Editorials, Opinion

‘Sobars’: All the fun without the booze?

If you’ve lived in Morgantown for any length of time, then you know the city’s social life is inextricably wrapped up in bars and night clubs — and booze.

But, believe it or not, there are people here who don’t drink alcohol. And there aren’t many alcohol-free places for them to spend an evening out.

Bars tend to be the social hubs of their communities — especially after normal business hours. While every bar and club has its own flavor, there’s a certain atmosphere that just can’t be replicated in just any ol’ restaurant or café. There’s not the time commitment or formality of ordering a meal or the library-esque feel of people working on laptops in corners. It can be intimate — mood lighting and soft music and private conversations — or anonymous — flashing strobes and pounding bass and yelling to hear the person next to you — and anywhere in between. You can come alone or with friends — no judgment either way.

That’s a little romanticized, yes, but when socialization options are limited to your home (which, for many young people nowadays is a tiny apartment, a dorm room or their parents’ house), family-filled restaurants and forced-silence movie theaters, bars really do become the last refuge of young people looking to spend time with other young people.

But bars aren’t the most welcoming place for people who are sober or simply don’t drink alcohol. There’s this expectation that you don’t go to a bar unless you plan to become intoxicated. Non-drinkers are often met with pity (assumed to be designated drivers) or pressure (why come to a bar if not to get drunk?). Not to mention, there are few options on the menu besides sodas or water, though some places may have a limited menu of mocktails (alcohol-free cocktails). And the desire for alcohol-free substitutes is on the rise.

According to a Wall Street Journal report from 2019, non-alcoholic beer sales rose 3.9% in five years, while regular beer sales remained stagnant. And in that same time frame, as we reported in our Lifestyles section last Sunday, alcohol-free bars have become more widespread — and more popular.

Millennials and Gen Zers, who are drinking less alcohol than previous generations, and people on the road to or maintaining their sobriety have begun to seek establishments where they can have the atmosphere and companionship of a bar without the booze. In large cities especially, alcohol-free bars and clubs (also called “sober bars” or “spirit-free”) are seeing great luck serving specialty cocktails using alcohol substitutes or zero-proof liquors and offering low- or no-alcohol craft beers and wines. Even Dublin, Ireland, has a “sobar” called The Virgin Mary Bar that serves specialty mixed drinks (“we don’t do ‘mocktails’ at TVM,” proclaims its website), beers, ciders and wines, all with 0.5% ABV or less.

Perhaps Morgantown could benefit from such a place — or at least expanded menus at existing establishments. The University City has a reputation for being party-central, but not every young person wants to get drunk. Often, college students and young professionals want the atmosphere of a bar and could take or leave the drinking. Local bars may be surprised to find there’s a good market for a place that can provide the social aspect of a night out — and the enjoyment of a well-crafted mocktail — without the drunken foolishness.