For some, Dry January has been a welcome reprieve. For others, the thought of going another two weeks without the sensory pleasures of a favorite brew may be enough to break them.
In years past, these folks would have been hard-pressed to find a satisfying nonalcoholic alternative; the options consisted largely of pale lagers. Boiling was the primary means of removing the alcohol, and the high heat did such damage to the flavor profile that most of them were completely unpalatable.
Technology has since advanced. New processes like special yeast strains, reverse osmosis, membrane filtration and vacuum distillation have created a new breed of NA beer that retains much more of their original character. And the styles have also expanded to include stouts, IPAs, wheat ales and several others.
But they are still dealcoholized beers, and alcohol is not a flavor-neutral component. While much better, the new processes still alter the profile. If you approach them expecting normal beer, you will be disappointed. But that's not to say they aren't good. They are. If you adjust your mind-set and approach them as an entirely different beverage, these new brews offer a delicious alternative to alcoholic beer.

IPAs

As in the alcoholic craft beer scene, IPA is the most popular of the nonalcoholic beer styles. There are dozens of excellent examples to choose from.
One of the best NA brewers overall is Wellbeing Brewing Co. of St. Louis.
Their full lineup offers a bevy of tasty quaffs, and their IPAs are no exception.
You can smell the citrus and resin hops as soon as you open a can of Wellbeing's Intentional IPA. The flavor follows the aroma with a burst of pine resin and tangerine citrus with hints of tropical fruit in the background. An assertive bitterness carries through from the start to the long-lingering finish. Low, grainy malt provides some softening sweetness and a fuller body than most nonalcoholic beers, making this a brew that should satisfy most beer drinkers.
Going Places IPA gives the impression of a hopped-up German pilsner with citrusy American hops. Both the flavor and aroma are bright and lemony. Faint notes of pineapple and spice just peek through, and the light body enhances the overall moderate bitterness.
Kora Double Hop IPA from Atmos Brewing Co. in Idaho has a super-citrus aroma that is all lemon and lime, which carries over to dominate the flavor, supported by moderate malt sweetness. Light-bodied and highly carbonated, this comes off a bit like the flavored drinks from San Pellegrino — soda, but not so sweet and with a bit of tart and bitter. In that, it's really tasty.
If you are a fan of the juicy New England-style IPAs, look no further than Juicy IPA from Untitled Art out of Waunakee, Wis. This one is pretty darn beer-like. The body is appropriately light for the style. What malt there is has a slightly wheaty character. The star of the show is hops. Juicy IPA explodes with the flavors and aromas of grapefruit, grapefruit peel, pineapple and passion fruit. This will be a surefire pleaser for folks who love the hazy IPAs but want a break from the booze.
Juicy Mavs Hazy IPA from Surreal Brewing Co. is another good option. Hops dominate in both the flavor and aroma of this California brew with strong tangerine supported by underlying tropical fruits. The low bitterness of the style can sometimes make them seem thin. Juicy Mavs has a sturdy enough bitterness to give it some structure without overwhelming the flavor. While you can't taste any malt, it is apparent in the medium-full body. It's quite delicious.

On the lighter side

Moving to lighter, less hoppy beers, the brewers at Wellbeing come through again with a duo of delicious wheat beers. Heavenly Body Golden Wheat is a light and lemony refresher. Hops are the star, but with less intensity than an IPA. Hoppy notes of lemon peel, zest and juice rest comfortably on a soft bed of bready, wheaty malt with low sweetness. It finishes dry and clean.
Victory Wheat is fuller-bodied than Heavenly Body. The hop flavor and bitterness remain low, allowing the wheat malt to really come through. Medium sweetness is well complemented by notes of bitter orange. I was more than happy to drink an entire 16-ounce can.
Bauhaus Brew Labs was one of the first local breweries to make a nonalcoholic beer. The Minneapolis brewery's Nah Helles stays fairly true to the Munich Helles style. Bready malt and light sweetness lead into moderate bitterness and a dry, crisp finish. The lemon peel, melon and spice of European hops complete the picture. Bauhaus has expanded the Nah line to include Amber Ale and Pink Guava Sour.

On the dark side

Fans of darker beers need not despair. There are a bevy of black brews to satisfy your craving for roast.
Grüvi Stout from Grüvi in Denver is modeled on a dry, Irish-style stout. While sweeter than a typical dry stout, it does retain the strong dark-roast coffee and slightly burnt roasted barley flavors. Moderate roasted malt bitterness helps to counter the sweetness. Interesting nutty notes add some complexity.
The Bravus Oatmeal Stout from California's Bravus Brewing Co. is unexpectedly rich for an NA beer. While the malty sweetness could use a touch more roast bitterness to balance it, the dark chocolate and coffee notes combine with a bready/oat background to create a beer that is reasonably close to an alcoholic oatmeal stout.
17 Mile Porter from Surreal Brewing is a velvety blanket of roast, toast and caramel. The bitter roasted malt character is strong enough to elevate it above a brown ale, but not enough to put it into stout range. The medium-roast coffee flavor is softened by underlying toasted bread and caramel sweetness. This is definitely one of the better nonalcoholic black beers.
Pastry stouts sweetened with lactose and vanilla are popular now. If you're a fan, Surreal's Pastry Porter is the beer for you. Made with vanilla and cocoa, it's like a smooth and creamy milkshake. But it manages to stay a bit less sweet than some of the alcoholic pastry beers. Vanilla is the dominant note, with milk chocolate coming in a close second. A soft touch of roasted malt provides some countering bitterness. A light impression of nuts and caramel complete the picture.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at michael@aperfectpint.net.
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