As beer lovers know, it’s tough to go a long duration without enjoying a local favorite craft beer – be it for Dry January or if you’re a weekend-only consumer or simply doing a temporary cleanse. To fill this void, many breweries are concocting craft non-alcoholic beers. This isn’t the O’Douls of your parents’ time. Craft breweries have found ways to make delicious “near-beers” in a variety of styles – IPAs, stouts, ales, sours – many of which are becoming readily findable at your local craft beer bottle shop.
A short history of how the “small beer” trend started
Non-alcoholic beer dates back to the Middle Ages, when 1% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) beer was popular for its perceived nutritional value. Low ABV beer – cooked and fermented – was also safer to drink than water due to poor sanitation requirements. It was sometimes referred to as “small beer,” and it was usually consumed by the poor, servant class or even children. At the time – and despite it maintaining sweet flavors – people saw it as an inferior brew to higher octane beers.
That inferiority dissipated with time as NA beer grew in popularity in the United States during Prohibition when drinks with alcohol levels higher than 0.5% were banned.
Fact: Because of natural fermentation, some fruit juices have a higher alcohol content than NA beers!
How is NA beer made?
Brewers are able to be more creative with non-alcoholic craft beer flavors and styles than those of the Prohibition era, but the increasing trend of NA beers begs the question: how exactly is non-alcoholic beer made?
There are many methods to remove alcohol from beer, but it all starts with brewing as normal. The same ingredients, boiling, and fermenting processes are applied. Once beer is made, brewers begin their farewell process to remove the ethanol produced from fermentation.
Method #1: The simplest method, especially for homebrewers, is boiling out the alcohol. Thanks to 7th grade chemistry, we all know alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. By cooking the beer at a low heat (around 175 degrees Fahrenheit) for a short time, the alcohol dissipates, leaving behind a craft brewed beverage with very little buzz.
Method #2: It’s also possible to filter the alcohol out using a special membrane system or to vacuum distill the brew. Athletic Brewing (Stratford, CT), perhaps the most recognizable non-alcoholic brewery in recent years, claims to have a proprietary method to remove alcohol. Their lineup has several brew styles, a few of which we stock in our reach-in beer cooler such as their Upside Dawn golden ale and All Out extra dark stout.
Once the alcohol is gone, brewers aren’t out of the woods. The boil-off process will also remove carbon dioxide from the beer. Though a non-alcoholic beer can be enjoyed, no one wants a flat beer – alcoholic or not. To fix this, brewers must re-carbonate the beer once the alcohol is gone. This is done by force carbonating the can or injecting CO2 directly into the keg. While brewers could also add more yeast to create natural carbonation, they risk increasing the ABV, though minimally.
Fact: Less alcohol often equates to fewer calories, too!
In general, NA beers tend to have a lighter body than normal beer, but a well-brewed “near-beer” will still feature great aroma and flavor, and still have more body than the watered-down options of Prohibition days.
Untitled Art (Waunakee, WI) is an excellent example – their non-alcoholic Juicy IPA is a refreshing hazy and hoppy option for Dry January. You can also get your hands on tall boys of Parallel, a passion fruit and raspberry fruited sour by Southern Grist Brewing (Nashville, TN), from our cooler. VinePair also covered 20 of the best non-alocholic beers available, though they all might not be readily available near you. These options are proof that non-alcoholic beers are loaded with unique flavors, noticeable aromas and crisp carbonation.
Will NA beer make me tipsy?
There’s only one question left – can NA beer still get you drunk? Athletic Brewing says, essentially, no. To equate the same alcoholic impact of a single regular beer, you would need to drink eight NA beers in the span of 5 minutes. Safe to say it’s not worth trying.
If you’ve never tackled Dry January or a hiatus of American craft beer for fear of watered down or flavorless non-alcoholic beer – fear not! You’ll find several flavors and styles of NA beer in our reach-in cooler right now, including a special mixed 6-pack filled with some of our favorites.