Non-alcoholic beer is the rising star of the beverage world, growing like crazy and featured in countless adoring articles and splashy television segments. There’s just one problem: most of it leaves you wishing you had just stuck with water.
I support the idea of non-alcoholic (NA) beer. I’ve long encouraged drinkers to routinely reevaluate their relationships with alcohol and I think Dry January is a noble and worthy exercise. It has been exciting to watch as brewers and distillers embraced alcohol-free versions of their standard offerings, whether they be NA beers or Phony Negronis. I love alternating between full flavored lagers and IPAs and low to no ABV cocktails and NA beers while on a pub crawl or out with friends. And many people from across generational divides increasingly agree. They recognize that consuming alcohol is rarely good for you and needs to be done in moderation. Occasional moments of self-reflection about our alcohol intake are a critical form of self-care, especially for those in and around the beer industry.
American craft brewers are used to setting trends, not chasing them. Local brewing scenes from Denmark to Thailand to Brazil have taken cues from American craft brewers. So when craft beer sales here stalled in recent years, Americans brewers flailed about in search of any new path forward, whether guided by ciders, hard seltzers, or ready-to-drink canned cocktails. Not wanting to miss out on a growth opportunity, many American craft brewers jumped at the latest trend, releasing their own NA options.
While I had high hopes for NA beer, the results have been largely disappointing.
The unavoidable truth is that most American non-alcoholic beer is pretty terrible and not worth drinking. Or worse, it can actually be dangerous. Producing NA beer is a pretty complicated, expensive, and oddly secretive process and few craft breweries have sufficient resources and dedication to do it properly. The result is that nearly every version tastes like one of two things: unfermented wort or some weird off flavor ridden version of the underlying style.
With this country’s sad history with NA beer, you can’t blame craft brewers for making such underwhelming non-alcoholic beer. The American NA market was long dominated by the country’s biggest brewers, and they had little incentive to make flavorful NA beers. Often thin, watery, and tasting like the worst beer you’ve ever had, generations of drinkers assumed that NA beer could never taste good. Consumers of non-alcoholic beer were considered a throwaway market, derided as lesser-thans–pregnant women, people in recovery, the infirm–who should be thankful that they could even find a dusty old bottle of O’Douls or Sharp’s. If the country’s largest breweries couldn’t be bothered to produce a decent NA beer, could we really expect smaller, less well financed brewers to do better?
It’s not that NA beer can never be good, quite to the contrary. Where big American brewers failed, their European counterparts recognized the market potential for NA beer and focused their efforts on producing tasty products. With an established love of fuller flavored beer, Europeans institutionally understood the importance of balance, of consuming lower alcohol beers, and even just drinking NA beer while out with friends. And being the prideful bunch they are, European brewers didn’t treat this significant market with disrespect. Instead, they engineered full flavored NA beers capable of fooling most beer drinkers into thinking they were drinking the real thing.
Craft beer’s success may be partly to blame here. As the most popular craft beer style is IPA, many brewers jumping into the non-alcoholic market tried brewing an alcohol-free version of their flagship hoppy beer. Things didn’t go well. As any dedicated IPA drinker can tell you, the fragile aromatics of hoppy beers fade quickly. In a NA beer, once the tropical fruit aromas fade, little defense is left against the familiar off-flavors often lurking within.
Beyond the off-flavors and generally unsatisfying experience of drinking American NA beers, there’s also the safety angle to consider. Unlike beer with alcohol in it, which inhibits the growth of nasty microorganisms like E. coli, listeria, and botulism, beer without alcohol is open to infection unless tunnel pasteurized, an expensive process often beyond the resources of smaller brewers, is employed. While some smaller brewers dispute the type of pasteurization required to keep their NA beers safe, their reluctance at discussing their internal processes (and whether their beer is pasteurized at all) is hardly confidence inspiring.
NA beer leaders such as Bill Shufelt of Athletic Brewing, Keith Villa of Ceria Brewing, and Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn Brewing make this point often in discussions with brewers. During a recent Craft Brewers Conference panel hosted by All About Beer’s editor John Holl, Villa made this point in stark terms, saying “The last thing we need in this category is for a craft brewer to make a product that accidentally got infected with a pathogen and makes somebody sick or kills them…We don’t want to hurt anybody. These are our customers, we want repeat customers, we don’t want to kill them.”
On that cheery note, the secret to finding a good NA beer is often the opposite of advice for finding a good craft beer: look for the biggest brewery’s beer you can find. With the resources and time necessary to produce safe and palatable beers, the largest breweries–especially European ones–produce the best NA beers . For my money, Guinness 0.0 and Heineken 0.0 are two of the best options. Widely available in distribution, both of these NA beers largely mimic their corporate flagship siblings. In the US, the NA version of Blue Moon is also excellent. And while these beers may not blow your mind, when it comes to NA beer that actually tastes like beer, they nail it. For American craft brewers, Sam Adams Just the Haze is a rare standout in the IPA style.
I’d also recommend folks seek flavors beyond the traditional hoppy IPA or clean lager profiles that so often serve to highlight common NA off-flavors. Dark and sour beers, including those from Athletic Brewing, serve up flavor without sacrificing the beer experience and do a good job of masking any potential off-notes.
Managing your booze intake doesn’t mean settling for bland sips. If NA beer isn’t working for you, just remember water is always an option. Just make mine a hop water.