What are you drinking? The buzz around zero-proof cocktails, grenache and hard seltzer

Tony Abou-Ganim, one of the speakers at the VIBE Conference. He’s a mixologist, an expert on cocktail trends.
(Clarissa Westmeyer)

The future of beverages will be mulled at VIBE, a three-day conference starting Monday in Carlsbad.


There’s never been a better time to be thirsty. At VIBE (Very Important Beverage Executives) 2020, a three-day conference starting Monday at Carlsbad’s Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, hundreds of hotel and restaurant chain buyers will consider their nearly endless options.

Is it too late to enjoy the “ginaissance”? Will the hard seltzer bubble ever burst? Have we hit peak craft beer? What’s the buzz about zero-proof cocktails?

“The main focus of this show,” said Tim McLucas, a vice president with Questex, the company behind this 10-year-old annual conference, “is continuing to grow the business and continuing to enhance the guest experience by looking at what’s current, what’s trending today.”

That’s a lot of liquid ground to cover. The 600 to 700 attendees represent beverage buyers for major hotel and restaurant chains, everything from Morton’s Steakhouse to Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill, and vendors like Constellations Brands, Anheuser-Busch and Remy Cointreau. They’re competing for VIBE’s annual industry awards and seeking ways to freshen wine lists, anticipate beer trends, win consumer loyalty with stories, experiences and ethics.

This conference is prime schmoozing territory, where lucrative deals and priceless connections are made.

“It’s not just a club for the big guys,” McLucas said. “It’s really a club for everybody who wants to be there.”

Well, not everybody. VIBE is for registered guests, not the drinking public. Chances are, though, the trends discussed here will change patrons’ experiences at restaurants and bars.


The world’s most popular alcoholic beverage is also one of the most complicated products. The big brands — Budweiser, Coors, Miller — have been fading for more than a decade. Craft beer, brews produced by smaller, independent breweries that focus on traditional styles and ingredients, is making incremental gains rather than the great leaps seen in the early 2000s.

“Craft beer is still growing but the growth is slowing,” said Brandy Rand, chief operating officer for the Americas at IWSR, a firm that tracks the global alcoholic beverage market. “A lot of that has to do with the sheer number of breweries.”

You can find local microbreweries from Paris to Paraguay, but this population is unevenly distributed. San Diego County was a leader in this revolution, but overcrowding has led to dozens of closures and retrenchment among the 150-plus survivors.

“Anywhere you look it is a totally different marketplace,” said Stephen Beaumont, co-author of “The World Atlas of Beer. “That buzz, that excitement is still very much in place in São Paulo, while in San Diego it’s more of the same old, same old. Then you go to Portland and it’s the same old, same old, but people are still excited about craft beer.

“For some reason, people are a little more jaded in San Diego, or maybe they are just weirder in Portland.”

Prediction: Restaurants and taverns, Beaumont said, need to elevate their beer programs: “Too many places out there don’t care about proper glassware, or clean tap lines, or the beer and the story behind it. It’s about presenting the right image. Treat beer with respect and your customers will view beer with respect.”


Previous VIBE conferences, Evan Goldstein said, skimped on its wine offerings in favor of cocktails and beer. He’ll have something to say about that next week, as the Bay Area sommelier will be one of the emcees at La Costa.

“There’s growing buzz around sparkling wines,” Goldstein said. “And rosé is just on fire everywhere we go.”

Moreover, the line between wine drinkers and beer or spirits fans is fading.

“In North America,” Beaumont said, “I think we are in the era of the omni-drinker. It started with millennials, there’s good research that shows millennials may want to have beer at the front of the evening, wine with dinner and a cocktail somewhere along the way. I think that is the future of alcoholic consumption.”

Prediction: Goldstein foresees the rise of relatively unfamiliar wine varieties, like grenache and tempranillo. Look for more sophisticated wine lists everywhere. One of VIBE’s nominees for best wine program: the Holland America cruise line.


Tony Abou-Ganim has spent decades behind bars, and enjoyed every day of it. Having mixed drinks at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room, led the cocktail program at Las Vegas’ Bellagio and Libertine Social inside Mandalay Bay, he has a repertoire of thousands of cocktails. At VIBE, he’ll focus on one.

“My favorite,” he said, “the Negroni.”

A player in the international “ginaissance,” Abou-Ganim will mix Negronis with four different London dry-style gins, demonstrating the unique qualities each offers. When it comes to gin’s potential, though, that’s just scratching the lemon peel.

“At the San Francisco World Spirits competition last year, there were over 300 gins we evaluated,” said Abou-Ganim. “Before, it was usually six or 10. It’s gotten crazy.”

Boutique distilleries have popped up around the country, producing craft whiskeys, rums, vodkas and other spirits.

Historians sometimes peg the years before Prohibition as the high (fire)water mark for saloons and their patrons. If that was then, this is wow. “We’ve entered the second golden age of cocktails,” Abou-Ganim said.

Prediction: Expect to pay more — and get more, qualitatively — for cocktails. If you’re paying $17 on up for a tipple, Abou-Ganim said, insist on fresh juices, premium spirits, pristine ice and immaculate glassware.


Introduced just four years ago, hard seltzers now outsell vodka in the U.S.

“That’s the real hot topic in the beverage world right now,” said IWSR’s Brandy Rand. “It’s pulling from beer drinkers, from wine drinkers, from spirit drinkers, and across all age groups. There’s not many beverage categories that can appeal to everybody.”

In part, the attraction is based on the perception that hard seltzers are a healthier choice. Most are 90 to 100 calories per can, usually with less alcohol and fewer carbohydrates than beer.

Yet they tend to occupy a different arena, said Beaumont.

“They are store-bought, take-home drinks,” he said, “with very little presence nationally on-premise,” meaning in restaurants and bars.

Prediction: If 2019 witnessed the summer of hard seltzers, summer 2020 will see the sequel. “They are having their moment,” Beaumont said, “and that moment will continue through this summer.”


Based in London, IWSR focuses on tracking alcoholic beverage trends around the world. This is not a temperance outfit.

Given the source, a recent finding is startling: between 2018 and 2023, global demand for non-alcoholic beer will rise by 52.5 percent.

“There’s a trend with low- and no-alcohol beverages,” said Brandy Rand, “what we call the moderation movement.”

Part of this movement: the zero-proof cocktail. “Something that looks like, tastes like, feels like a cocktail,” Rand said. “These zero-proof cocktails are a huge trend, elevating that experience beyond just a soft drink.”

Prediction: We’ll be seeing more of less, alcohol-wise, especially in the beer and cocktail categories.


Many wineries, breweries and distilleries are all exploring ways to minimize emissions of polluted air and water. There’s also a push toward sustainable containers and other non-plastic items.

Straws, say.

“You cannot get a plastic straw on any cruise ship anywhere,” said MarkeTeam’s Laura Becraft, an account executive whose clients include the Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian lines. “Most have gone almost completely plastic-free.”

That means reusable, acrylic cups. Recyclable paper containers, rather than plastic bottles, for water. Canned beverages.

“This trend with the cruise lines is not slowing down at all,” Becraft said. “They are taking a lot of this initiative on themselves.”

Prediction: At VIBE conferences, expect to see new green initiatives toasted — with, perhaps, zero-proof Negronis.