Anna Welker and Chris Marshall are on the front lines of the zero-proof movement as a bartender and bar owner, respectively. Welker bartends at Topside in Baltimore, Maryland and helped create the “Zero Proof, Zero Judgement” section of the bar’s drink menu. Marshall founded Sans Bar, an alcohol-free bar in Austin, Texas. Welker and Marshall talked to District Fray Magazine about their experiences in the zero-proof industry ahead of the Dry January mixology workshops they are leading together with DC Fray on January 20 and 27.
District Fray: Why did you decide to pursue a career in the zero-proof industry?
Anna Welker: I’ve been a bartender for over 12 years but have only been sober for the last year-and-a-half. I hate to say that it took my own recovery journey for me to really understand the need for zero-proof options, but sometimes you need first-hand experience to give you that push. I was about six months sober when I heard my managers [at Topside] planning a menu for Dry January, and I immediately perked up. I crafted the five-drink menu [and encouraged] them to keep it on permanently, because being sober isn’t just a quick trend for a lot of people. I’m forever grateful that they saw the need as well, and now it is a permanent section on the menu.
Chris Marshall: I was a substance use counselor and observed that there weren’t any social spaces that were inclusive for people who wanted to have a fun night out sans alcohol. I wanted a space where my friends could hang out and feel like they weren’t missing out on the opportunity for social connection just because they weren’t drinking. Austin is a party city, and I wanted to offer a space that was upscale [and] vibrant – without the intoxication.
How does having booze-free drink options, especially in public settings like bars, benefit individuals and communities?
Marshall: We believe there should be something for everyone to enjoy in social settings. Offering zero-proof options is an invitation for everyone to safely socialize. When you cater to a wider audience with zero-proof cocktails, you are sending a message that it’s perfectly normal to skip alcohol.
Welker: There is empowerment found in the freedom to choose. Just like it is common to have vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options now, having a booze-free presence on the menu lets people who want something fun and delicious without the alcohol feel like their choice is not only valid – it’s acknowledged, seen and celebrated. When our needs and wants are met without us having to hunt them down on our own or feel like we’re inconveniencing anybody, we feel like we belong not only in our own skin but in our community as well.
Why is booze-free culture relevant?
Welker: Booze has gone far beyond being merely relevant. We live in a booze-soaked culture. We have to be mindful that it is a mind-altering substance and can be abused, and lead to disastrous consequences if not treated with respect. By acknowledging that connections can happen without the presence of alcohol, we can lessen the degree to which our whole society relies on alcohol to do anything. I was only sober for a couple of weeks when I had a little revelation that what I was addicted to more than the alcohol was being around people. I wanted to feel that human connection, but it’s so often found by default in the presence of alcohol. We really crave a higher human content in our interactions, not higher alcohol content.
Marshall: The current pandemic has really forced society to question the way we take care of ourselves and each other. We now know that alcohol is carcinogenic and can lead to some serious physical and mental health problems. This is a growing movement of individuals who are not prohibitionists, but [who] are questioning the role that alcohol plays in our overall health and social connections.
Why should more people try zero-proof options?
Marshall: Zero-proof options are a great way to continue the celebration and ritual of drinking without any of the harmful side effects. Trying these products is also a micro-investment in the larger movement, because it indicates a demand for zero-proof options. When I started Sans Bar in 2017, there were just a handful of options available on the market. Today, there is quite literally something for everyone. I always encourage people to try beverages that feel safe and right for them. Some people may be triggered by alcohol-free beer, wines and spirits, and that’s totally okay.
Welker: People should try zero-proof options just to explore. There’s a whole world out there, and you can still enjoy something interesting without adding to your buzz. Maybe you’re the DD that night and your friends want another round or two, [or] maybe you have something important to wake up for and you want to make sure you stay fresh. You can still have something that’s fun and interesting and looks good on your Instagram without sacrificing whatever you need in that moment.
What does the future of the booze-free industry look like?
Welker: I think we’re going to see it continue to grow. We saw a huge rise in the interest in craft cocktails when those bars started popping up a couple decades ago. The same people who were excited about all those new creations are still interested, but maybe looking to slow the pace down a bit. A lot of people are reexamining their relationship with alcohol as a result of the pandemic and being in quarantine. There are several studies remarking on the spike in drinking as a result of the stress and conditions of Covid, and I think a lot of people will realize that their relationship with alcohol has taken a turn for the unhealthy side. People are just becoming more mindful overall of how they navigate this world and the more options and freedom to choose [from], the better.
Marshall: The future is absolutely brilliant for this industry. I’m so encouraged by the spirit of collaboration over competition that spans across beverage companies, [nonalcoholic] bars and event organizers. We are up against a culture that pairs alcohol with practically everything. We will continue to see booze-free bars pop up across the country as the world returns to a new normal. I anticipate the beverage industry will also offer spirits that are higher in quality as the technology around distillation improves.
For more information on DC Fray’s upcoming Dry January classes on January 20 and 27, click here. Learn more about Welker’s zero-proof cocktails at @topsidebmore on Instagram, and Marshall and Sans Bar at www.thesansbar.com or @sans_bar on Instagram.
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