Hollie Stephens explores the ever-improving science and technology behind the best alcohol-free beers
Saturday 19 November 2022
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Gone are the days of non-alcoholic beer being bland and watery. In the past decade, the low-and-no alcohol category has blossomed, and today’s lower-ABV choices are bursting with the aromas and flavours that craft beer drinkers have come to expect. So, what exactly does it take to make a tasty non-alcoholic beer? And how are brewers tackling the unique challenges of making great beer without the booze?
It's worth pointing out that there’s a few different categories of beer containing very little to no alcohol. In the UK, according to Drinkaware, alcohol-free beer must have no more than 0.05% ABV, whereas de-alcoholised beer must have no more than 0.5% ABV. On the other hand, low-alcohol beers must be below 1.2% ABV.
There are various ways that brewers can approach making lower ABV beers. Some brewers may employ arrested fermentation, which involves rendering the yeast inactive by cooling the fermenting beer quickly. Another strategy for this is dealcoholisation, which means removing alcohol from a beer using a method such as vacuum distillation. This involves using a vacuum chamber to change the boiling point of ethanol.
There’s a few different categories of beer containing very little to no alcohol
Good Karma Beer Co is one brewery that is focused specifically on beers with lower and zero alcohol content, and the brewery’s range includes beers at 0.5% ABV, 0.2% ABV, and even 0.0% ABV. Steve Sailopal explains that he first got into brewing non-alcoholic beers because he saw an opportunity for beers that were less intoxicating—but still great tasting—to shine. “All this mindful movement was just beginning,” he says.
“Mindfulness in terms of how we interact with others. Mindfulness in what we drink, and eat, and what we do. All that movement was starting, and I could see it happening.” Thanks to mastering the science of creating delicious low-and-no alcohol beers, Steve has made Good Karma a part of the trend towards a measured and healthy lifestyle, that need not have any shortage of great tasting beer. “We want to be as creative as a conventional craft brewer,” he says.
Steve tells me that his production method is different for a 0.5% ABV beer versus a 0.0% ABV beer, but he is understandably apprehensive about spilling too many details about his secret sauce. What he can tell me, though, is that he uses a maltose-negative yeast strain. These strains are perfect for creating lower ABV beers, since they are only able to consume simple sugars, leaving the more complex sugars behind.
Steve isn’t the only brewer going all-in on beer without the booze. Big Drop is a UK brewery that is dedicated to making beers that won’t give you a buzz, and since their launch in 2016, they have won numerous awards, sometimes even beating full-strength beers in blind tastings. Using a brew-to-strength process called Reduced Amylase Brewing, Big Drop produces beer that is fully fermented, yet stays under the 0.5% ABV threshold.
“We use a lazy yeast, which is not very good at converting sugar to alcohol, as well as brewing at slightly higher temperatures at various points to further inhibit alcohol production,” says Nick Heath, Head of PR at Big Drop. “We also use a lot less grain [which means less sugar], but we use far more types of grain than normal beer which helps amplify the flavour and brings complexity to our beers,” Nick adds. CEO Rob Fink says he’s observed the shift in attitudes to non-alcoholic beers with interest over the last few years. “I’d say a younger generation of drinkers - i.e. 24 to 36 year olds are the catalyst to AF leaving its niche pigeonhole and becoming mainstream,” he says.
Achieving good body in a non-alcoholic beer can be challenging. The additions of certain grains and adjuncts can create a low-ABV beer that drinks more like a regular strength beer. For example, some brewers use unmalted grains such as oats and wheat. These grains are responsible for creating the creamy mouthfeel and translucent appearance in styles such as Belgian Wit and New England IPAs, and they are ideal for brewers who want to create a satisfying non-alcoholic beer that doesn’t turn out too thin. “Across our range of beers, we use over 20 speciality grains,” says Nick. “We also use lactose, maltodextrin and glycerol which boosts the mouthfeel of our beers and avoids the watery texture that blights many alcohol-free beers.”
We don’t need to restrict the yeast, and we don’t need to use a different yeast strain
At Merakai Brewing Co, co-owner Emma O'Neill-Parsons explains that the brewery’s philosophy is to make beer that is accessible to everyone. Their 0.28% beer ‘This Is A Thirst Trap’ is part of that. Head brewer Oliver Parsons had already done some research and spoken to other breweries about their experiences with some methods of producing beers in the low-and-no category. They considered two methods: using a specialist yeast that only ferments simple sugars, or the boil off method (producing low ABV beer and boiling off the alcohol). Emma explains that they opted to produce their beer using the specialist yeast, with a combination of fruit and hops, “to provide body, bite and balance”.
For breweries that also make alcoholic beers and are seeking to create a low-or-no alcohol version of one of their classics, there’s a different kind of challenge when it comes to winning over drinkers. And in these cases, the processes that make the most sense can be quite different. Whilst picking a special yeast strain is a good solution for some, brewers seeking to stay true to the flavour and aroma of one of their full-strength beers as far as possible may need to tackle alcohol-free beer production in a different way.
At Adnams, head brewer Dan Gooderham explains that huge growth in a short time for the 0.5% ABV version of their Ghost Ship ale prompted the brewery to expand their capacity on their Reverse Osmosis unit. “The RO plant simply allows ethanol to travel across the membrane filter whilst maintaining and preserving all the other positive flavour components in the beer,” he says. He explains that since the unit ferments at a cool temperature, it doesn’t destroy the aroma and flavour of the beer as some other methods of alcohol removal can. “We let the yeast ferment as it does in a normal beer,” says Dan. “We don’t need to restrict the yeast, and we don’t need to use a different yeast strain,” he says, pointing out that whilst another yeast may produce less alcohol, it would also produce different flavours. “So much of the nuanced flavours in a beer actually come from fermentation, so by being able to actually ferment the beer normally we have a head start in making the beer taste like a full-strength beer, because it is starting life as a full-strength beer.”
It’s not just in the UK that non-alcoholic beer has been taking the world of craft by storm. In the USA, John Walker and Bill Shufelt both wanted to find a way to combine their love of maintaining active lifestyles with also enjoying great beer. They started test-brewing on a homebrew kit, and over 100 batches later, they were satisfied and ready to launch a brewery. The result is Athletic Brewing Co, which has locations in California and Connecticut. Co-founder and chief product officer John explains that the brewery’s patent-pending method involves a mosaic of 10-12 changes to the traditional brewing process.
“Since we’re only focused on making non-alcoholic beers, our team can concentrate on delivering a finished product that not only tastes amazing but is also of the highest quality,” he says. John adds that he loves meeting customers who have never tried the Athletic range, but who have a pre-conceived idea of what non-alcoholic beers are like. “They base those assumptions on decades-old stigmas or from tasting antiquated versions,” he says, but adds that there is always an ‘a-ha’ moment once they take a sip of an Athletic beer.
So much of the nuanced flavours in a beer actually come from fermentation
Like British brewers, John has found it interesting to see attitudes to lower-ABV beers change. “The general cultural perception around alcohol consumption is changing, and a growing number of people are beginning to embrace the idea of moderation,” he says. He believes that new generations of drinkers won’t view alcohol as a defining characteristic of beer. “In the future, quality beer will simply be an alchemy of malt, water, hops, and yeast – and those finished products may or may not contain alcohol,” he says. He predicts that this shift will drive a greater share for the non-alcoholic category.
Brewing non-alcoholic beer is not without its challenges. As well as requiring brewers to master an alternative process, there are also increased issues concerning stability and safety. “Alcohol is a great preservative, and 'normal' beers are naturally fairly stable,” says Ben Harrison, managing director of Hambleton Brewery. “Whilst good hygiene and process are still important, a lot of the really nasty bacteria and virus (e-coli, listeria, norovirus etc) won’t grow in beer containing alcohol. Which makes the product naturally fairly safe.”
For low alcohol beer, however, there’s a greater chance that these nasties could potentially grow and spoil the beer. For this reason, brewers making these beers need to think more like a soft drink manufacturer, ensuring that the product is both stable and safe through other methods. “There’s definitely a more intensive cleaning and packaging process,” Ben says, adding that they also must look at other stabilisation techniques. “High levels of filtration, PH adjustment to make the beer less hospitable to pathogenic bacteria, and also other natural preservatives are all things we use for different beers,” he says.
As well as using yeast that is suitable for non-alcoholic beers, Hambleton Brewery also adjusts the malt profile. “We use a lot of malts that don’t contribute much in terms of fermentable sugars,” Ben says, citing cara malts and crystals as examples. “We also do things like mash in at a much higher temp than usual, to try and deactivate the enzymes in the malt that normally break down complex sugars into easily fermentable ones. Basically, we are trying to produce a wort that’s naturally unfermentable.”
Despite the challenges, it’s worth it to Ben to make this type of beer alongside his alcoholic range. “We decided to brew low alcohol beer as we really like drinking beer. And as brewers we are surrounded by it.” He says that he is mindful about limiting consumption of alcohol to preserve good physical and mental health, and ultimately wants to see more low alcohol beer on the bar. “Something that really hits the spot and satisfies that need for a pint – without the alcohol.”
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