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Thanks to technology, non-alcoholic beers actually taste like beer

New brewing methods are making better NA beer, and craft breweries are leading the way.

By Tony Rehagen

When a DUI arrest and jail time finally convinced Jeff Stevens to quit drinking, he feared attracting awkward stares and questions at work. Stevens’s day job was marketing for beer, wine, and spirits companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Bacardi. He was also a part-time music promoter whose up-and-coming acts played clubs and pubs. So to better blend in, Stevens, then 24, would belly-up with a bottle of non-alcoholic beer.

“I’ve been out with people who drink and everybody orders something cool, and it comes to you, and you order a Diet Coke,” says Stevens. “Everyone stops. ‘Is it okay for us to drink in front of you?’ I’ve just killed their buzz.”

But the problem with the non-alcoholic, or NA, beers that Stevens found in bars 30 years ago — such as Miller’s Sharp’s or Anheuser-Busch’s O’Doul’s — was that while they looked like beer, they didn’t taste like it. In fact, Stevens remembers, most NA beers tasted awful.

That is, until 2015, when Stevens was working in London and his team invited him to a meeting at a local pub. Stevens ordered the NA beer the bar had on tap. But this time, when he took a sip, he didn’t cringe. In fact, he loved what he was tasting — because it tasted like beer. 

Inspired, Stevens investigated and found that Europeans, particularly Germans, were using three new brewing technologies to make better-tasting NA beer. Then he came back to America, to suburban St. Louis, Mo., and built WellBeing Brewing Company, one of the first North American breweries dedicated solely to making non-alcoholic beer.

The timing of Stevens’s discovery couldn’t have been better. The world is consuming less alcohol. Since 2000, the number of drinkers worldwide has decreased by 5 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Trade publication Beverage Daily found that 84 percent of all people who do drink are trying to cut back for one reason or another. Matt Simpson, owner of Beer Sommelier, LLC, a craft beer consultancy, says NA beer drinkers include “alcoholics who are comfortable drinking products that approximate what they used to drink, folks watching their weight, and those who may want to drink socially, but don’t want to take in the alcohol because they’re working or driving.”

So while NA beers have always had a small following, the audience has exploded in recent years. The low-and-no category of beers — NA (no more than 0.5% alcohol by volume) and low-alcohol beers (under 2.8% ABV) — is now 5 percent of all U.S. beer consumption. The segment’s growth has outpaced that of craft beer as a whole. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, says it expects NA and low-alcohol, which make up 8 percent of its global sales, to constitute 20 percent of its global take by 2025.

This boom is due, in part, to the arrival of more palatable NA beers. And that, in turn, is due to leaps forward in the science and technology of brewing.

For decades there were really only two ways to make beer with no alcohol. Brewers could stop the brewing process before the sugars fermented, also abbreviating the time when beer develops its flavor profile. Or they could take a finished batch of regular beer and boil off the alcohol, along with much of the taste. Both routes led to pretty much the same end: an overly sweet, watery, or downright skunky bottle of NA.

Stevens was determined to find another way. He found it, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Germany, the country that literally wrote the rules on beer (in the Reinheitsgebot, the 1516 Purity Law). At the University of Munich — where Brewing and Beverage Technology is an entire degree program — students were using the method of vacuum distillation. In this process, brewers run fully made beer through a vacuum, which lowers the boiling point considerably, from more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit down to 140 degrees. They can then burn off the alcohol at a lower temperature, while much of the flavor profile of the hops and other ingredients stays intact. The end result is a liquid that has the smell, mouth-feel, and most crucially, the taste of actual beer, with barely any of the booze.

“We’re the Wednesday lunch beer. We’re your third Thursday night beer. I see us taking over sugar soda moments.”

Jeff Stevens, founder of WellBeing Brewing Company

Stevens was sold. He put together enough money to buy a vacuum distillation machine (which retails for around $800,000). He rented out a corner of O’Fallon Brewing, a regional craft brewery in Maryland Heights, Missouri, just west of St. Louis. He approached the brewers he knew there from his marketing days about formulating a portfolio of non-alcoholic recipes and styles.

“I thought he was crazy,” says Brian Owens, chief brewing officer at O’Fallon. “Who would want to invest this much for a tiny, tiny percent of the market?”

Jeff Stevens, founder of WellBeing Brewing Company

But by tweaking the recipes and adding notes and flavors through oils and additives, WellBeing and its collaborators at O’Fallon crafted their Heavenly Body Golden Wheat, Hellraiser Dark Amber, and Intrepid Traveler Coffee Cream Stout. And this year, Owens and his team finally cracked the code on a non-alcoholic version of the quintessential craft-beer style: The IPA. WellBeing’s Intentional IPA has the crisp bitterness of Mosaic and Citra hops with hints of pineapple and peach, but with only 129 calories, 17 grams of carbs, and an infinitely session-able 0.3% ABV.

“It took us eight months of tasting and testing,” says Stevens. But he thinks it was worth it to tap into the hop-head sector of the market and solidify WellBeing’s craft-beer cred. “Everyone who is in the craft space, their IPA is their signature beer.”

Owens says he and his crew enjoy the challenge of crafting a great beer with minimal alcohol because it speaks to the artists inside of them. And NA beer itself appeals to the beer-thirsty crew because it allows them to keep their heads while they’re working. “Now I drink NA every day,” Owens says.

Today, several breweries are dedicated solely to brewing non-alcoholic beer. In the U.S., there’s Bravus Brewing Company in Newport Beach, California, and Athletic Brewing Co. in Stratford, Connecticut. Nirvana Brewing keeps Londoners and Brits in craft NA, and Toronto’s Partake Brewing supplies Canada. Stevens says other regional craft-beer powers are bound to get in the NA beer game as well. In fact, Brooklyn Brewery, the 12th largest craft brewer in the U.S., just released its Special Effects “alcohol-free” (0.4% ABV) Hoppy Lager this winter.

Some NA brewers use vacuum distillation, as WellBeing does. Others, like Germany’s Clausthaler, “de-alc” finished beer by straining it through special film membranes to physically remove the alcohol via reverse osmosis. There are also ways to stop alcohol from appearing in the first place. Toronto’s Partake uses a form of arrested fermentation, essentially deactivating the yeast cells that produce alcohol by lowering the brew’s temperature once the desired ABV is reached. And now there are new specialty yeasts designed with microorganisms that are unable to ferment certain sugars, like the maltose common in brewer’s wort.

Most brewers are very secretive about how they make their NA beer, which might incorporate elements of multiple processes. And they’re constantly pushing the technology to perfect the taste while reducing ABV, carbs, and calories.

“More breweries are looking at innovation,” says Ted Fleming, founder and CEO of Partake. His brewery’s secret process has a sought-after side effect. “Our IPA and our pale ale are only 10 calories a can,” Fleming says. “Most are 60 or more.”

Marketing of NA beers now reaches far beyond recovering alcoholics and the health-conscious. NAs are being pushed as carb-loaders for athletes, following the lead of low-ABV Michelob Ultra’s sporty ad campaign of the 2000s, which Stevens worked on. Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing has built its entire brand around being the beer for extreme athletes and the extremely active, who want to rehydrate and celebrate while keeping their heads about them. WellBeing has put out its Victory Citrus Wheat, labelled as a “sports brew,” which contains electrolytes, vitamins, proteins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories.

Every year begins big for the NA beer business with the evolution of Dry January, the month of drying out after the booze-soaked holiday season. Stevens says non-alcoholic beers make great year-round pacing beers, for drinkers who want to slow down after a couple of boozier craft beers, but don’t want to go home or completely stop drinking. “We’re the Wednesday lunch beer,” says Stevens. “We’re your third Thursday night beer. I see us taking over sugar soda moments.” And since non-alcoholic beers aren’t bound by the same stringent interstate and international regulations as their alcoholic uncles, they can be shipped pretty much anywhere in the world, creating a booming online business.

“Talking about not drinking and being mindful of how much you drink is more prevalent in U.S. culture than ever before,” says Stevens. “And what you don’t need is the alcohol.”

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis.


Top image by iStock


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