The Science of Making Non-Alcoholic Beer

Maybe you’ve seen it at the bottom of a restaurant’s beverage menu or a brewery’s extensive beer list: the “NA” or “nonalcoholic” option. There, it might feel like an afterthought. But the nonalcoholic movement, especially when it comes to beer, is gaining traction in the adult-beverage market.

Nonalcoholic beer dates back to Prohibition, but it’s having a resurgence, fueled by changing consumer habits and brewers’ successful tinkering with the complex processes required to make it. Between this past July and September, NA beer sales were up approximately 38{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} in the U.S. compared with the same period in 2019, according to data analytics group IRI. Craft operations dedicated to NA suds have sprung up across the country, not to mention beer giants like Heineken and Anheuser-​Busch—the maker of Busch NA and O’Doul’s, two long-running NA beers that clock in below 0.5{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} alcohol by volume (ABV)—which are also investing millions to launch alcohol-free products.

“We’re looking to go forward with Budweiser Zero, a truly 0.0{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} beer,” says Adam Warrington, vice president of corporate social responsibility for Anheuser-Busch. “With the category growing and the equity we have in a brand like Budweiser, getting people the taste of a Budweiser with zero alcohol and zero sugar is a key point of differentiation for us.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a nonalcoholic beer can contain 0.5{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} ABV or less. To make one, manufacturers typically brew a beer as they normally would, then remove the alcohol using tricky, often expensive techniques. Now, breweries are finding ways to create a beverage without yielding any alcohol to remove in the first place, therefore producing a true 0.0{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} ABV beer.

You love cracking open a cold one. So do we. Let’s nerd out over all things booze together.

Brewing NA beer is all in an effort to support sober but still-social drinkers, whether it’s a lifestyle choice or for a specific occasion. Maybe they need to drive, are training for a marathon, or are at a work lunch. “We’re coming into a time of moderation,” says Philip Brandes, founder of NA craft brewery Bravus Brewing Co., based in southern California. “Think of the White Claw movement, right? Low alcohol and low sugar. That completely exploded.” Brewers like Brandes are focused on giving people quality nonalcoholic options, including darker and hoppy beers.

“There was just a shocking lack of quality products out there that were thoughtful,” says Paul Pirner, who cofounded Minneapolis-based Hairless Dog Brewing Co. about four years ago with Jeff Hollander. They both had previously given up alcohol. “By thoughtful, I mean products that were conceptualized and thought of with someone like us in mind, as opposed to just being a pity product on the end of somebody’s line,” Pirner adds. The exclusively nonalcoholic beer list at Hairless offers an ale, lager, IPA, and coffee stout.

Give These Non-Alcoholic Beers a Try

Creating a quality NA beer is not easy. There are three common production methods: vacuum distillation, reverse osmosis, and arrested fermentation.

During vacuum distillation, beer is heated so the alcohol evaporates out. The vacuum chamber lowers the boiling point from around 173°F to as low as 93°F, which helps preserve aromatics and flavor. Reverse osmosis operates like a kidney dialysis machine: Fermented beer is pushed through a membrane filter with microscopic pores where alcohol molecules and water are separated out. Water is then added back in. With arrested fermentation, brewers can remove yeasts or stop them from becoming active, in order to prevent the yeasts from creating high levels of alcohol. This is usually done by cooling down the beer.

But these methods have drawbacks. A high-end vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis filtration machine can cost as much as $3 million, a prohibitive amount for many startups. Perhaps even more challenging is extracting the alcohol without altering the taste. Even with a vacuum, the heat involved in distillation can strip flavor, whereas arrested fermentation doesn’t allow for that flavor to fully develop, which can result in a worty taste.

That’s why new proprietary methods are so attractive. Hairless Dog relies on an alcohol-free production system, about which Pirner wouldn’t share specifics. “We use a really standard brewing process with a couple of major differences just in terms of how things are set up and how we treat the ingredients,” he says. “By the time it gets through the brew kettle and everything else, it’s a finished product.” Heavily guarded processes like this are often an appealing option for craft NA operations that are unable to invest in the expensive systems used in conventional methods, says Roger Barth, a chemistry professor at West Chester University and the author of The Chemistry of Beer: The Science in the Suds. Marketing also comes into play. By aligning these techniques with traditional production methods, Barth says breweries push back on the negative perception of NA beer flavor.

Whatever processes are used, it’s likely the beer industry will continue to experiment in an effort to produce a quality selection of NA beers, from IPAs to oatmeal stouts. That means NA newbies should try a slew of different styles and brands, then try them again. “There is a huge call for improvement [in NA beer production] because the craft beer palate is what it is today,” Pirner says. “There’s just going to be a ton of innovation over the next few years and a ton of improvement as we all fiddle with our processes. There’s just going to be so many more options, and there’s going to be so much more quality.” We’ll raise a glass to that.

The Lowdown on Low-Alcohol Beer

Nonalcoholic brews are having a moment, but nowadays beer lists are also starting to include options that range from 2{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} to 4{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} ABV. Previously, social drinkers looking to mitigate their alcohol, sugar, or carbohydrate intake might turn to a low-alcohol option, such as a session, which usually hits 5{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} ABV or lower. But “the trend now is to go even lower,” Philip Brandes at Bravus Brewing Co. says.

Beer in the 2{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} to 3{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} ABV range can be made more or less normally, but using less fermentable sugar like malt, says chemistry professor Roger Barth. “The body can be bumped up with maltodextrin or some other carb that is unfermentable by brewer’s yeast,” he adds. “One can also fiddle with mashing conditions, usually by mashing at high temperature, which suppresses production of small, fermentable sugars.”

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