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Non-Alc, All Grown Up

Made in-house daily using fresh ginger and lemon juice, P.F. Chang’s ginger beer gives a refreshing non-alcoholic kick. Photo courtesy of p.f. chang’s. Beverage programs can no longer ignore the non-drinker’s demands

By Jack Robertiello

Everyone knows that when it comes to beverages, the restaurant industry, especially fine-dining establishments, sets the example in offering customers new and intriguing products.

But when it comes to non-alcoholic offerings, everyone would be wrong.

Just take a walk through any high-end grocer, health food store, even Mom and Pop or convenience store, and gaze in wonderment upon the types of drinks now routinely available to the American consumer: energy- and vitamin-infused, nutraceutically bolstered, energizing or relaxing; teas — green, black, white, herbal, rooibos, even fermented — in an unprecedented range of packages and combinations; ginger beers and ales in various spiciness and flavor combinations; savory and less-sweet sodas, blood-orange juice, mangosteen nectar, coconut water — the options are endless.

Things haven’t changed much since 2000, when I hosted a panel at a conference and brought along a dozen or so popular beverages from a nearby grocer and asked the assembled foodservice operators if any of them were stocking similar products. Few hands were raised.

There are numerous factors that explain why restaurants, especially chains, are reluctant to add these intriguing and potentially profitable beverages. Foremost, it didn’t take the recent recession for operators to be wary about adding untried SKUs. As one beverage consultant says, “They don’t care if it’s going to make them more money, they just don’t want to take on anything new right now.”

But today, a number of operators are responding to the increased interest in a broader array of flavors and ingredients, concerns about health, sobriety and drunk-driving laws, and the elevated quality and selection of alcohol beverages. According to Bryan Dayton, co-owner and beverage director of Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colo., “[Non-alcoholic drinks] really give our diners several options on how exactly they want to enjoy their evening. If someone is driving, or say, getting up early the next day, they can still enjoy a beautiful, seasonal, vibrant non-alcoholic or low-alcoholic drink with the rest of their group. Everyone gets to have a good time, with a great drink in hand.”

For instance, innovative lemonades are popping up in many locations. In Boston, Clover Food Labs trucks have drawn attention for their warm-weather lavender lemonade and star-anise lemonade, and home-mulled cider in the winter, among other beverages.

At the Trump Hotel Waikiki in Honolulu, there are as many non-alcoholic as boozy options on the restaurant and bar menus. Beverage Manager Christina Maffei crafts a range of lemonades and limeades, taking her experience from the cocktail world in Chicago and pairing it with Hawaiian relaxation.

“When I came to Hawaii about two and a half years ago, no one was really doing any of what I was used to seeing in Chicago — using fresh ingredients and making homemade items to put in drinks,” she notes.

Her signature lemonades and limeades, prepared with freshly squeezed citrus, also incorporate fruits and herbs and are topped with locally made sorbet. Flavors include lavender lemonade topped with lime sorbet, basil lemonade topped with lime sorbet, pom-strawberry lemonade, cucumber-melon limeade made with muddled fruit, and coconut limeade topped with calamansi lime sorbet.

“I want guests to have that ‘wow’ feeling when they get a non-alcoholic drink,” she says. “Presentation has a lot to do with that, and sorbet is an unexpected twist that I think helps make people usually order one or two different ones, just to try them.”

Most operators hesitate to menu fresh-fruit drinks for very long due to consistency of flavor and quality. Maffei bypasses this issue by incorporating one of the high-quality culinary fruit purées now widely available. She makes sure ingredients move fast and stay fresh by menuing them in other drinks as well.

Artisan and housemade sodas are a big part of the non-alcoholic beverage boom. Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, Colo., offers unique flavor blends, like this kumquat-tarragon soda, geared toward a grown-up palate. Photo courtesy of oak at fourteenth. DRINKS WITH DIFFERENTIATION
Tweaked lemonades offer a great point of differentiation, says Sean Stevens, director of marketing for Uncle Julio’s Fine Mexican Food, a 16-unit chain that has made its mark through fresh, made-from-scratch dishes. But until recently, its beverages for the most part have been the standard mass-market carbonated soft drinks.

“We felt there was a gap within our menu,” says Stevens. “We’re trying to stay true to what we are and what the consumer wants, using lemonade and tea and classic flavors consumers like.”

To upgrade, last spring Julio’s added flavored lemonades, limeades and iced teas that match its Mexican culinary profile and captured some consumer trends with tropical flavors — guava and mango, but also raspberry and strawberry.

The drinks are made to order: The mango lemonade is created with a mix of Julio’s mango purée and some syrup, lemonade and fresh lemon; the strawberry guava includes guava nectar, fresh strawberry and lemonade. Julio’s use a mix of fresh fruit bolstered with syrup for consistency’s sake, and every drink, even refills, are made to order.

As the popularity of many sorts of bottled tea grows, customized iced teas are increasingly important. At the five SushiSamba units in the United States, Beverage Director Drew Peterson offers an extensive non-alcoholic menu, including iced tea made with mint, ginger and fresh lemon, and green iced tea. “We want to offer a variety and depth of drinks, more than traditional sodas or soda water with a piece of lime,” he says.

At the Trump poolside bars, Maffei lists a range of pitchers of iced tea — raspberry nectar, pomegranate blackberry, Ceylon gold, white ginger-pear — that arrive garnished with fresh fruit and sugarcane sticks. They’re especially appropriate for a poolside group, she says, and many groups order multiple pitchers. The teas are fresh-brewed in a half-gallon pitcher and mixed with fresh and muddled fruits and sides of sorbet or syrups.

More elaborate recipes are common higher up the resort chain. At Casino Del Sol Resort in Tucson, Ariz., Aaron DeFeo oversees the mixology program and has developed such non-alcoholic drinks as the East India Cooler (iced black tea, cinnamon syrup, hibiscus syrup, lemon juice, blackberry and lemon garnish.)

While nationwide carbonated soft-drink consumption last year fell to its lowest level since 1996, according to industry figures from Beverage Digest, there’s an explosion of small-craft and artisanal brands emerging, accompanied by numerous bars and restaurants doing their own thing. Mixology programs pay more attention to carbonation methods these days — even phosphates are back in vogue at soda fountains and bars like Blueplate in Portland, Ore., The Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia and Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain.

At Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, housemade sodas in flavors like kumquat with tarragon are winning fans. Oak’s program has evolved from mixing soda water with housemade ingredients to carbonating directly in individual bottles.

“I definitely think that the adult soda trend has taken off, with everyone kind of doing their own spin,” says Dayton. “With today’s technology, you can really do anything you want to do, if you’re motivated enough to figure it out.”

Tad Carducci, who consults as part of the New York-based Tippling Brothers, has two different approaches to carbonation. At The Tippler in New York City, he’s gathered a collection of heritage soda brands including Cheerwine cherry, NuGrape, Bubble-Up and Mexican Coke and orange Fanta (popular with bartenders, they’re made with sugar rather than corn syrup).

But at Chicago’s Tavernita, he takes a different approach. There, he has crafted four soda flavors: cola, Valencia orange, white grape and ginger chile. The sodas are kept in specialized 30-liter kegs and are “shockingly popular,” he says. “People eat it up to know that they’re drinking soda from the source — made in our basement and pushed up through our lines.”

Tavernita’s flavor profiles are consciously different from what’s commercially available. The Valencia orange soda has some bitterness and was crafted with food in mind. The white grape (called Uva Pop) is the least sweet, referred to as “dry” soda. And while mixing with alcohol wasn’t a primary idea behind the program, Carducci says customers are ordering a significant number of soda highballs.

Why go to all this trouble for soda? “First and foremost, it’s fun. And it gives our guests the opportunity, if they are not drinking or are drinking light, to have something other than Diet Coke or ginger ale from the gun,” he says.

Carducci admits that the margins aren’t the same as what can be had from supplied systems, and the cost for dried herbs and other ingredients is high, but sales are higher and it’s still a profitable business.

Peach slices and syrup lend a seasonal twist to the classic Arnold Palmer tea-lemonade blend. Photo courtesy of davinci gourmet. COCKTAIL-QUALITY CARE
SushiSamba’s housemade sodas might include ginger, blackberries, yuzu, coconut water and aloe vera water, depending on the season. The concept’s approach is that alcohol-free beverages should get the same care as cocktails. Peterson develops such drinks as the Açai Fizz (açai berry juice, passion fruit, mango), Coco Leite (coconut milk, pineapple, mango) and Berry Smash (muddled blackberries, raspberries, lime, sparkling water). He even serves a sampler of non-alcoholic drinks together, as he does drinks with alcoholic ones, in a multi-serving “cocktail tree.”

Since the units change cocktail menus seasonally, the non-alcoholic beverages are changed as well, with winter bringing on more pear and apple ciders, sparkling ciders and autumnal fruit concoctions.

Peterson employs many newly available ingredients — sugarcane, yuzu juice, cashew juice — and finds that some, like coconut water, become customer favorites served on their own. He works with chefs, particularly from pastry, on ideas for the best way to create syrups and other techniques. “I really like the challenge. I’m always looking for what we can do to make a non-alcoholic drink that works.”

But having customers embrace slightly less common ingredients isn’t what many operators expect. “I don’t think most restaurants have figured out how to use those products,” says Maffei, but her customers also embrace coconut juice, and even aloe vera, served on their own. Her non-alcoholic cocktails, though — the High Tide (pomegranate juice, fresh cucumber, mint), Dawn Patrol (white peach purée, fresh lemon, tarragon, lemon-lime soda) and Polynesian Paradise (guava, hibiscus, fresh lime, ginger ale), among others — have made all-day sipping a far more interesting endeavor.

Maffei has even embraced a local brand of antioxidant juice made from the red fruit covering coffee beans grown in Hawaii, yet another ingredient that allows more interesting drinking — with or without alcohol.

Says Carducci, “There’s a huge jump in creativity in the non-alcoholic segment. I think it has a lot to do with Americans being in love with gastronomy and getting the best, unique and creative things they possibly can.”


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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.