Written by Deena Douara

A devout Muslim, a pregnant woman and a body builder walk into a bar …

And the joke is on them because nonalcoholic beer is not readily available in this country. But Ted Fleming (who is none of the above) is looking to change that through his business, Premium Near Beer, an online marketplace for quality nonalcoholic beverages, and also the launching pad for his own nonalcoholic beer brew (expect a crowdsourcing campaign to launch in the next few months).

“Drinking is part of the social fabric of my relationships with family and friends,” he says. “After a game of squash or hockey you go out and it’s part of the game itself almost.”

“You take it for granted until you have to take it away.”

In Fleming’s case, he had to “take it away” after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. He points out that while diet and lifestyle changes always accompany the diagnosis, the triggers are individualistic. For him, it took years of both unawareness and denial before realizing that alcohol was causing serious complications.

But it was difficult to eliminate alcohol entirely.

“I found it hard to go to a bar or out with friends and just drink water or pop. With nonalcoholic beer there’s a much easier transition and less of a disconnect.”

The problem is that nonalcoholic brews are rarely served, lack variety, and are generally not high quality — Fleming explains that beer should really only have a handful of ingredients, and corn syrup should not be one of them.

So he began to do his research and found there wasn’t a single place — brick and mortar or online — that would cater to a North American market that appreciated the taste of quality beer, cider, spirits or wine, but wanted to cut back on their alcohol consumption. He explains that many of his customers are older adults who appreciate quality and the social aspect of drinking but are not drinking to get drunk. Others include pregnant women, health-conscious drinkers, serious athletes, designated drivers and religious individuals.

Fleming’s illness guided his business idea but in other ways, it also pushed him into entrepreneurship.

The desire was always there, he explains, but after graduating from Queen’s University as an engineer, he found himself pursuing a traditional path, working an office job for somebody else for over 10 years.

Facing pain and complications in a hospital bed, he says he had time to really reflect on what he wanted out of life. “Life is finite. What do I want to do the next 30 to 40 years of my life?”

The answer was simple: to work for himself and to design his own schedule around family time – including his (now) three daughters.

“I thought, what better time than now? I can always go back and get a regular job. The downside did not seem insurmountable.”

Fortunately for Fleming, he had taken business courses throughout his career and had launched a previous business more directly linked to his profession. Still, being a “solopreneur” can be difficult — and lonely. “Having a community is important,” he says.

And he found that community through Enterprise Toronto’s Food Starter program, through which he gained access to industry experts, educational resources and, importantly, other food entrepreneurs.

Those sessions with experts have guided how he builds up Premium Near Beer’s own forthcoming in-house brand to prevent future mistakes or disappointments.

If all goes well, a Muslim man, pregnant woman and body builder walking into a bar will not be a joke, but a night out instead.