For those who either can’t or don’t drink alcohol, the options for nonalcoholic beer have been limited to mostly light-bodied, pale lagers. The methods used to remove the alcohol were so destructive to beer flavor that the options ranged from nearly palatable to terrible.
But a new breed of alcohol-free brewers have recognized a growing demand and are stepping up to meet it. They are crafting more flavorful, beer-like brews than was previously possible with newly developed filtration processes. These allow flavor compounds typically lost during de-alcoholization to be added back into the beer. They have also expanded the range of styles to include wheat beer, stout, IPA and amber lager, among others.
It’s important to note, however, that although these are more beer-like than their predecessors, they are still de-alcoholized beers. If you approach them expecting normal beer, you will find them lacking. In flavor and texture, these are more like beer-flavored fizzy water. There are no life-changing IPAs here.
But if you adjust your mind-set and approach them as what they are, these new brews offer a delicious alternative to alcoholic beer. Refreshingly effervescent and carrying a satisfying amount of hop and malt character, they would be great for a hot day on the lake or patio. I happily drank every drop of each that I sampled.
The largest player in the market is Heineken. Its Heineken 0.0 was released in the United States in 2018. This no-alcohol beer is perhaps the ultimate lawn mower beer. It smells much like Heineken — lightly sweet impression with low-level grainy malt and spicy hops. The flavor is similar to regular Heineken, as well, but lacking in some of the body and sweetness of the original. It’s a satisfying quaff when you’re looking for something ultralight, yet still flavorful.
Bauhaus Brew Labs is one of two locally based breweries making nonalcoholic beer. Their occasionally available Das Homeguys NA is a de-alcoholized version of their Homeguys Helles Lager. Homeguys NA was conceived when head brewer Matt Schwandt learned that for medical reasons he could no longer drink alcohol. The beer 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 and spice of European hops complete the picture.
Minneapolis-based Hairless Dog Brewing launched its zero-alcohol IPA on July 4. Home-brewers Paul Pirner and Jeff Hollander began formulating their beers four years ago when they realized they sometimes wanted to take a break from the buzz, but didn’t want to give up flavor. Their beers are unique in that they are not de-alcoholized. They are alcohol-free from the start.
Whatever process they use to accomplish this — they wouldn’t reveal the secret — leaves the Hairless Dog beers with the distinctive grainy flavor of unfermented beer, minus the sugary sweetness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That flavor blends nicely with the prominent citrus and juicy fruit hops of their flagship IPA. It also gives this beer a fuller flavor that makes it seem less like beer soda than some of the others. While the hop flavor and aroma are definitely there, a bit sturdier bitterness could step this beer up a notch.
Hairless Dog’s Coffee Stout is set for release in the next week. This beer has the same unfermented graininess of the IPA, this time with some toast and roast. Coffee is the predominant flavor — medium-roast beans with a lingering coffee bitterness. Low hints of chocolate peek out in the background. The mouthfeel is smooth and silky until it is cut by the bitterness in the finish.
The best of the new nonalcohol beers I tasted comes from Athletic Brewing Co. of Stratford, Conn. Founder Bill Shufelt created the brewery after an examination of his lifestyle led him to pursue a more healthful and productive path without giving up the social life that he enjoyed. Together with brewer John Walker they developed a four-beer lineup that includes a blond ale, a Mexican-style copper ale, an IPA and a winter seasonal stout.
Hops provide nearly all the impact of Athletic’s Run Wild IPA. Hop bitterness is high and long-lingering. Hop flavors burst out with grapefruit, mango and pineapple, all good things for an IPA. A lack of malt flavor, sweetness and body leaves this feeling like super hop-infused soda water. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s still crazy refreshing and quite enjoyable to drink.
Upside Dawn Golden Ale is the most “beer-like” of the Athletic brews. It sports a low, grainy malt base with moderate bitterness to balance the hint of sweetness. The real star is the spicy and citrus-peel hop flavor. It shines, but doesn’t overpower the rest of the beer.
Cerveza Atletica is modeled on the amber beers of Mexico. It features toasted-bread maltiness with a bit of caramel to add some welcome sweetness. Low and lingering bitterness offers a subtle counterpoint that is enhanced by a touch of spicy hop flavor. If you like Vienna lager, this should be your nonalcohol beer of choice.
Chandelier Red IPA from Surreal Brewing Co. out of Campbell, Calif., has the caramel and toasted grain characteristic of the style. In fact, that’s about all it has. I kept searching for the citrus hops that the brewery’s website describes, but didn’t find them. That said, I love malty beers and this one delivered a delicious malty richness that I greatly enjoyed. Just don’t expect an IPA.
Heavenly Body Golden Wheat is one of two wheat beers from Wellbeing Brewing of Missouri. This light and lively ale is built on a body of bready wheat, with hints of kilned grain to add some malty complexity. An ample dosing of hops brings a bright, lemony lift along with floral notes and some grapefruit-pith bitterness. It finishes dry with lingering lemon and bread.
If you are a fan of Bell’s Oberon, you will love Wellbeing's Victory Wheat. This hazy, dark-gold brew bursts with fresh orange aromas the instant it hits the glass. The flavor follows suit with orange — juicy pulp and aromatic peel — carrying through from start to finish. The orange is strong, but never overwhelms the gentle sweetness and bready wheat malt flavor that forms the base. This was one of my favorites of all the new nonalcohol beers.
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 email@example.com.