In 2018, three years after launching the Charlottetown-based brewery Upstreet, co-founder and CEO Mitch Cobb was starting to feel the impacts of alcohol on his health. “I gained a bunch of weight, and I wasn’t really feeling on top of my game,” Cobb recalls. “I wanted to start focusing on my health and wellness and, as part of that, I wanted to cut down on my alcohol consumption.”
That became the catalyst for Cobb to begin researching and developing a non-alcoholic beer. He saw his peers in brewing growing older, starting families and having a similar desire to socialize without alcohol. He also noticed more non-alcoholic beverages coming out of Europe, which served as an inspiration for developing something new in Canada.
But Cobb had his work cut out for him. “Traditionally, non-alcoholic beer is made by making the beer, then you boil off the alcohol after the beer is made,” he explains. “But in boiling off the alcohol, you’re also boiling an awful lot of the flavour out. That’s why traditional non-alcoholic beer never really tastes that good.”
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Instead, Cobb began experimenting with methods that wouldn’t require a boil-off. He started with the typical alcoholic beer-brewing recipe, but tweaked the ingredients and process to result in a lower-alcohol product. “We use all of the same equipment and the same steps, but we use less grain with fermentable sugars,” Cobb explains. He also experimented with specialty grains and adjusted temperatures in his recipe. “You’re still capturing the flavour and body that you would come to expect from a beer,” he says.
By early 2019, Cobb and Upstreet brewmaster Michael Hogan developed a pale ale called Pace, which clocked in at 0.9% alcohol. They trialled the low-alcohol brew at Upstreet’s three taprooms and canned the product to sell at their retail locations with great feedback from customers. “That sort of became the base recipe and we refined it further,” says Cobb. At the time, beers under 1.1% alcohol by volume (ABV) were considered non-alcoholic in Canada, but the pair were determined to get their recipe under 0.5%, which was the international standard for non-alcoholic beverages.
When the pandemic hit and restaurants closed to the public, Cobb felt even more pressure to get their non-alcoholic beers to market. “Overnight, we lost a huge portion of our business,” he recalls. Cobb and Hogan continued tinkering with their base recipe and, by October 2020, they were ready to release Libra, a 0.4% pale ale that could compete in flavour with Upstreet’s regular lineup. It was sold at their breweries, online across Canada and at the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission. “The timing was absolutely perfect,” says Cobb. People became more cognizant of their health, dialed back their pandemic drinking following the first wave of COVID and “non-alcoholic products started to catch fire,” he says.
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Libra’s sales grew steadily that year. By January 2021, Cobb brought on Deborah Coleman as Libra’s co-founder and head of sales and marketing. She’d spent the last decade working with beauty brands in consumer packaged goods and was eager to take Libra to the next level. “I remember being pregnant and never being able to find a great tasting non-alcoholic alternative,” Coleman says. Just a few days after her work with the company began, they met with and confirmed a launch into Sobeys stores in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
In the summer of 2021, Libra struck a deal with Canadian singer-songwriter Serena Ryder to become the brand’s ambassador. “She wanted to come on board to help share our message about moderation and socializing without alcohol,” says Coleman.
Libra’s next big milestone: signing on as the first non-alcoholic beer sponsor of the 2022 Ottawa Bluesfest. “Seeing people with cans of Libra at the festival and in the VIP booth was rewarding to see,” Coleman says.
The festival partnership caught the attention of the Costco buying team. By January 2023, Libra would be on the shelves of six Costco stores in Atlantic Canada, plus three stores in Ottawa. “Mitch and I were both at a trade show when the buyer called,” Coleman says. “That was a really exciting moment.”
Another highlight for the duo was bringing home a shelf-full of accolades from prestigious beer competitions. Libra has won five World Beer Awards and two New York International Beer Competition awards. The latter organization also named Libra the best Canadian Non-Alcoholic Brewery of the Year in 2022. And in the same year, Coleman was named one of Canadian Grocer’s Generation Next winners.
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Libra is now on the shelves of about 1,000 retail stores across Canada, including Sobeys, Costco, liquor stores as well as independent retailers. Cobb and Hogan have also added a few more non-alcoholic brews to the lineup – an IPA, a pilsner, a stout, a cherry sour and a lavender sage cream ale in collaboration with Serena Ryder. This year, Coleman will be working to expand Libra’s retail distribution further into Ontario and Western Canada.
For Cobb, he feels proud that what started as a lifestyle change has turned into a brand that Canadians can benefit from. “You’re creating a product that’s making a change in people’s lives and helping them take positive steps towards their health and wellness,” he says. “That has deeper meaning to me.”
This article was first featured in Canadian Grocer’s March/April 2023 issue.