You’ll Actually Want to Drink These Non-Alcoholic Beers
There is a new generation of beers that not only don’t have alcohol but are enjoyable to drink.
Over the last 40 years, I’ve tried almost every non-alcoholic beer that’s come on the market, and believe me, it was only out of a sense of duty.
It’s not a lot of fun drinking a beer knowing that the most likely result is going to be either “this is terrible” or “hey, that’s not awful.”
This is a fairly unique problem to the United States. In many places around the world, especially in big beer countries, like Germany and the United Kingdom, there are a range of impressive alcohol-free brands. In Spain, for instance, NA beers are around 12 percent of the total beer market.
So, it was an absolute eye-opener when I opened a cold can of Heineken 0.0, the Dutch brewer’s new non-alcoholic brew, which is now available in the U.S. It tasted a lot like regular Heineken. It was a bit thinner, but tasted much more like beer than any other NA I’ve ever had. How did the brand do it?
Making 0.0 started with 15 years of “understanding Heineken,” Willem van Waesberghe, Heineken’s Global Master Brewer, told me. (I was the brewery’s guest on a recent trip to Amsterdam.) He first had to explore every aroma, every flavor in the lager, and where they came from to successfully remove the alcohol. “You have to understand the beer fully before changing equipment, process, and so on.”
To illustrate his point, Waesberghe had me drink a whole glass of draft 0.0, then smell it, taste it and truly think about it. Then he served me a glass of regular draft Heineken. It was a bizarre experience: the only thing I smelled was grain alcohol! The taste was not as focused as the aroma, but it still tasted more of the sweet flavor of alcohol than Heineken (at 5 percent ABV) had any right to.
“The alcohol is the only difference,” Waesberghe explained. “Your brain is designed to notice differences, changes in patterns, so your ancestors could see the lion hiding in the grass. When the only difference between the two glasses is the alcohol, it pops out.”
I was dumbfounded. But Waesberghe declined to say much about the production process except that it is brewed, and it is fermented, and that some things are removed (mostly alcohol) while some natural flavorings are added. He didn’t confirm but did hint that the added flavorings are there to replace and boost aromas affected by the alcohol’s removal.
Waesberghe isn’t alone, you’ll find that brewers now keep their techniques for removing alcohol pretty secret. (For the record, American labeling rules say that any beer under 0.5 percent ABV can be labeled as “non-alcoholic.”)
It wasn’t always this way. I recall doing a story on NA beers quite a few years ago, and getting an overwhelmingly detailed description of the evaporation process used by Old Milwaukee to make its non-alcohol beer. Anheuser-Busch was similarly happy to explain to me how its reverse-osmosis process worked to make O’Doul’s. (Essentially the beer is run through a membrane filter that blocks the alcohol.) Vacuum distillation is another common method, which creates a suction effect over the surface of the beer, lowering the boiling point of the alcohol and allowing distillation without heat. Brewers used vacuum distillation to make near-beer (as NA was called at the time) during Prohibition.
You can tell what people thought of “near beer” by the way the term has disappeared from the market. Prohibition-era humorist Philander Johnson got a lot of mileage out of noting that “whoever named it ‘near beer’ was a damned poor judge of distance.”
“It’s hard to find out anything about making non-alcohol beer,” Bill Shufelt told me. He’s the founder of Athletic Brewing, in Stamford, Connecticut, a brewery that makes only NA beers. “Some methods have been out there for a long time: reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation. If it were possible to make good beer using those methods, more people would be using them.”
Shufelt, who didn’t tell me exactly how he makes his beer, tries not to remove any flavor. “We wanted to make true craft beer,” he says. “We don’t burn off the alcohol, don’t adulterate or harm the ingredient flavors, no chemicals or preservatives. It’s not any one step, it’s a mosaic of 12 or 15 changes that add up to a product that ferments to a lower level. That starts in the mash tun, with ingredient selection, time, temperature, pH, through fermentation where we have changes compared to traditional process.”
He sent me some samples of Athletic’s beer, and like the Heineken 0.0, they were a lot better than any NA beer I remember ever tasting. They had the additional lure of being in typical “craft” styles: blonde ale, copper ale, and stout. They had that same “differences” as 0.0, a bit watery, a bit thin, but if I hadn’t known it was non-alcoholic, I’d have written these differences off to the beer simply being a bit unusual. They were enjoyable.
Like Shufelt, Jeff Stevens, the founder of Wellbeing Beer, another NA-only brewer, no longer drinks. “I’ve been sober for 28 years,” he says, “and for most of my career I worked in the beer marketing industry where the only NA beverage options available were O’Doul’s, coffee, water, or soda. I knew from vast personal experience that non-drinkers always feel left out of social situations.”
Which begs the question, will these NA beers catch on in the U.S.? “The 0.0 is way ahead of its time in the U.S.,” said Bump Williams, the guru of beer retail sales information at Bump Williams Consulting. “The NA market is doing well in Europe, in Africa and parts of Asia. But it’s probably a decade away from getting any significant traction in America. There’s been a lot of money, and advertising, and merchandising behind the [Heineken 0.0] brand, and wholesalers have done a great job of filling the pipeline, and customers are trying it. But are they buying it again? I don’t know.”
Williams lives in Connecticut, not far from Athletic Brewing’s Stamford facility. “They’re in my backyard,” he says. And as you might expect from a guy who makes his living crunching beer sales numbers, he keeps his eyes open when he goes grocery shopping. So, what does he see?
“These guys [Athletic] are selling $20 six-packs,” he said, “and believe me, at all the placements in Connecticut, the retailers say they can’t keep it on the shelf. It offers any consumer, any age group, an alternative, after work, after a ballgame; it’s got regenerative abilities. The replenishment of essential vitamins.”
He was so positive, I had to double check that he still thought the success of NA was still ten years out. “I think we’re on the precipice,” he said, sticking to his guns, “but we’re not there yet.”
So, next time you want a beer with lunch, but have to keep working afterwards, try one of these new NA beers. You just might not realize you’re missing anything.