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How Gen Z Is Breaking Europe's Eternal Alcohol Habit

Young people across Europe are drinking less, which is driving a boom in non-alcoholic alternatives, and the emergence of new, more complex markets.

photo of a beer half full on a bar

German beer, half-full?

Katarzyna Skiba

Updated Dec. 6, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

PARIS — From Irish whisky to French wine to German beer, Europe has long been known for alcohol consumption. Of the top 10 countries for drinking, nine are in the European Union, according to the World Health Organization.

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But that may be starting to change, especially among Gen Z Europeans, who are increasingly drinking less or opting out entirely, out of concern for their health or problematic alcohol use. A recent French study found the proportion of 17-year-olds who have never consumed alcohol has multiplied, from less than 5% to nearly 20% over the past two decades.

The alcohol-free trend is propping up new markets for low- or zero-alcoholic beverages, including in one of Europe’s beer capitals: Germany.

Non-alcoholic beer takes over Germany

In Germany, which has the world's seventh-highest consumption of beer per capita, non-alcoholic beer has exploded in popularity among those looking to live a healthier lifestyle.

Though the land of Oktoberfest and Biergartens remains one of the highest consumers of alcohol worldwide, Germans’ average consumption of beer has drastically decreased. In 2022, Germans drank an average of 87.2 liters of beer per year, compared to nearly 100 liters 10 years earlier, according to statistics from the German government.

Brewers have responded to the changing market, and are developing a wider variety of non-alcoholic beverages than ever before.

Once considered a poor alternative to alcoholic beers, consumed only by pregnant women or designated drivers, consumption of alcohol-free alternatives is on the rise in several German cities, according to French daily Les Echos. According to German paper Die Welt, nearly one in two Germans have consumed non-alcoholic beer alternatives.

Since 2007, the production of non-alcoholic beers, which can contain at most 0.5% alcohol, has doubled, according to Les Echos. In Germany, the beverages account for 7% of the beer market, and are expected to take off in the years to come.

“We hope that soon one in 10 beers brewed in Germany will be alcohol-free,” Holger Eichele, president of the Association of German Brewers, predicted in an interview for Die Welt.

At the same time, beer sales in the country fell by 2.9% in the past year, as sales of non-alcoholic brewed beverages have soared to a combined 474 million liters sold in 2022 — an amount equivalent to 396 million euros in value.

Many more choices for non-drinkers

The newfound popularity of non-alcoholic beers has much to do with newfound health concerns among Germans. Their growing variety and market availability also means that non-alcoholic beers are now viewed as more than just subpar beer substitutes.

"Our generation wants a change."

What was once a narrow market made up of mostly pale ales or shandies now includes IPAs and other craft beers. The definition of “non-alcoholic” beer is also evolving in the beer landscape. Although brewers are now allowed to leave trace amounts of alcohol in alcohol-free brews, many are experimenting with true 0% alcohol varieties.

These drinks “fit perfectly with the evolution of consumer awareness and behavior in favor of a healthier lifestyle," Lars Dammertz, marketing manager of the Krombacher brewery, told Die Welt.

Some cite concern for their health as one of the reasons for forgoing alcohol.

Helena Yankovska/Unsplash

In Poland, Gen Z Goes Alcohol Free 

Though Poland, known as one of the inventors of vodka, is often stereotyped as having shockingly high drinking levels, it is actually tied with Austria for 13th place in the EU in terms of per-capita alcohol consumption, according to the WHO’s 2021 European Health Report. And, according to Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Gen Z in Poland is taking this one step further, with a greater percentage of Poles opting out of alcohol consumption completely.

A growing number of younger Poles are reporting lower or no drinking in their lives, either out of concern for their health, or because they claim they can have fun without drinking alcohol. Some say that this makes them different compared to previous generations.

“Alcohol is everywhere, and we see the consequences it carries,” 19-year-old Marysia, a journalism student from Warsaw, told Wyborcza. "Our generation wants a change."

She is not alone. Cezary, a 26-year-old business analyst from Łódź, has also stopped drinking for health reasons. “I spend a lot of time at the gym. And I've actually noticed a trend towards not drinking, especially among my friends who are into exercise," he told Wyborcza, calling alcoholic beverages "empty calories" and drinking "unnecessary."

Marysia also cited concern for her health as one of the reasons for forgoing alcohol. “I pay attention to what I eat; I'm vegetarian. This is extremely important to me," she told Wyborcza, adding that drinking is “incompatible” with her lifestyle.

Unlike Cezary, Marysia hasn’t cut out alcohol completely, but drinks rarely, and in limited amounts. According to a drinks market analysis by IWSR, this is becoming the more popular among younger generations, who are more likely to reach for low-percentage alcoholic beverages.

“NoLo” trend spreads around the world

In 2019, British organization Drinkaware conducted a study in which it asked British people of different ages about alcohol consumption. More than a quarter of respondents aged 16 to 25 described themselves as "teetotalers" — people who never drink alcohol.

Among 55-74-year-olds, only 15 percent of respondents gave the same answer. Similar research in the U.S. by the Gallup Institute in 2020 found that the percentage of school-age people giving up alcohol had increased from 20 to 28 percent over a decade.

Experts have noted a global trend that now affects most European countries, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. According to the BBC, 44% of Gen Z Australians have declared that they are limiting their alcohol consumption, and the amount of young New Zealanders who drink alcohol has decreased by half since 2001.

The NoLo (short for: no alcohol, low alcohol) fashion has since reached Poland — and is growing stronger.

Even in France, where casual wine drinking begins at early, young people are turning away from alcohol. In 2023, the French Observatory for Drugs and Addictive Behaviors published a study that found that the proportion of 17-year-olds who have never consumed alcohol has significantly increased over the past 20 years (19.4% in 2022, compared to 4.4% in 2002).

Drinking is still popular when it happens in large quantities at a time, for example during festivities, but even these occasions are decreasing in popularity. Only 36.6% of 17-year-olds had a significant consumption episode (more than six consecutive drinks) in the month they had been surveyed, compared to 44% in 2017.

“I really don’t need alcohol, for life or for fun," says Tomasz, a 26-year-old musician from Wrocław.

Manki Kim/Unsplash

Coping with their problems, alcohol-free

Members of Poland’s Gen Z cite one more — perhaps even more significant — argument for their abstinence from alcohol. Namely, that they do not want to repeat the mistakes of previous generations, for whom substances were often the only way to deal with their problems.

“I have bad memories of my grandfather, who abused alcohol," Tomasz, a 26-year-old musician from Wrocław, told Wyborcza. "I see how it can ruin families."

Whole generations in Poland have had similar experiences, he says. "Alcohol was the one form of therapy, and the one form of social interaction, especially among men," he says. “If you had something to handle, you first poured a hundred grams of vodka ... It seems absurd to me."

We are witnessing true generational change.

Rather than looking to alcohol to solve his problems, Tomasz has opted for therapy: “Alcohol isn’t an escape for me like it was for my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, because when you are drunk, your problems disappear, but this ‘therapy’ is very short-lived and doesn’t solve the problem. The next day, it only gets worse. So why do this to yourself?"

He, like Cezary, has cut out alcohol completely. “I really don’t need alcohol, for life or for fun," he said, adding that all he needs for the latter are good friends.

Marysia agrees that a non-alcoholic lifestyle is a generation change among Poles. “From childhood we have seen alcohol everywhere: at family gatherings, parties, weddings and even funerals. You cannot imagine these events taking place without alcohol," she says. "This impacts us because we see the consequences it carries."

Joanna Kalecka, a psychologist from Łódź, believes that we are witnessing true generational change among young people who want to make different choices than their parents. "Their parents' generation grew up in a time when there was a culture of inclusion through drinking — and not beer with dinner, but spirits," she told Gazeta Wyborcza.

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