Beer without alcohol may not strike some drinkers as being actual beer. But as this growing category expands, brewers have refined production methods for beer flavors that mimic the real deal.
How is this possible? And why are so many breweries investing so much time and R&D in the non-alcoholic space?
Boston Beer and Dogfish Head, now merged at the hip, are both about to announce new releases in this category: Just the Haze NEIPA, and Lemon Quest fruited wheat beer, respectively.
“A recent Nielsen study showed that one-fifth of beer-drinking consumers in America have interest in drinking non-alcoholic drinks,” explains Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione. “It’s still a small category in America, but it’s more established over in Europe. That shows a clear runway for growth in America. And it’s also proven by how many new entrants there are right now in the non-alcoholic space.”
“Like hard seltzer,” he adds, “we’re on the zeitgeist precipice.”
One reason why: Non-alcoholic beers tap into the big trend of healthy lifestyles. Affecting nearly all U.S. consumer categories, people are more mindful now of their health and nutrition.
“There is a growing demand for alcohol alternatives,” says Meredith Kiss, Heineken senior brand manager. Heineken helped shape this category with the release of Heineken 0.0 in 2019. “Beer has been declining for the past six years, and over 30% of LDA+ adults in the U.S. are choosing to not drink alcohol.”
“With wellbeing and mindful drinking on the rise, Heineken 0.0 provides a great tasting brew that is in lockstep with the rising cultural trends around living a balanced lifestyle, which includes moderating alcohol consumption,” she adds. “The non-alcohol beer segment is growing globally, and this trend has arrived in the U.S.”
Dogfish Head took into account an active lifestyle while designing Lemon Quest (which is under 0.5% ABV). Refreshment was a priority as the brewery vetted ingredients with Gatorade scientists for this fruited wheat beer.
“What we used was very intentional: acai berry, sea salt, blueberry, plus a polyphenol-rich hop,” Calagione explains. “It gives off a green tea and hop character, while also having active-lifestyle attributes.”
Tying into the latter, Lemon Quest comes in a slim can, with sporty retro graphics.
“We chose a slim can for this beer because that connotes wellness,” Calagione says. “We want this to be a fun, outdoorsy, youthful drinking experience for the active-lifestyle experience.”
This all speaks to the two-pronged goal of non-alcoholic beer: filling a necessary role in modern consumers’ lives — and tasting like beer.
Tasting Like Beer
Looking across the non-alc landscape, Calagione is particularly impressed with Heineken 0.0 and Athletic Brewing.
“Athletic does low-gravity fermentation to make low-alcoholic beer,” he explains. “Heineken does it a different way, centered around taking the alcohol out of fully fermented beer.”
Indeed, Heineken will “remove the alcohol with vacuum distillation and blend the brew to perfection with natural flavorings,” says Kiss. “Heineken 0.0 has the same characteristic fruity notes as Heineken Original, but with a soft malty body.”
Dogfish Head combines the Heineken and Athletic methods. The brewery makes a full-ABV beer and dealcoholizes it — and also produces a low-gravity fermentation beer. Blended together, these two become Lemon Quest.
“It’s a blissfully inefficient process, but it leads to non-alcoholic beer that tastes like beer,” Calagione says.
Achieving this flavor is key for the category.
“I think anyone can have a La Croix, Perrier or Coca Cola, and know what they’re getting,” says Calagione. “With beer, people want the flavors, complexity and depth of experience that comes from fermentation. There’s an authenticity and level of ingredient purity.”
Which led Sam Adams on a long hunt for the proper ingredients and techniques in creating Just the Haze NEIPA.
“We consulted with the best equipment makers, hop experts and brewing scientists globally, including those from Germany’s Weihenstephan, to understand best practices and technology advancements,” says Sam Adams Founder and Chairman James Koch. “After two years of research and brewing with this team, Sam Adams brewers created a union of recipe, ingredients and proprietary brewing methods to maintain the flavor and aroma of a juicy hazy IPA while producing very little alcohol, just 0.5 ABV.”
Sampled during a virtual panel for the 2020 Great American Beer Festival, Just the Haze impressed journalists for tasting like a true New England IPA. Nevertheless, Koch still believes better replication is possible.
“To better achieve the IPA character, we’re tinkering and looking to add a couple more IBU’s of clean hop bitterness,” he says. “We’re continuing to optimize Just the Haze and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”
This level of innovation in non-alcoholic beer is entirely modern.
“There were no new brands [in the category] introduced between 1992 and 2017,” says Bill Shufelt, founder of Athletic Brewing. The Connecticut-based, non-alcoholic brewery recently opened a secondary site on the west coast, buying a San Diego brewery.
“There have just never been good options for people in this category,” Shufelt says. Nor have there been this many consumers interested in these brews. “No-ABV is no longer just for the ‘sober’ and ‘penalty box’,” Shufelt adds. “50% of U.S. adults have 0.1 drinks or less per week, and people are seeking flavor and quality above mind-altering effects.”
“Our beers are half the calories of even the lightest beers on the market (50-70 calories), and certified organic, so you don’t need to have a ‘cheat’ meal to enjoy one or even three,” he continues. “The craft beer and wine worlds are incredible at providing tasty beverages for short windows in Friday and Saturday nights, but you could argue they’re missing out on the other 90% of occasions during the week.”
All of which points to huge growth potential ahead for non-alcoholic beers.
“Current trends suggest a growing category,” says Koch. “Much like Sam Adams led the craft beer renaissance more than 35 years ago, we’re launching Just the Haze to shake up the space and accelerate category growth in the near term.”
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Wholesaler. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 5 Trends in Beer and Hard Seltzer in 2020-21.