The sober movement has been creating a new sort of buzz. Even with the challenges we’ve all experienced over the past few years, Americans—and especially the under 30 crowd—are drinking less alcohol. Wellness-focused and, ironically, liquor store shelves are now filled with non-alcoholic spirit, beer, and wine lines; Google searches for “Dry January” were at an all-time high this year; and social gathering spots for the non-imbibers are popping up all along the Front Range.
“A lot of people don’t want to drink, can’t, or are just looking for alternatives,” says Pat Irvine, owner of Boulder’s The Root Kava Co. “It’s definitely a community here.”
Pat first discovered kava, an alcohol alternative growing in popularity, while living in Colorado Springs, when he wandered into his local kava bar not really knowing what it was. What kava is is a depressant made from the root of the kava shrub. It’s traditionally drunk by Pacific Islanders out of a coconut shell, but at The Root, they serve it out of stainless steel “shells.” Kava fans swear by its relaxing, anti-anxiety properties, and Pat says it’s also used as a social lubricant. The four-year-old bar goes through at least 20 gallons of kava a day, all of which is hand-squeezed by the hardworking bartenders, because yes, The Root is an actual bar.
On its own, kava is earthy and bitter, but not overwhelmingly so. The traditional pours of kava are most popular at The Root, but they also specialize in another herbal extract indigenous to Southeast Asia, kratom. Different color strains of kratom produce different effects: Red is said to be a sedative; white a stimulant; and green euphoric. To counter its bitterness, they brew kratom with fruit juices and ciders and add syrups, honey and agave to make it sweeter.
While Pat says that a good chunk of his regulars are in recovery, the bar also attracts a lot of young college students who simply aren’t that interested in drinking alcohol. During the day the vibe is mellow and calm, with people studying and working, but at night things get lively, with live music, DJs, karaoke, open mic and art events keeping the energy high until 2 or 3 a.m.
In Denver, Awake serves the kinds of sophisticated mixed drinks you’d typically expect to find at high-end bars. Only there, at the city’s first sober bar, everything is zero-proof. Take the tangy In Like a Lion, a blend of passion fruit, house-made rhubarb jam, lemon, vanilla and a non-alcoholic spritz. Or the punchy Slow Burn Romance, made with turmeric, black cardamom burned honey, carrot juice and a spicy alcohol-free spirit.
These time- and labor-intensive drinks are a far cry from the juices and sodas that non-drinkers used to be relegated to, and it’s about time. Because espresso martinis, fiery margaritas, Bloody Marys and negronis should be for everyone, regardless of ABV preference.
In addition to the fancy drinks, Awake has a friendly, welcoming atmosphere—maybe even more so than at a traditional bar. Wife and husband team Christy and Billy Wynne opened Awake to be an all-day destination for the community, and it functions as both a coffee shop and zero-proof bar. Their goal, and they’re succeeding at it, was to recreate the community feel you’d find at an alcohol bar, just minus the buzz.
In a culture that over-glorifies alcohol, it’s almost revolutionary to do something so simple as normalizing not drinking. The Root and Awake are doing just that, opening up the bar community experience to everyone.
Where to go zero-proof:
The Root Kava Co.: 1641 28th St., Boulder; therootkavabar.com
Awake Sober Bar: 2240 N. Clay St., Denver; awakedenver.com