It’s about 11 a.m. when I get to the Amtrak train at Penn Station. I’ve been up for less than an hour, remembering that I’ve got to head out to Connecticut today for a “Sober Oktoberfest.” Ironically, I’m a bit hung over. Put a bunch of reporters in a room together, and two drinks become seven drinks before you can write your own byline. I’m heading out to Connecticut, though, not because I’m participating in #SoberOctober (obviously), but because this beer festival is being held by Athletic Brewing — a relatively young brewery, founded in 2018, with one of its bicoastal offices nearby in Stratford, Conn. — and I’ve been dispatched to see what’s what with this festival of non-drinking.
It’s possible that you already know about this non-alcoholic beer brand. In which case, I assume you compete in triathlons, trail running competitions, or other feats of physical endurance for fun — because that’s what their fanbase seems to all have in common. Full disclosure: I don’t compete in triathlons, but ran cross-country for a bit in college, and take my beer fully fermented on 99 percent of occasions. (The 1 percent being any time a party in college only had Natty Lite, which is just water with yellow food coloring.) This is to say that I mostly know how to speak in the sportsperson’s native tongue. But today will be the first time I’ve ever had non-alcoholic beer on purpose.
Perhaps this is why, while nursing the last moments of a hangover, I stop into a bodega near Penn Station and get two airline bottles of Jack Daniel’s, and one of Fireball. (Who knows what kind of reserves I’ll need later?) The cinnamon kick from the Fireball is a strangely nice combination with my Amtrak coffee — it’s like a bootleg pumpkin spice latte. The rest of the hangover abates.
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Getting off the train 90 minutes later, I switch over to a local taxi service, which takes me to the “Oktoberfest.” As I’m getting my notes together for this day of non-drinking, the futility of all this starts to set in. Like every parent of any high school student correctly insists, you don’t need to drink to have fun. I think that’s true, of course. But why would you choose to go to a Sober Oktoberfest to prove that point? That would be like saying, “You don’t need to know anything about tennis to have fun,” and then buying tickets to Wimbledon. This whole festival, since its inception in Munich in 1810, has been dedicated to drinking way too much and having a good time shamelessly doing so. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t drink, that’s cool! But why don’t we all go to a movie or out to a restaurant or something rather than insisting we’re still having fun by drinking without drinking. To that end, I never really understood the concept of non-alcoholic beer, either. I love a dirty Martini, but it’s not because of the flavor. Does anyone really like the taste of alcohol, if they knew the effects of the alcohol weren’t following closely behind each sip? Isn’t that why there’s so many different kinds of fruit juices and kombuchas in the supermarket to feel fancy drinking instead of booze?
Stepping out of the cab, a few picnic tables are set up around a stage and the smell of pretzels wafts through the air. Everyone here is very clearly an athlete. And I don’t mean that as in, “Everyone here clearly enjoys sports or is in shape.” I mean it as in, “It’s entirely possible these people either swam, biked, or ran to this same parking lot.” Again, the thought enters my head to question what these people like so much about beer-minus-alcohol to enjoy this concept. You know what else is delicious? Gatorade. Personally, I like Gatorade way better than beer. I’ll even have it without having worked out sometimes. So what are we all doing here?
For $35, I pay the entrance fee, which affords me food from two local restaurants, and all the non-alcoholic beer refills I desire. I pull up to the counter, where I see that the company isn’t just putting this festival on at random, but because it coincides with the release of its new Oktoberfest brew. Weirdly, seeing capitalism at work in this way soothes me, rather than thinking everyone at Athletic Brewing thought this alcohol festival without alcohol was just a cool event. I take a pint of the Oktoberfest, grab some food from local favorite Walrus Alley, and grab a seat at a picnic table.
The food is great, but the “beer” is… well… beer-like. It tastes like beer. Almost exactly, to the best of my knowledge. I don’t mean to say it tastes plain or bland, either. I mean that for this non-alcoholic beer to have such a similar flavor profile to alcoholic beer, without arguably the most important aspect of beer, is an impressive feat. I’m not going home to stock my refrigerator with it, but I do kind of get why all these cyclists come here in between playing cornhole and shout-singing Bon Jovi at karaoke parties. (I assume that’s what they do, at least. They seem the type.)
I mostly have this opinion because about halfway into my beer, a guy in Lycra bike shorts sits down next to me, pops off his swoop-backed bike helmet (the kind you’d see in the Tour de France) and asks where I got my drink. He goes off and returns a moment later, talking about how gorgeous the weather is. These are the kind of conversations you’re doomed to have when you’re not drinking, I guess. Trying to volley back his politeness, I ask him about his bike, a carbon-framed Cervélo. I know a little bit about cycling from working in a bike shop in high school. So we talk about this before he asks what model I ride. “Citi,” is all I can get out. He doesn’t get the joke. I take another sip as he unlatches himself from his cycling shoes. While he’s telling me about how he loves hanging out in the city – this bar in Murray Hill is like his second home – I remember that it’s time for me to head out.
Getting back on the train, I’m completely parched, ready for another Oktoberfest brew even. Now, this probably isn’t advised if you’re the kind of person buying non-alcoholic beer from Athletic Brewing in the first place, but if you drink about a third of one, and then dump in an airline-sized bottle of Jack Daniel’s, it really comes together on the train ride back to Manhattan.