Feature post by Brian Trivitt

This post was originally published in 2020.

As I write this, we are well into February. In an effort to be healthier, I made the decision to eliminate alcohol from my diet for the first couple of weeks after the new year. Notice, I didn’t say completely “alcohol free,” as despite what some people think, is virtually impossible, considering everything from rye bread to ripe fruit has a tiny bit of alcohol. I will delve into the science a bit more in a short bit, but going back to my previous point, for the first two weeks of January, I restricted beverages to those non-alcoholic; including non-alcoholic beer, water (of course), coffee, and a few sodas here and there, and no wine nor spirits.

It seems that only in the past few years have some people in the craft alcohol industry have mustered up the courage to come forth and talk about the elephant in the room, which of course is, too much alcohol is not good for you. One of the best slogans ever by a beer company is “we want more people to drink less beer.” Rather than make this into a nanny-state article and dive into all the reasons why too much alcohol is bad, I am going to focus more on non-alcoholic beer and how I think it will continue to evolve.

Before getting into any analysis about non-alcoholic beers growth and its overall evolution, it’s important to provide a brief science lesson as to how alcohol is produced and what exactly defines a “non-alcoholic”, AKA “NA,” beer.

In the United States, any beer at 0.5% ABV or lower can be legally defined as non-alcoholic. So, the first thing to note is that while labeled “non-alcoholic,” NA beer is actually not completely alcohol free, for reasons that will be explained in further detail below. In Europe, 0.5% ABV or less is actually classified as “de-alcohlised” and beers at 0.005% ABV or less classified as “alcohol free.” Europe also has a “low alcohol classification” for beers 1.2% ABV or less and do not require the ABV be listed on the label. For all intended purposes of this discussion, 0.5% ABV and lower is non-alcoholic beer in both the U.S. and Europe, as beverages at and below this threshold are not subject to any type of alcohol related tax nor other restrictions that are applicable to alcoholic beverages on both continents.

So, how exactly is non-alcoholic beer produced? Is it possible to brew your favorite beer and just avoid it having alcohol all together so you can enjoy a couple pints of weizenbock (a traditionally strong Germany Wheat beer) with your Cheerios before heading to the office?

Of course, the last sentence of the paragraph above was meant to be a joke (bear with me here; I’m a beer writer, not a comedian), as beer is produced by one of the most natural processes known to man, called fermentation. During this process, yeast consume fermentable sugars and flatulate CO2 that provides carbonation and defecate ethyl alcohol. Besides producing carbonation and alcohol, fermentation also contributes to a wide range of flavors in beverages and plays a critical role in balancing out sweetness and bitterness. This is basically what brewers refer to as the gravity to bitterness units ratio, which is a big factor to what you perceive in terms of sweetness and bitterness among multiple other flavors whenever you are drinking a beer. Beer writer Marty Nachel said it best many years back in “Homebrewing for Dummies,” in a brief exert that stated, “Non-alcoholic beer is NA” as in “not achievable.” In it, he basically went on to explain that without fermentation, you would have nothing but a sweet, sticky liquid called wort (rhymes with dirt) that would have very little resemblance to beer and that even if you forgot to pitch the yeast, the sugars in the wort would eventually ferment and create alcohol. In other words, you could be the worst brewer in the world, but you would still end up with alcohol in your beer, even if the beer tasted worse than some of my early homebrews! Funny enough, one of my wife’s best friends who is an exceptionally intelligent individual and holds a doctorate degree once saw me bottling a batch of homebrew and asked, “is it hard to add alcohol to the beer?” My lovely wife actually laughed harder than I did, and if I recall correctly, responded by saying something to the effect of “that ‘s the easy part.” My wife’s response was spot on, as creating a non-alcoholic beer is actually quite challenging, and despite advancements over the years, the end result is, at the very best, a beer that is somewhat different than the same beer before the alcohol was removed.

As you could probably infer from the brief science lesson above, because beer must go through fermentation, non-alcoholic offerings start off as regular beers with alcohol, and later, have the alcohol removed. There are various ways to accomplish this, but as I touched on above, all of them have a fairly substantial impact on the flavor and aroma. Without getting too much into the science, there are three different ways that brewers utilize to create non-alcoholic beer:

  • Heating the Beer-This is the most traditional method to removing alcohol from beer, as ethyl alcohol boils off at 173F. I have never tried to brew a non-alcoholic beer during my homebrewing days nor had I ever met a homebrewer who attempted one either, but incidentally, I did run across an article in Brew Your Own titled “Brew A Great Non-Alcoholic Beer” that explains the process. The biggest drawback with this method is that hop oils that provide the wonderful aromas and flavors we love in beer are very volatile and get boiled off.
  • Reverse osmosis-In this process, beer is passed through a filter with very tiny pores that captures the alcohol and water which the alcohol is then distilled out of the mix and the remaining water added back to the remaining mix not captured by the filter. I honestly don’t understand near enough of the science, but what I did find is that this is an expensive process that requires quite a bit of additional equipment.
  • I did run across an article in Food and Wine from 2014 that discusses a method scientists use to extract “a cloud of beer aroma and flavor” with no alcohol, but sounds so complex I’m not sure how feasible this is, as it sounds exceptionally challenging to replicate.

When I finished researching all of these methods, my thoughts were that perhaps someday we will discover a yeast that does not produce alcohol during fermentation.

Despite the advancements in making NA beer and their rapid growth (relatively speaking) over the past two years, one thing most people who appreciate craft beer generally agree on is that an overwhelming majority of the ones available from big breweries as well as craft breweries range from being terrible to just slightly above average, at best. “I would rather be drinking the non-alcoholic version of this delicious IPA I am enjoying right now because I like the taste of the non-alcoholic version better,” said no one (likely ever, especially for an IPA)!

That being said, despite the detriment to the beers’ flavor, aroma, and overall enjoyment (not just in terms of the buzz factor or in this case lack thereof), non-alcoholic beer and other non-alcoholic beverages are actually experiencing exponential growth, especially from younger generations. It seems as though decades of “just say no” anti-alcohol campaigns along with a much stronger emphasis on healthy living has resulted in abstaining from alcohol the cool thing to do. This phenomenon is also exacerbated by marijuana becoming more widely available as more states legalize its recreational use.

Major breweries along with craft breweries are taking notice and producing many more NA offerings that what were available just a few short years ago. The world’s largest brewer continually touts how their goal is to have 20% of their portfolio consist of NA offerings by 2025. Crazy how much times and priorities change, as I remember back in the 1990s when they were fighting like crazy against outlawing an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle.

Besides the big guys, craft breweries are also beginning to offer NA offerings, with some of them producing nothing but beers that are non-alcoholic. Brewing a NA craft style was virtually unheard of just a few years ago. As I continued to research this and think about peoples’ overall reasons for drinking non-alcoholic beer seem to continue to evolve over time. It has seemed to shift from the concept of people who can’t drink alcohol due to medical reasons or have a problem with over consumption to the more modern (or so it seems) concept of just trying to be healthier overall.

As I explained above, a beer’s alcohol content is directly correlated with a style, as the amount of fermentable sugars that are produced during the mashing process and the yeast used to consume these sugars that produced alcohol and carbonation have are directly correlated with how full bodied the beer is and as mentioned above, how bitter your palate perceives the beer. Not surprisingly, many of the non-alcoholic beers I sampled during the first two weeks of January tasted very thin and lacking in overall character. The exceptionally thin mouthfeel was not necessarily a big detriment in the light lager style, but quite frankly, I found that in IPA (the poster child for craft beer), it just does not work for something you would want to sit around and enjoy.

Despite the current growth and attention to NA beer, I believe its future potential, especially here in the U.S. could be somewhat uncertain. Make no mistake about it, this generation and beyond will continue to be much more health conscious than past generations past and therefore more likely be more cognizant of their alcohol consumption, but I’m not convinced that will necessarily result in steady long-term growth for NA beers. That said, below are some points I believe are worth raising that should be considered for the future of NA beer:

  • Beer is by nature already a low alcohol beverage. Before the days of the craft boom, an overwhelming majority of beers were 5% ABV or lower. Taking this point further, many highly sought after craft beers are sometimes as low as 3%, especially in their native England, where session beer basically originated. Although beer this low is still regulated, the flavor and aroma of many of these session beers can often be quite satisfying, especially when compared to their NA counterparts.
  • As discussed earlier, brewing NA beer is more labor intensive
  • Good Beer Hunting has a very in depth analysis from just December 2019 in which they provided some excellent insight on NA’s overall growth numbers, and what I found most surprising was the decline in the bigger NA brands, while the NA Craft Breweries are experiencing exponential growth. That said, a majority of these craft operations are ~2 years old, so the future is still somewhat questionable.
  • NA beer can be sold online, and the Good Beer Hunting article pointed out that some NA craft breweries actually have their own Amazon store and upwards of 50% of their sales come from online. It’s no secret that online sales for a wide range of consumer items continues to grow, so this is certainly a positive for NA beer. Still, I do wonder if not being able to engage with your customers the way tap rooms do so extensively with traditional beer may be a detriment.

Non-alcoholic’s growth is likely to continue. Thanks to the craft movement that has spawned wonderful beers, a love for supporting small business, and a new generation of very healthy conscious consumers, it’s likely it will only continue to evolve as seems to check all the boxes for future growth. Now that I have completed this (lengthy) article, I’m off to work on a business plan for producing non-alcoholic hard seltzer.

Read Next: Are Craft Beer Seasonals Released too Early?

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