In Charlotte, business meetings happen at breweries. Parents throw birthday parties for their kids at breweries. Fundraisers, weddings, speaker series about affordable housing and higher education — all at a brewery.
These are just a few snapshots of Charlotte today, but the city wasn’t always this way.
It’s not just about breweries. Outside of church, nearly every social activity in Charlotte involves booze.
Many salons now offer free wine while you get your nails done. When my boyfriend got a haircut at Arrow, a barbershop on South Boulevard, they gave him a free can of beer.
Just last week, I hosted a “tea” party and between the seven of us there, we finished five bottles of champagne.
“I don’t think we realize how ingrained it is in our society,” says Nicole Peternel, a co-founder of Charlotte’s Counterculture Club.
Peternel started the group with Molly Ruggere last fall after the two connected on Instagram over their mutual commitment to living alcohol-free. The club is designed to be a place for individuals to explore sobriety and connect with others in social settings that don’t involve alcohol.
Through an Instagram page, the two share information about restaurants with alcohol-free cocktails or places like Birch Fine Tea, which is where I met them in January, that specialize in beverages like tea and kombucha.
At least once a month, the group hosts an event and welcomes those “who identify as women, non-binary folks, and allies,” no matter their relationship with alcohol.
They have members who have been sober for years, members who are in recovery, and some members who are just looking for a night out that doesn’t revolve around drinking. It’s a spectrum, Ruggere says.
There’s only one rule: members can’t show up intoxicated or drink at events.
The name “Counterculture Club” is a bit of a jab at Charlotte’s social scene.
“In our mainstream culture, everyone drinks. It’s kind of like the default,” Ruggere says. “If you don’t drink, you have to have some traumatic reason or health issue. It’s becoming more and more normal, but historically it’s like ‘Why don’t you?’ instead of ‘Why do you?'”
Ruggere and Peternel, both publicists in Charlotte, are quick to clarify that they don’t mind at all if people drink. “Alcohol isn’t going anywhere, and we’re not prohibitionists, you know?” Ruggere says with a chuckle.
To them, sober living is a “proud choice.” They both had reasons to give up alcohol — like reducing anxiety and wanting to live healthier — but neither identify as alcoholics.
Alcohol hasn’t always been so intertwined with social life in Charlotte.
And just 42 years ago, you couldn’t even order a cocktail here.
There was pushback in 1978 to passing liquor by the drink. A new law would eventually let Charlotteans order a mixed drink in a restaurant and effectively stop people from “brown bagging” their bottles.
That law provided a tremendous boost to the city’s tourism and restaurant industries. It helped Charlotte, in time, position itself to be the home of big-city things like an NBA team, the 1994 Final Four, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and this August’s Republican National Convention.
More recently, in 2017, state lawmakers gave the go-ahead to cities to pass their own “brunch bill,” which allows alcohol sales to begin at 10 a.m. on Sundays. Charlotte city council unanimously passed a local version that July — to the delight of many Panthers fans who prefer alcohol at their tailgates before 1 p.m. games.
These laws are one explanation for Charlotte’s growing boozy identity. But another, Ruggere and Peternel say, is advertising.
“Since we work in marketing and PR, we see how apparent it is that women specifically are being targeted with this pink wine and these beautiful cans,” Ruggere says.
Even when Ruggere moved into a new apartment, she was reminded of alcohol’s presence. The new-construction complex has built-in wine racks in every apartment.
“You used to have a cigarette lighter in your car, and now you have a built-in wine rack in your home,” she says, noting the similarities between marketing of tobacco and of alcohol.
Peternel, a mom of two, says that even on playdates, moms often have champagne at the ready.
Take the Agenda’s website, too: About 1 in 5 of our stories mention the word “beer.”
But culture may be shifting. Kombucha is on the rise, and alcohol-free bars, like Getaway in New York City, have started popping up around the world.
“I think sober bars are the next big thing,” says Cassidy Sheehan, marketing and events manager at The Wine Loft in South End. The bar, which is going through a rebranding, recently added a full mocktail list. It’s even laminated.
Other Charlotte restaurants are adding alcohol-free cocktails to the menu, too. Haberdish has three options, including a spirit-free sangria.
There’s nothing wrong with Charlotte’s growing brewery scene or the wine-and-pedicure combo, Peternel and Ruggere say. They just want to present an alternative that’s somewhere in between day-drinking and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Counterculture Club’s next event is on March 22. They’ll host an alcohol-free happy hour from 6 to 8 p.m. at Not Just Coffee on Jay Street.
“Really there’s not a lot of get-togethers for women that don’t include drinking,” Peternel says.
Ruggere says it can feel isolating to be the only sober person in a room, but overall the women say going alcohol-free has added to their lives, not detracted.
“People are focused on the deprivation of losing alcohol from your life, rather than what you gain. You can essentially do everything you did when you drank, including going to bars and breweries,” Ruggere says.
“The difference is what’s in your cup.”