First soft drink store in Texas reflects changing drinking culture

Customers often ask a question when they see bottles lining Sipple’s walls: are these things good?

The Houston store has an awe-inspiring selection of nearly 300 non-alcoholic elixirs created in a market that has grown into a $1.2 billion industry. For a former drinker like me (I gave up alcohol over a decade ago), Sipple is like a candy store. Chic labels and exotic flavors are both familiar and brand new, advertising supplements like “nootropics” and “adaptogens.” But in a heavily drinking state like Texas, the reflex response to such a store can be skepticism.

“People thought we were crazy,” said Danny Fraunfelkner, a former sommelier who runs Sipple with his wife Helenita. So many retailers scoffed at his business plan that it took nine months to secure the nearly six hundred-square-foot store near Rice Village. But just two months after opening in October 2021, the business became profitable. “People understand that you can drink something other than alcohol and you should,” Fraunfelkner said.

More than 30 percent of Americans do not drink for religious, medical or personal reasons. Spirits alternatives, non-alcoholic cocktails, and non-alcoholic beer and wine have been seeping into the market over the past decade, fueled by health trends, social media, a louder and more visible recovery scene, and a younger generation that is less interested in to puke. bushes. Movements such as “Dry January” and “Sober October” — a month-long abstinence from alcohol — have gained ground in America over the past few years. It now seems that the inevitable consequence of the rise of drinking—from mommy wine culture to boyish overconsumption—may be its downfall.

The beverage industry has taken notice, with even old-school brands like Heineken and Budweiser producing non-alcoholic beers far superior to O’Douls. Celebrities such as Katy Perry, Brad Pitt and Blake Lively joined the action. Beyond the stalwarts and big names on Us weekly, a group of independent upstarts burst onto the scene, and Fraunfelkner aims to offer the best. “I wanted the drinks to be delicious, but also look good on your bar cart,” he said, standing near a display case with products grouped to mimic different cocktails. Next to a small black sign that said “Negroni” were three bottles: the Cut Above gin alternative, the Roots Divino alternative vermouth, and Wilfred’s orange and rosemary aperitif.

Fraunfelkner has spent over twenty years in the service and hospitality industry, growing up in the Napa Valley. But during the dark period of the pandemic, he began to worry about his consumption. He stopped drinking and found it difficult to order from bars, which often offered sugary drinks, seltzer, and iced tea as non-alcoholic alternatives. So he opened up Sipple and filled its shelves with more interesting flavor profiles, from bitter and savory to honey, fruity and mushroomy.

Customers can try the product, a nice gesture for first-timers who may be overwhelmed and afraid to pay more than $40 for a bottle. Helenita arranged a tasting for me in a cozy back room used for events.

“We love these guys, they’re from Austin,” she said, pouring a dark reddish amber liquid from a bottle labeled Tenneyson. I took a sip and made a frightened sound. Citrus. Ginger. Pepper. Umami? I was ready to love the drink, but not this is many.

“We’re not trying to be like anything else,” Tenneyson co-founder Graham Vasilishn said when I contacted him by phone. Much of the non-alcoholic space leans towards imitation: fake gin, fake champagne, fake tequila. These drinks may be good, but the quickest way to become disillusioned is to expect the alcohol-free drink to taste the same as the original. Will not happen.

Wasilition wanted to create a drink that was unique. He joined forces with friend and fellow entrepreneur Michael Bumgarner to create a soft drink company for the curious. UN-sober. Both men still drink, although they are more attentive as husbands and fathers. They named the company Tenneyson after the English poet Belle Époque (additional e the domain name was protected).

Tenneyson’s flagship flavor is Black Ginger, a delicious blend I’ve tried at Sipple. It comes in a brown bottle in a sophisticated orange box, but the main draw is the taste – a drink to enjoy. Ingredients include two types of ginger, Valencian orange, sweet orange, gentian root, dandelion, black pepper, and decaffeinated mate. This is the first non-alcoholic product I have tried that I can confidently recommend to my drinking friends.

Austin has become the center of non-alcoholic innovation in the state. In addition to Tenneyson’s home, the town has a sober bar called Sans Bar, as well as dozens of beverage companies such as Crisp & Crude canned cocktails, Surely non-alcoholic wine and canned drinks, and Kin Euphorics run by Jen Batchelor and supermodel Bella Hadid. .

But the non-alcoholic trend is spreading across the state. Dallas-based Starla offers three full-bodied wines (white, red, and sparkling rosé) in carefree, girly bottles, while Dallas-based Community Beer Brewery has developed a delicious non-alcoholic Nada IPA. In Lubbock, The Nicolett serves non-alcoholic cocktails. “I’ve noticed a trend where people start with soft drinks. [drinks] and switch to wine,” The Nicolett bar manager Caitlin Mayer said by phone. One of the most popular cocktails is NA Old Fashioned, made with Spiritless Kentucky 74 from Austin, bitters, bergamot, and a splash of blood orange.

Fraunfelkner sees this trend only growing. “Smart bar people will take notice,” he said as we sat across from each other in Sipple’s back room. One vision of the future could be what he saw in Berlin, where the bar served drinks “leaded, unleaded, or semi-leaded”, or, like Death & Co, a bar in New York and Los Angeles that lists all their drinks. . with ABV (alcohol by volume), so no customer has to bother the bartender or use cute words like “mocktail”.

None of this comes cheap, and sticker shock is common among Sipple customers. Why don’t they get booze but pay the same amount? Fraunfelkner explains it this way: “Is there a price difference between Coke and Diet Coke?” He watches the dawn of awareness in the client’s eyes. Good point of view.

Twelve years of sobriety, I still haven’t decided how much I want to surround myself with fizzy elixirs and bottles of zaftig again. While I was working on this story, a friend who was struggling said, “I can’t decide if these soft drinks will help me finally stay sober or make me start another hill.” Who could tell? Like the drink itself, this is a matter of taste and personal experience. What I like about places like Sipple is that they expand the possibilities of communication for the underprivileged part of the population.

Members of a Muslim family have become regular customers of Sipple. They didn’t even know what beer tasted like or if they preferred rum over tequila. Fraunfelkner asked his father, “Do you feel like you’ve finally been invited to the party?”

He smiled. “I always felt like I was invited to a party,” he said, raising the bottle, “but until now I just had no one to dance with.”

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