Comedian John Mulaney has a bit about what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t drink at a party where everyone else is drinking. “They will have no idea what to offer you,” he jokes. “I’ll show up at a party and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, everybody—alright, we got Coronas in the fridge, and oh, hey, Mulaney, would you like an old turnip that we found in a cabinet? Would that be good for you? Would you like that? I know you don’t drink! Or my girlfriend left a NuvaRing in the fridge. Would that be good for you? I know you don’t drink!’”
For those of us who don’t drink, that was pretty much the scene for a long time: stomaching watery yellow NA “beers” with the aftertaste of cabinet turnips and medicine; ordering a tonic-and-lime but asking for it in a lowball glass so you don’t have to carry a Big Gulp around the party; and ducking the inevitable barrage of “Why aren’t you drinking?” questions.
But in the fall of 2018, at an event in a basement venue in south Minneapolis, a friend passed around an unmarked six-pack of brown bottles, containing a new, non-alcoholic black ale that her friend Paul had been tinkering with. They were a joy to drink—the ale had a rich, full flavor, with caramels and dark rye set off by carbonation and a malty kick. For someone who hadn’t had a craft beer in a decade, the rush was a remembrance of flavors past.
The “Paul” responsible for the mystery sixer was Paul Pirner, lanky local musician (and brother of Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner). The bottles were prototypes for Hairless Dog, a line of NA beers he was launching with friend Jeff Hollander. Hollander is now Hairless Dog’s CEO, and he remembers that first run with a chuckle. “We thought it was a huge batch; we made about a thousand cases. It was probably the end of 2018 when those started getting on shelves,” he notes, “and, with about 10 retailers, all the product sold out.”
After scrambling to get whatever they could out of their first production run to stores, Pirner and Hollander set about growing Hairless Dog. They took their recipes—perfected over years in Pirner’s garage in Uptown, Minneapolis—to a production facility in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. They did their own silk-screening and distribution before lining up placements in restaurants. And with local buzz building, Hollander began making calls to national distributors, landing a deal with Total Wine at the end of 2019 to get Hairless Dog in stores across the country.
All this happened in a broader global context, as we began re-evaluating our relationship with alcohol. There is a theory that humans’ ability to digest alcohol was key to our survival, back when we were hunter-gatherers and had no way to purify water. But we have evolved, and health consciousness and social implications (drunk driving, domestic violence, etc.) are moving us away from heavy drinking, with the “sober curious” (or “hangover averse”) movement growing internationally, especially in Australia and the United Kingdom. Events like Dry January, the rise of “mocktails,” and the appearance of custom sodas at craft breweries have all pointed to a burgeoning demand for alcohol-free options. In the U.S., the NA market was projected to grow from $20 billion in 2018 to $30 billion in 2025, against an overall $120 billion beer market (measured prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is predicted to be fatal for breweries selling on-site and gainful for grocery- and liquor-store beer sales).
All that growth depends on quality product. “If it was easy to do, a lot of people would have done it so far,” Pirner quips. The Hairless Dog brewing method doesn’t introduce yeast, so there is none of the usual fermentation when producing alcohol. Other NA offerings are brewed normally and then have the alcohol extracted through heat or other processes. The alcohol extraction still leaves some alcohol in the beverage, making Hairless Dog’s 0.0% a differentiator. As Pirner points out about extraction, “You get no head retention, you get no hop body, you get a watery thing—because when you take out all those molecules, there’s nothing for them to hold onto.”
Hollander is aware of the negative perception of many past NA beers. “There’s very much a stigma to bringing [NA beer] to a party,” he says. But he and Pirner are quick to emphasize that they want people to focus on what Hairless Dog is, not what it isn’t. “We are not anti-alcohol; we are not judging people who like to drink at all,” Hollander says. (Neither Hollander nor Pirner drink by choice.) “The modifier of NA is anecdotal. To us, it’s a delicious brew.”
Minnesota consistently ranks in the top 10 drunkest states in America (with our North Dakotan and Sconnie neighbors vying for top spot of that dubious honor) according to CDC data. But Pirner sees that as a plus as Hairless Dog brings its best product to market. “This is a beer-drinking culture, and we’ve all been raised in that. That’s one of the reasons we take this so seriously,” he explains. “It’s like putting a hockey team in front of a Minnesota crowd; they know what they’re doing—they know what to look for, they know what’s bad, and they’re not afraid to tell you what’s bad.”
With a roster that now includes the Black Ale, a bright and hoppy IPA, and a mellow Coffee Stout, Hairless Dog is aiming to put quality players on the ice. In the works: a lager using citra hops, an Oktoberfest-style ale, and other seasonal offerings. “As we move along, we can see not just the big picture of the dream, but the mechanics of how it would all happen, and what needs to happen for it to all fall into place,” Pirner says. And without the hangover, it’s a lot easier to get up in the morning to put in the work, making sure we non-drinkers don’t get offered leftover nonsense at parties ever again.
Find out where you can purchase Hairless Dog beers here.