Super sober me: part two
In the second part of his journey into sobriety, Jonny Garrett shares what he's learnt from a month off the sauce
Sunday 14 March 2021
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It’s difficult to describe that first sip. After 31 days of sobriety, I fully expected my first full-strength beer to be a letdown. I’d been impressed with some of the low-alcohol versions I’d tasted during Dry January, so much so that I intended to replace a significant portion of my weekday beers with them.
But then I had that sip, and everything I believed moments before was washed away. Those low-alcohol beers weren’t just lacking the alcohol, or missing a bit of body and sweetness. They all lacked something I only put name to when returning to normality. You see, whatever process the brewer used, he or she was also taking away a little bit of soul; the spiritual, immaterial thing that makes beer so good.
That first mouthful of Beak Brewery’s new Pilsner, Déšť, was one of the best beers I have ever had. For a style designed to sit in the background, to facilitate as much as stimulate, it absolutely bowled me over. How those soft, floral hop oils combined with candied barley notes; how the body made that sweetness drip like honey down my throat; and how it coated my palate like water on dry earth, looking for cracks.
I realise that I sound a lot like an alcoholic, but my 31 days off the sauce proved to me that I am not – and working in this industry it’s important to check that once in a while. In fact, some unexpected outbursts and longing looks at my wife’s wine aside, I had found the process pretty easy. I slept a little better but not so much I’d make any drastic changes, my wild dreams calmed after a few weeks, and my weight and stress levels remained the same. Life went on the same way it had for most of my adult life. Part of that is down to the fact I did this during a lockdown and didn’t have to suffer the long nights of sobriety in pubs, but most of it is down to the incredible variety of the low-alcohol beers I was drinking.
I wanted to both reset my alcohol intake and confront my hop addiction
I didn’t try any for the first few days. I wanted to dry out in more ways than one, both resetting my alcohol intake and confronting my hop addiction. In the meantime I went to bottle shops and websites with good ranges of low-alcohol beer and managed to find just about every style under the sun. IPA was predictably the most popular style, but I also brought home blackberry sours, pilsners, helles, smoked porter and even cherry stout. Many of these beers came from the contract brewers of Scandinavia, who benefit from greater flexibility in what they can produce and where they can send it to. Increasingly, though, these beers are being made by UK brewers too, both by dedicated low-alcohol concerns and established brewers looking to broaden their horizons or cash in on established brands. Before I dig in to how good these beers were – and rest assured some of them were stellar – I think it’s important to understand how they were made.
There are three methods of making beer at or below 0.5%, and each one has its benefits and drawbacks. The most common among small brewers is the arrested fermentation method, in which you mash at a high temperature that only converts enough sugars to get to 0.5%. The best temperature is around 82˚C, about 15°C higher than a normal mash temperature. This technique is usually coupled with the use of a lazy yeast to make sure it doesn’t start eating sugars it’s not meant to. The issue with this method is it’s tough to get much fermentation flavour and complexity, but it does mean you avoid any impact on things like hop aroma and can leave the beer unfiltered.
The next most common, in the UK at least, is reverse osmosis. This is essentially the filtration of alcohol out of the beer. This means you can have more yeast character in the beer because it underwent full fermentation and you don’t affect the hopping process at all, but alcohol is not the only thing lost in that filtration process. You still have to brew a special recipe because the removal of alcohol and other particles its size can make the beer seem thinner.
The final method and the one preferred in Germany, which drinks more low-alcohol beer than any other nation on earth, is vacuum distillation – basically boiling the alcohol off. Science dictates that that happens at 100°C, but unfortunately such a high temperature would break down many of the flavour compounds in the beer, too. So clever German brewers heat the beer in a vacuum, which brings the boiling point down to just 40°C – cool enough to have little effect on the beer’s character, so long as it isn’t heavily hopped.
Breweries tend to keep their processes close to their chests, which is a shame because consumers really deserve to know what they are buying into. A pilsner is going to survive the vacuum distillation process much better than an IPA, where keeping it cold at all times is vital. By the same token, a pilsner made with arrested development is going to struggle to have any complexity at all, and gain little from the lagering process. Reverse osmosis is by far the most practical across a wide range of styles, but unfortunately it’s also the most expensive option.
If it’s dry and chalky then it’s most likely to have been made using arrested fermentation
It’s relatively easy to tell which process has been used, though. If it’s dry and chalky then it’s most likely to have been made using arrested fermentation. With so little chemical transformation these beers tend to have less complexity, which is usually made up for with a big whack of hops. The best of these use a varied malt bill to keep that in balance – Coast Brewing Co have a cracking West Coast-style IPA with lots of caramalt, while their NEIPA is sweet and fruity – falling just short of juicy and landing somewhere closer to vanilla. Northern Monk’s Super Stredge and Holy Faith are stunning, with most of the hop aroma and body intact. Only the grainy finish reminds you you’re drinking something with less alcohol than the average beer geek’s blood stream.
Reverse osmosis is largely the preserve of the multinationals, but Adnams Brewery uses it for its Ghost Ship 0.5% to great effect. While it’s not a patch on the cask version in terms of body, it’s comparable to the cans with plenty of floral citra left over and a big enough finish to make you double check the can. Over the course of a few, though, it gets less and less satisfying – the inverse of the real thing.
The beers that came closest to their full-strength competitors were all from Germany. I tried several from large and small breweries around the country, and found the base level to be remarkably high – which might explain why around one in every fifteen beers sold in the country is low alcohol. Most breweries have at least one in their range, even including the niche Schlenkerla Brewery that focuses on smoked beers.
My favourite was Rothaus Tannenzäpfle Alkoholfrei. It retains the brioche malt and bold hop bite of the original, losing only a little citric zest from the distillation process. Silver in my mini alcohol-free taste test went to Lucky Saint, a British brand but brewed in Germany. It’s unfiltered and remarkably biscuity as a result, balanced nicely by a fresh lemon hop finish.
My overall gold, however, goes to a very unusual beer from Mikkeller – the only beer I could have legitimately been fooled into thinking was full strength. Riesling is a light golden beer blended with 1% riesling grape juice. It has a honey and floral grape nose that somehow reminds me of Appletiser – a classic designated driver’s choice – and has a lovely sour edge that tips over into pleasant sweetness on the finish. The addition of so much sugar helps introduce body and balance back into the beer, the key things that all three low-alcohol brewing processes strip out, and as a result it feels like it could be anywhere around 4% ABV to me.
So as I sat down with my Beak Brewery Déšť, I was reflecting that with Mikkeller Riesling, Coast Brewing New England IPA and a German lager like Rothaus’s in the fridge, perhaps teetotalism wouldn’t be so bad. Of course, I had no intention of going teetotal, but I did see a future in which I’d replace alcoholic beer a few days of the week.
One sip changed all that. Those alcohol-free beers are still delicious, and marvels of biology and chemistry that I’ll turn to again. But as I crushed the first can of Pilsner and picked up another, I came to realise that no amount of technology can make up for something as intrinsic to society as a good beer. When it comes to low-alcohol brewing, it turns out you can recreate the body, but you can’t create the soul.
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