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Here’s why non-alcoholic beers finally taste good, and not just for Dry January

By Bill Chappell (NPR) for OPB | Jan 18, 2023

Brewers are now making non-alcoholic beers that are packed with flavor, thanks to new technology and techniques that are reinventing a category that once felt like purgatory.

Innovations have helped brewers make non-alcoholic beers that look and taste like their full-strength counterparts. Pictured here: Clausthaler's lager, and Athletic's Free Wave IPA. Bill Chappell / NPR

For years, non-alcoholic beer required a sacrifice: to lose the buzz, you also had to lose the flavor. But that has changed in recent years, thanks to new technology that lets brewers make beer that tastes great, without the alcohol.

"The non-alcoholic beers of the past tasted like punishment," as beer expert John Holl put it.

That's changed in recent years. For beer fans who want the deep flavors of IPAs and porters without the baggage of alcohol, the new brews are hitting the spot.

The shift is due to a culmination of factors, including innovations in vacuum evaporation, filtration and other techniques that let brewers extract alcohol from beer while leaving its flavor largely intact.

"They've really been able to make it taste like regular beer, and I'm constantly impressed," said Dana Garves, who would know: she's a beer chemist who owns the Oregon BrewLab, which analyzes beer and other fermented drinks.

Going non-alcoholic isn't just for non-drinkers

The advances in non-alcoholic beer are helping brewers align themselves with health trends and people who are "sober curious," said Holl, who hosts the Drink Beer, Think Beer podcast and is beer editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine.

While Dry January might be when many people talk about non-alcoholic beer, more people drink it in the summer, says Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, the craft beer trade group.

"Dry January appears to be a period where new [customers] get introduced to NA products," Watson said, adding that non-alcoholic beer's share of sales within the broader category spikes in January.

"That said, January doesn't drive most of the sales volume," he added. "The highest-selling week for NA beer throughout the year is the same as for total beer – the week surrounding the 4th of July."

And while NA beers of the past courted non-drinkers, Watson says that has changed.

"A lot of the consumption is coming from people who drink [alcohol]," he said. "This isn't people who don't drink who are trying to fully replace beer, but people who do drink and are just looking for occasions where they can substitute something that tastes like beer, but doesn't have the alcohol."

NA beer gets two unlikely boosts: social media and the pandemic

By many measures, brewers are producing better non-alcoholic beer at just the right time. The early days of the pandemic might have opened the floodgates of day-drinking, but since then, it has also prompted more focus on mental health, including alcohol consumption.

That trend is even more prominent during Dry January, as people abstaining from alcohol post updates and their NA drink tips to social media. Alcohol is absent from those posts, and so is the stigma.

"We've become more accepting of other people's beverage choices," Garves said, describing how the conversation about the physical and mental health aspects of drinking has evolved.

A woman drinks an alcohol-free beer during the annual "Fete de la Musique" (music day), in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris in 2018. Christophe Petit Tesson / AFP via Getty Images

"In general, I find the younger generations are pushing for more healthy-living style beverages," Garves said, "stuff with lower calories, lower carbs, no alcohol, and that's actually starting to permeate into the older generations, as well."

"I actually partake in Sobertober, which is sober October," she added. "It's interesting that there's sort of these little moments where we recognize maybe it's good for your body to take a break from alcohol."

"Beer is shedding a lot of its male bravado, which is great," Holl said.

Turning to an NA beer has real appeal for someone contemplating their third beer of a night, he said.

"You start off by drinking a full-strength IPA. You're enjoying it," Holl said. "You have a second — and then for your third beer, you switch to a non-alcoholic that has the same flavors as the IPA. But it's not going to add to intoxication, it's not going to make your morning difficult."

So, how do you make a good non-alcoholic beer?

For a beer to be labeled non-alcoholic, federal law requires it to have less than 0.5% alcohol by volume. NA brewers have many methods to reach that goal, from tweaking how they use yeast and grains to extracting alcohol through vacuum evaporation.

Asked what she sees as the most important innovation, Garves says it comes down to protecting beer's innate qualities, from complex esters to hop oils.

"I think what's most successful is that we're able to lower the pressure and the temperature of the beer in order to make alcohol sort of evaporate off," she said.

Water boils at lower temperatures in low-pressure settings — and brewers are using the same principle to remove ethanol, the form of alcohol in beer, without using as much heat.

Ethanol normally boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit. But under vacuum pressure, Garves said, "We can actually get it to evaporate off at about 20 degrees Celsius" — or 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

"What that's doing basically is preserving the beer, because if there's two things that are beer's enemy, it's heat and oxygen," she said.

Other methods include reducing fermentation, so alcohol is never formed. Garves says brewers can easily acquire modified yeasts that don't break down maltose, the main sugar in beer.

"If the yeast is unable to digest maltose, it's unable to create ethanol," she said, adding, "there are some really cool products out there."

Of course, brewers aren't limited to using just one approach. Athletic Brewing, one of the most popular young companies producing NA beer, relies on a combination of methods to create its flavorful brews, its cofounder Bill Shufelt has said.


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