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Are Non-Alcoholic Beers Set for a Comeback?

June 05, 2017

By Michael Kiser, June 05, 2017

Years ago in Stockholm, I had a lunch-time discovery that left me a bit shaken. Along the buffet of roasted potatoes, whitefish, and an odd mix of various gravies, was a bucket of ice filled with loads and beers. Or what appeared to be beers.

These were, in fact, Åbro lagers, beers from one of the traditional Swedish macro producers, each clocking in at about 2% alcohol. According to the restaurant staff at the time, they didn’t care if I picked up a beer or a soda – it was all the same to them. It was just a lunchtime beverage.

As someone who grew up in the US during the 1980s, non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beers were for the low shelf in the back of a poorly lit liquor store, same as the paper-covered porno mags on the shelf behind the checkout. In other words, the transaction is laced with a deeply seated sense of shame – you’ve done something wrong in your life to even be here making this decision, but yeah, we’ll take your money and let your walk out with a Coors Cutter or an O’Douls if you really need to.

So to be at the end of a reasonably nice lunch buffet in a touristy part of Stockholm confronted with a “near beer” in a rather swanky silver ice bucket, something felt fundamental awry. And like most situations where I’m confronted with this feeling, I jumped in head-long just to see how it felt.

It tasted like an adjunct lager. Who knew. Other than everyone around me drinking the same thing as part of their daily lunch routine.

Can they be presented in the US as a respectable product devoid of the Puritan shame that runs through our veins?”

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the role of “near beer,” not as a symbol of some personal inability to control an addiction, but as a functional part of life, maybe even my life. Maybe even the life of my pregnant wife who once, in the seemingly forever timeline of her third trimester, once exclaimed “I’d kill you for a porter right now.”

My wife isn’t even one to pass up the occasional glass of wine or beer during a pregnancy. But her desire for the daily interaction with her favorite beverage, beer, lead me to think about the possibilities of a more craft-like (read “flavorful”) non-alcoholic beer.

Is that even possible? How are these things made? And can they be presented in the US as a respectable product devoid of the Puritan shame that runs through our veins?

Mikkeller has made a 0.3% wheat beer called Drink’in The Sun 13. BrewDog made a 0.5% dry-hopped IPA for the Swedish market called Nanny State (beer in Sweden has to be 2% or below to be sold in supermarkets, otherwise it’s off to the government monopoly stores, Systembolaget, for you). Both of these are for the Euro market, however, where such things seem devoid of the Puritanical baggage of our collective American youth.

No one’s revealing their secrets yet.”

So to break the seal on “near beer” in the US, we need a more fundamental reset to our psyche before it can ever have a chance of being part of the craft set. And that might be exactly what we get with this weird little entry into the NA market from a big brewer – Budweiser's Prohibition Brew, an NA beer calling back to that old time religion. 

If NA beer can become a viable part of the American beverage set, meaning it can hold its own in a Nascar infield as much as it can at a Chicago Loop restaurant (we expect our workhorse brands to deal with anything we throw at them, no complaints), then maybe, just maybe, someone with a bit more artistry and cool-factor can take that baton and run with it into the world of craft.

For its part, it’s worth noting that Budweiser isn’t making a sub-brand out of their newest NA beer. While most NA beers try to oversell just how not-nanny-state they are, this entry from Bud is, uncharacteristically, confident. It’s the same name, label, and overall presentation as the regular Budweiser (which is also somewhat refreshed as of late), stripped down to a rather stoic black and white. Then comes the phrase “prohibition brew."

That label attaches the beer to a time in our Puritanical history that’s almost nostalgic at this point rather than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s a bit of revisionist history, re-using the “prohibition-era” tag used by many craft brewers to describe their classic American ales and lagers, who leverage the aesthetic of the time-period rather than the lack of alcohol – with an obvious tip of the hat to Boulevard and Speakeasy among many others.

Will the “near beer” tag ever be accepted by the craft drinker?

I think there’s a good chance if we can lay some new groundwork on where it fits in our lives. In craft, we’re already seeing a swing toward table beers and other low-alcohol styles that enable easy enjoyment over a working lunch. Maybe that doesn’t get us to the NA porter that might make my wife willing to have a third child (and gets me my drinking buddy back), but perhaps it reframes the nanny state concept from being a sign of shame to being the sign of someone who still has things to do today after this beer.

I’ve since met a few people working to crack these problems on the technical side. Like making de-caffeinated coffee, there’s a strong desire to strip out a vital byproduct of the brewing process without so overtly stripping out the other aspects we desire, like flavor, aroma, and texture. But also to do it without adding other undesirables (seriously, the decaf process for coffee was a bit insane, I mean, benzene and solvents?).

No one’s revealing their secrets yet, at least when it comes to their technical process for NA craft beer, but it’s coming.

 

Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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