Non-alcoholic beers get a bad rep, mainly because of their fatal flaw (the coup de grâce for any serious beer drinker): there's no alcohol in them. In the past, booze-free beer has been chastised for its lack of variety, and the category as a whole has earned a reputation for not tasting like "real" beer, instead these beers have served as the epitome of the "yellow fizzy water" tag that craft beer aficionados disparage.
However, there are times and situations when people don't want or can't drink alcohol, but are still keen to participate in a beer experience. Should those imbibers eschew non-alcoholic beer? No! Along with the rest of the beer world, non-alcoholic beer is evolving, and gaining a begrudging respect and a growing popularity in the craft community.
Many people view non-alcohol beers as some kind of unnatural beer imitation ... The truth is that non-alcoholic beer actually starts out as normal beer.
As a matter of fact, the precursors to non-alcohol beer, "small beer" (low-alcohol beers that have an ABV below 2.5 percent) date back to medieval Europe. These brews were made for everyday consumption as a safer substitute for often polluted water, with just enough alcohol to kill germs (even though no one knew what germs were back then). Today, what we label "non-alcoholic beer," or "NA beer," (in Europe it is usually called "alcohol free") are brews whose alcohol level by volume is below .5 percent. These beers were introduced out of necessity (and were the only legal beer) with the onset of Prohibition and they were often called "near beer" for an obvious reason.
Many people, however, view beer without alcohol as some kind of unnatural beer imitation, a product that must be chock-full of added artificial flavors. The truth is that non-alcoholic beer actually starts out as normal beer. A brewer mashes malt and boils it with hops and then the beer goes through a fermentation process, which creates alcohol and carbon dioxide. At this point, a brewer would bottle the beer if it's going to be alcoholic. But if the brew is non-alcoholic, the beer must undergo another step.
The most common method to remove alcohol from beer is to heat the brew. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, brewers can heat the fermented beer until the desired amount of alcohol remains, however this process can sometimes alter a beer's taste. In order to mitigate the unwanted change in flavor, some brewers heat beer in a vacuum, and this technique significantly lowers the alcohol's boiling point and affects the flavor much less.
Another alcohol removal process which is less destructive to flavor (though more labor and equipment intensive) is reverse osmosis, the same method that's used to desalinate ocean water. After the alcohol is removed, a brewer must re-carbonate the beverage, and this is most often accomplished by physically injecting carbon dioxide back into the beer.
While some beer styles, mostly those lower in bitter hops, lend themselves better to becoming non-alcohol beers, reverse osmosis enables any type of beer to be made alcohol-free. The test for non-alcoholic beer is for a producer to build flavor, aromatics, balance and body. It's harder to achieve without the alcohol, but it's possible and revelatory when done right.
Non-Alcoholic Brews To Try
Drink’in The Sun 13
Mikkeller (De Proefbrouwerij), Copenhagen, Denmark
At 0.26 percent ABV, this non-alcoholic wheat beer pours a hazy golden color with a robust thick white head. Big aromatics of lemon and tropical fruit precede flavors of grapefruit, peach and apricot. Medium-bodied with a very refreshing, mildly bitter, dry finish.
BrewDog, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
This beer is one of the few highly hopped non-alcohol beers around. At a solid 45 IBUs, this 0.5 percent ABV India Pale Ale is all about the flavor, thanks in part to eight different speciality malts and big West Coast hops like Centennial, Amarillo, Columbus, Cascade and Simcoe. Nanny State goes the full distance with intense dry-hops. Think grapefruit rind and pineapple with a big bitter balance.
Krombacher Brauerei, Kreuztal, Germany
This 0.5 percent non-alcohol traditional German Pils pours a crystal clear, sparkling straw hue, with two fingers of fluffy marshmallow white head. Expect aromatics of biscuit, toasted cracker, and a waft of leafy green apple, followed by flavors of cereal grains and grassy noble hops. Medium-bodied with a deceptively smooth finish.