If it feels like stores went from just offering O’Doul’s to an abundance of non-alcoholic (NA) beers overnight, it’s not without reason.
For instance, by May of this year alone, there were over “130 different non-alcoholic beer brands and over 400 SKUs,” says Chris Furnari, communications manager at Athletic Brewing Company, a non-alcoholic beer brand, referring to a NielsenIQ statistic. “That was three months ago, so that number is already outdated,” he says, also noting there were just 64 non-alcoholic beer brands and 180 SKUs back in 2019. And according to Global Market Insights, the non-alcoholic beer market exceeded $22 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $40 billion by 2032. The sudden meteoric rise of this non-alcoholic category shows no signs of stopping.
To be classified as non-alcoholic, a beer can be no higher than .5% alcohol-by-volume (ABV), according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Now we know what you might be thinking: Non-alcoholic beer … what’s the point? Or perhaps you gave this category a try in the past, but spent every subsequent sip regretting your order, causing you to swear off non-alcoholic beers forever.
But the general attitude toward these non-alcoholic options is shifting, and a growing number of passionate commercial brewers and homebrewers alike are making non-alcoholic beers that tastes like, well, beer. From new brewing tech to yeast strains, here’s a look at just some of the recent advancements in non-alcoholic beer.
Rethinking Non-Alcoholic Brewing Technology
When it comes to making non-alcoholic beers, there are plenty of options. But one of the most common methods is dealcoholization, which can be done by vacuum distillation, dialysis, reverse osmosis, and other techniques.
While these methods are effective at removing booze, they also remove a lot of the original beer’s aromas and flavors — resulting in a dull, lackluster product, according to a research paper from Food Reviews International.
After attending a brewer’s conference in 2017, Ben Jordan decided he had enough with lackluster non-alcoholic beer. So he founded ABV Technology, which developed the Equalizer.
According to Ashley Hauf, sales and marketing manager of ABV Technology in Minnesota, brewers can brew their beer as normal, put it through the Equalizer, and get a non-alcoholic version of it once it’s done. It works by separating everything by molecular weight, which it is able to do via a patented software system.
“We separate out flavor, color, and aroma right away so it will be preserved. And then we blend it all back together,” says Hauf. Today, there are 17 Equalizers throughout the world and around 150 breweries that have their beers dealcoholized at ABV Technology.
Similarly, one timezone over in Golden, Colorado, you’ll find Sustainable Beverage Technologies, which is home to the BrewVo. But what exactly is that? Much like the Equalizer, the inner workings of the BrewVo are a trade secret. But it essentially removes a beer’s alcohol.
“We receive [fully-fermented beer] and it goes through the BrewVo, which allows us to gently remove the water and alcohol together,” says Gary Tickle, chief executive officer of Sustainable Beverage Technologies.“This shrinks the beer down to about one-sixth its density.” Tickle wouldn’t get into how it happens, but the resulting hyper-dense liquid is still considered a beer by TTB’s standards and clocks in at under 3% ABV. From there, simply add water to the condensed liquid and you have a non-alcoholic beer.
“Most importantly,” says Tickle, “we retain all of the core characteristics that you want to find in a beer.”
Like the Equalizer, breweries all over are utilizing the BrewVo. And many that do, like Grüvi and Deschutes, have taken home medals in competitions like the World Beer Cup, The Best of Craft Beer Awards and more.
Looking Beyond Standard Yeast Strains
As great as brewing technology is, it would all be useless without yeast. Sure, you could skip adding yeast and forgo the fermentation process. However, according to Food Reviews International’s research paper, that’s going to make for a pretty dull, flavorless beer. Of course, you can always try additives, but we all know it’s never quite as good as the real thing.
Luckily, there are labs working on producing yeasts for making non-alcoholic beers.
“What it comes down to is the strain’s ability to ferment more complex carbohydrates,” says Kevin Lane, technical sales support manager at Fermentis, a global company that studies and sells yeast. Essentially, these NA strains can’t consume or break down the complex sugars in the way typical brewer yeast does, so in turn they don’t produce as much alcohol.
“Most strains that are used in fermentation, whether that’s beer, wine, spirits or even breadmaking fall into the Saccharomyces genus,” says Lane. To find the best strain for producing low- to no- alcohol beers, Fermentis studied several different species, but ended up settling on a Saccharomyces strain that was only capable of fermenting simple sugars. In other words it will produce a beer no higher than .5% ABV.
Fermentis isn’t the only lab widening the scope of NA yeast strains. White Labs offers NA All Day, a strain that has an alcohol tolerance of 2–5% ABV.
“In general, consumers are very health conscious and for a lot of them that means taking in less alcohol,” says Neva Parker, director of operations at White Labs. “In the last several years more people have turned to low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beverages, but they want something that tastes like beer.”
In other words, the amount of low-ABV yeast strains available will likely continue to rise.
There Isn’t Just One Way to Brew Beer
Of course, even with new technology there still isn’t one right way to do something. For instance, John Walker, co-founder and chief product officer of Athletic Brewing Company, notes there are hundreds of steps one can control throughout the brewing process. And while he wouldn’t go into the specifics of Atheltic’s brewing process, he described it as a “mosaic painting of a bunch of steps.”
Philip Brandes, founder and CEO of Bravus Brewing Company, the first non-alcoholic brewery in North America, also has his own process. And while he can’t say the specifics, he notes what sets them apart is they don’t remove the alcohol from the beer.
“Think about it, if you’re a chef and you’re making an amazing dish, you don’t put amazing ingredients in and then take them back out,” he says.
A Shift in Attitudes
As critical as the new technology has been, changing attitudes toward non-alcoholic beers have played just as large a part in the category’s recent rise.
For instance, Brandes explains that when a friend of his quit drinking several years back there weren’t a lot of choices. He recalls how his buddy not only disliked the non-alcoholic options available at the time, but was often embarrassed to be seen drinking them. So Brandes became determined to make a good non-alcoholic beer his friend could enjoy. But, early on, Brandes notes it was hard to get consumers and companies to buy into non-alcoholic beer.
However, in the post-pandemic world, people are rethinking their relationship with alcohol. And this shift isn’t just taking place in the U.S., it’s happening way across the pond in Australia, too.
Craig Dillon co-founded Ultralow Brewing, a website that pulls together non-alcoholic beer recipes, brewing tips, and more for homebrewers. He explains that for a long time many were against non-alcoholic beer, thinking it was a waste of effort to drink. But now, as people are growing more health conscious, more are gravitating towards it. “[Non-alcoholic beer] has gotten a lot better and small breweries are jumping on it. It’s really good to see,” he says.
Yet, despite all these advancements, there’s no denying the non-alcoholic beer category still has a long way to go. After all, if you have delved into these beverages, you know that the beer’s taste can range from enjoyable to … let’s call it less than desirable. Yet, this is one of the first times we are seeing real interest, money, and technology being put into the non-alcoholic category. And as non-alcoholic beer continues to grow and improve, it will only allow everyone to raise a glass — whether they are imbibing alcohol or not.
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