Here's why non-alcoholic beers finally taste good, and not just for Dry January
For years, non-alcoholic beer required a sacrifice: to lose the buzz, you also had to lose the flavor. But that has changed in recent years, thanks to new technology that lets brewers make beer that tastes great, without the alcohol.
"The non-alcoholic beers of the past tasted like punishment," as beer expert John Holl put it.
That's changed in recent years. For beer fans who want the deep flavors of IPAs and porters without the baggage of alcohol, the new brews are hitting the spot.
The shift is due to a culmination of factors, including innovations in vacuum evaporation, filtration and other techniques that let brewers extract alcohol from beer while leaving its flavor largely intact.
"They've really been able to make it taste like regular beer, and I'm constantly impressed," said Dana Garves, who would know: she's a beer chemist who owns the Oregon BrewLab, which analyzes beer and other fermented drinks.
Going non-alcoholic isn't just for non-drinkers
The advances in non-alcoholic beer are helping brewers align themselves with health trends and people who are "sober curious," said Holl, who hosts the Drink Beer, Think Beer podcast and is beer editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine.
While Dry January might be when many people talk about non-alcoholic beer, more people drink it in the summer, says Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, the craft beer trade group.
"Dry January appears to be a period where new [customers] get introduced to NA products," Watson said, adding that non-alcoholic beer's share of sales within the broader category spikes in January.
"That said, January doesn't drive most of the sales volume," he added. "The highest-selling week for NA beer throughout the year is the same as for total beer – the week surrounding the 4th of July."
And while NA beers of the past courted non-drinkers, Watson says that has changed.
"A lot of the consumption is coming from people who drink [alcohol]," he said. "This isn't people who don't drink who are trying to fully replace beer, but people who do drink and are just looking for occasions where they can substitute something that tastes like beer, but doesn't have the alcohol."
NA beer gets two unlikely boosts: social media and the pandemic
By many measures, brewers are producing better non-alcoholic beer at just the right time. The early days of the pandemic might have opened the floodgates of day-drinking, but since then, it has also prompted more focus on mental health, including alcohol consumption.
That trend is even more prominent during Dry January, as people abstaining from alcohol post updates and their NA drink tips to social media. Alcohol is absent from those posts, and so is the stigma.
"We've become more accepting of other people's beverage choices," Garves said, describing how the conversation about the physical and mental health aspects of drinking has evolved.
"In general, I find the younger generations are pushing for more healthy-living style beverages," Garves said, "stuff with lower calories, lower carbs, no alcohol, and that's actually starting to permeate into the older generations, as well."
"I actually partake in Sobertober, which is sober October," she added. "It's interesting that there's sort of these little moments where we recognize maybe it's good for your body to take a break from alcohol."
"Beer is shedding a lot of its male bravado, which is great," Holl said.
Turning to an NA beer has real appeal for someone contemplating their third beer of a night, he said.
"You start off by drinking a full-strength IPA. You're enjoying it," Holl said. "You have a second — and then for your third beer, you switch to a non-alcoholic that has the same flavors as the IPA. But it's not going to add to intoxication, it's not going to make your morning difficult."
So, how do you make a good non-alcoholic beer?
For a beer to be labeled non-alcoholic, federal law requires it to have less than 0.5% alcohol by volume. NA brewers have many methods to reach that goal, from tweaking how they use yeast and grains to extracting alcohol through vacuum evaporation.
Asked what she sees as the most important innovation, Garves says it comes down to protecting beer's innate qualities, from complex esters to hop oils.
"I think what's most successful is that we're able to lower the pressure and the temperature of the beer in order to make alcohol sort of evaporate off," she said.
Water boils at lower temperatures in low-pressure settings — and brewers are using the same principle to remove ethanol, the form of alcohol in beer, without using as much heat.
Ethanol, the form of alcohol in beer, normally boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit. But under vacuum pressure, Garves said, "We can actually get it to evaporate off at about 20 degrees Celsius" — or 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
"What that's doing basically is preserving the beer, because if there's two things that are beer's enemy, it's heat and oxygen," she said.
Other methods include reducing fermentation, so alcohol is never formed. Garves says brewers can easily acquire modified yeasts that don't break down maltose, the main sugar in beer.
"If the yeast is unable to digest maltose, it's unable to create ethanol," she said, adding, "there are some really cool products out there."
Of course, brewers aren't limited to using just one approach. Athletic Brewing, one of the most popular young companies producing NA beer, relies on a combination of methods to create its flavorful brews, its cofounder Bill Shufelt has said.
A virtuous cycle: NA beer gets better, and more people are buying it
Non-alcoholic beer still represents a tiny portion of the overall beer market, says Watson of the Brewers Association.
"It's growing rapidly, but on a very small base," he said, adding that NA took a 0.51 share of the beer market in 2021 — a gain from a 0.31 share in 2018.
But that figure probably underestimates the real pace of growth, Watson, says, since non-alcoholic beer is a hard segment to track.
"If you never go above 0.5%, you don't need to get a lot of the licensing that you need to get if you make a full-strength beer and then pull out the alcohol," he said. That status means some NA sales wouldn't necessarily be included in traditional beer market estimates.
And compared to traditional brewers, NA breweries can have much more freedom to sell their products online, shipping directly to customers — an edge that has been a boon during the pandemic.
"Athletic Brewing, which is a market leader here, has been pretty upfront that their sales, at least initially, were running 50-50" between traditional retail and direct to consumer sales, Watson said.
In another sign of the segment's growth, there's now a trade association devoted to non-alcoholic beer, spirits and other drinks. The Adult Non-Alcoholic Beverage Association is less than a year old, but it already has more than 50 members, including 17 brewers that either feature non-alcoholic beer or focus on it exclusively.
Watson predicts the market will keep growing: "I think the industry is more excited about these these products than it has been in a long time."
Sober curious? Here's a list to get you started
For anyone wanting to taste the current crop of NA beers, John Holl recommends seeking out these brews:
Other brands include:
Along with NA-only operations, an increasing number of well-established craft brewers, such as Deschutes and Brooklyn Brewery, also offer NA beers.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.