Sarris: Why are non-alcoholic beers so hot right now, yet so hard to get right?

The hottest new trend in beer is decidedly not beer. And no, this isn’t about hard seltzers or fruited milkshake sours. No, the hottest new trend in beer is beer without alcohol in it.

The overall beer industry grew one percent last year. Non-alcoholic beer? Nine percent.

There are some generational reasons for this, perhaps. It turns out, the youngest age bracket tracked (16 to 25 year olds) is also the least likely to drink alcohol, found the United Kingdom’s largest study of drinking habits in 2019. In the United States, Gallup found that those aged 35-54 are the most likely to drink (70 percent) and that younger age brackets were drinking less. Another study found that the percentage of college-age Americans who don’t drink went up from 20 percent to 28 percent over the course of a decade. As the proportion of non-drinking consumers goes up, brewers are tasked with finding products that might appeal to that sector.

But while the demand is there, and options are increasing in stadiums across sports, the reality is that the product hasn’t quite caught up.

“I have yet to meet someone doing NA work that said, ‘yep, nailed it,’” laughed Bobby Bendily, the head brewer at the Philadelphia outpost of Other Half brewing.

“All of them underwhelm me,” said Alex Tweet, head brewer at Fieldwork Brewing in Northern California.

“Making an NA beer usually feels like trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” Tweet added later. “It’s never going to be a beer, let alone a beer as good as its style predicates.”

It’s a tough thing to do, for a few reasons.

The main problem from a brewer’s perspective is that, without alcohol to kill any potential contaminants, the beer needs to be pasteurized.

“Unfermented maltose with no present alcohol can create a breeding ground for bacteria and contaminants,” says Tweet. “This isn’t something to take lightly as you are now in the world of food-borne illness.”

Most often, that means boiling the beer at some point. It’s also possible to get a NA beer by diluting a low-ABV beer, but that still leaves the problem of trying to can something that could turn bad at some point. Other Half tests any non-alcoholic beverages they ship along their distribution pathways as if it was still fermenting to try and avoid contaminants, but not every brewery has that ability. Filtering the alcohol out, described by Tweet as the ‘golden goose’ of figuring out the style, requires expensive machinery, and even that machinery still — at least currently — involves heating the beer.

“You can’t really be sure without pasteurization, which is a function of time and temperature,” said Bendily. “That’s how you get the stewed and cooked flavors.”

This also leads to issues in the brewery, because they must keep the NA systems separate from beers with alcohol.

“Because you are producing sugar water, your everyday yeast you use is a potential contaminant,” pointed out Bendily. “That means adding cleaning cycles, more acids to clean with, and even changing out gaskets, any parts that are not steel between NA and regular runs.”

That’s a lot of extra work, but at least the sector seems to be growing.

The main problem, generally, is that brewers are attempting to mimic something that people love in its current form.

“You’re trying to get something that tastes like something that it’s not,” said Bendily. “It’s mimicry, it’s Beyond Beef for booze. The hallmark should be, is it a decent beer? Not a decent NA beer.”

But the incentives are there for brewers to keep trying, and improving. There’s the obvious appeal to the designated driver. For those who made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, swapping some regular beers for NA beers is a great way to reduce calories, since alcohol content is the main driver of caloric values in drinks like these. And those who are trying to quit substances completely might find NA beers a bridge from past behaviors to newer, healthier ones — though for some in that situation, that doesn’t come without pitfalls.

“I actually think that for most people in recovery, it’s a bad idea to drink them,” said Justin Mason, a fantasy baseball writer and podcaster as well as a sobriety consultant with 15 years of experience. “They have a small amount of alcohol content and can be triggering for people that aren’t as stable in their recovery.”

Hidden within social norms and the realities of group interactions, though, there’s a real benefit to non-alcoholic beers that lies beyond these use cases. The fact is that, in a group that’s drinking, the non-drinker can feel ill at ease, and can make others in the group feel self-conscious about their own drinking.

“I think that drinkers often are uncomfortable about me not drinking for multiple reasons,” said Mason. “First, they feel like they could be making me uncomfortable, which I understand for a newer person in recovery, but I’ve been sober since 2005, so it’s not an issue for me. Second, I think often they feel judged, like I think everyone has a problem. The amount of people that have felt the need to rationalize their drinking to me over the years is astounding. I don’t care if anyone else drinks, even if they have a problem. That’s their choice. My goal is to keep myself sober and to help anyone who wants to be sober.”

So, for the designated driver, or someone who chooses to be sober for other reasons, the non-alcoholic beer can be a social lubricant that avoids this sort of emotional reaction from the crowd, as well as a refreshing beverage.

The largest breweries are certainly trying to offer options at major sporting events; Bud Zero, which will be available at about three-quarters of baseball’s ballparks this year, tastes a lot like Budweiser, and even has some of that distinctive dryness that’s hard to nail without alcohol. Heineken 0.0, available at least at Coors Field and Comerica Park, has a lightness on the palate that’s missing from some craft NA beers. And the highest-recommended NA beer, Clausthaler, still has the sweetness that you taste in most no-alcohol beers, but they’ve found a way to impart some hop profile despite the pasteurization, and there’s even some special release Clausthaler NAs with extra hopping.

In 2020, Heineken tried to raise awareness of its 0.0 NA brand by making it the primary sponsor of the UEFA Europa League. (Lukas Schulze / Getty Images for HEINEKEN)

The resources they can bring to bear on the project might be why the biggest breweries probably have the best NA beers right now. Since big breweries pasteurize their regular offerings to ensure that the massive amount of beer they bring into the national marketplace tastes the same no matter how it’s treated or how long it’s been on the shelf, their pasteurized NA beers taste pretty much like their flagship beers.

Among the best craft NA beers might be the Brooklyn Special Effects Hoppy Lager, Untitled Art’s Hazy IPA, and Industrial Arts’ Safety Glasses IPA. Each has, to varying degrees, a malty, ‘wort’ quality to the taste, but they feature decent body and don’t just taste like watered-down session beers. (Wort is the sweet infusion of ground malt or other grain before fermentation and before dry hopping.) If you’re looking for a craft NA in a ballpark, you’ll have to try Sam Adams Just the Haze in Boston and report back.

The very best NA beers right now may not be beers at all, though. Hops are what people like in craft beer, for the most part, so why not give people a hop water without all the fermentation and potential stewed wort taste? Lagunitas’ Hoppy Refresher and Sierra Nevada Hop Splash are the leading national ‘hop waters,’ which taste like hop-flavored seltzer waters, but have a slightly different mouthfeel than more acidic seltzers. Hoplark in Colorado makes good hop waters, as well as hop teas. They aren’t beer, but right now, NA beers aren’t quite beer yet either. The hop water bridges the gap.

“I like water, I like how hops smell, it’s like cucumber spa-water for chubby white guys,” Tweet said. “It’s a lovely treat that you probably don’t get every day, but you could because it doesn’t make you feel full or bloated, or give you sugar gut, it’s just refreshing and hydrating, and smells like one of the best aromas on earth.”

For now, there are plenty of reasons to reach for a non-alcoholic beer, but there are plenty of reasons not to, as well. That’s the hallmark of an emerging beverage, and, accordingly, some of the current NA beers taste like more bitter, more vegetable-y beers that came around in the first wave of the craft beer explosion. Just as craft beer evolved since, most people in beer think NA beer is trending in the right direction.

“The methods that people aren’t using that might be most effective could be cost prohibitive now,” said Bendily, “but the world is full of super smart ninjas, they are going to crack the code. Like Beyond Beef, which has come a far way, we are close, but we aren’t quite there yet.”

(Top photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

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