. At the new Savory Project bar – from the team behind Coa, three-time winner of Asia’s 50 Best Bars – nearly half of the cocktail offerings are nonalcoholic, including the Teriyaki Freeball, a nutty but tart concoction made with masa and white soy sauce.

Crafting a soft pairing alongside an ever-changing menu can be tough for restaurants that want to create beverages in-house, sometimes requiring specialised machinery, such as a rotary evaporator to intensify a juice’s flavour: Acidity, viscosity and scent are all considerations. There’s a particular need to account for tastes in Hong Kong, where some people dislike consuming very cold, sweet or sour drinks alongside food. For restaurants with a rotating menu, such as Cultivate, which produces its own juices, offerings have to be made fresh daily to preserve colour and flavour.

At the restaurant, a magenta drink that accompanies a fig dessert – itself a play on a red velvet cake – combines cherry juice and filtered beetroot with a distillation from fig leaves. The latter rounds off the tartness of this slightly viscous, velvet-smooth beverage with an unexpected earthy, herbaceous hit. Cultivate’s five-glass elixir pairing costs HK$488.

At British chef Simon Rogan’s Hong Kong restaurant, Roganic, the soft pairings highlight sustainability. The Michelin-starred restaurant, which also holds an eco-minded Green star, makes creative use of surplus and unused kitchen ingredients, such as a tomato kombucha that sits brewing behind the bar alongside liquor bottles and is fed with leftover skins and over- or underripe tomatoes.

The kombucha’s green tea base provides floral accents and enough acidity to cut through the creamy oyster emulsion in the dish it’s served with, according to Antonio Mereu, Roganic’s restaurant manager. He began to look at upgrading the pairings soon after arriving in 2021, when he noted that the restaurant wasn’t bringing in the expected income, even though it was always full. Mereu soon realised that was because people didn’t drink as much as they did in Europe, especially at lunch. Roganic has since seen expanded demand for its soft pairings – six glasses go for HK$380.

Over the course of dinner, drinks are presented with the care given to wine pairings, with detailed explanations about complementary flavours and the ingredients’ origins. One example: The smoky aroma of green apple juice infused with lapsang souchong and dashi complements the coal oil used in a raw Spanish mackerel, served with pickled rhubarb and boltardy beetroot dish.

For Lau, the availability of quality, creative alcohol alternatives caters to a new reality of consumers in Asia. “Before, alcohol was a binary choice, you’d either drink or not drink,” he says. “But now even people that drink alcohol may spend… 80% of their drinking time choosing nonalcoholic over alcohol.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Tjaard du Plessis says:

    The use of alcohol by the current youth – GenZ – are limited to use at parties and it seems they don’t use it in excess. That is my experience with the youth around our suburb as we have an 18year old in the house. BUT they now tend to prefer weed as a more “healthy” option according to them with, it seems, very mmany of them using this.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Tjaard, you and your kids should REALLY take a very close look at peer-reviewed research of the effect of THC on young brains.

      You should also, as I did, intercept some produce and lab test it. 3 in 4 “weed” parcels in our valley were laced with Tik. If they really must fall for this craze, then please source for them from a certified source. Otherwise it will end very badly.

  • David Bristow says:

    Ag shame!

  • Johan Buys says:

    heaven help us if kombucha, a really and truly vile liquid all 3 times I tried it, ever becomes a thing to pair with different foods.

    It’d maybe improve the taste of boiled cabbage leaves or that thing our grandparents did with mash and green beans mixed together in a grey substance suitable for filling holes in a wall. I like mash done well and I eat green beans raw as a snack, but have no idea what the old folks did to them in a pot

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