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I Can’t Believe It’s Not Booze: Non-Alcoholic Beer Is on the Rise

August 20, 2018

By Kristen Pope, August 20, 2018

Last summer, Tammer Zein-El-Abedein and his wife, Donna Hockey, took their three kids on a trip around the world to celebrate the completion of Hockey's successful cancer treatment. They traveled to Iceland, Italy, Dubai and Japan, among other locations. The couple don't drink alcohol, but they were enamored with the variety of non-alcoholic craft beers they enjoyed on their journey, including “crisp” and “dry” non-alcoholic Japanese beer that Zein-El-Abedein says inspired their own beer.

They were so inspired by what they tasted that, when they returned to Campbell, California, they decided to start their own non-alcoholic brewery. Surreal Brewing Company’s first beer, Chandelier Red IPA, was released on June 1 of this year.

“We think that there should be options for people who don’t drink alcohol,” Zein-El-Abedein says, noting most of the traditional non-alcoholic beers on the market are lagers. Looking for more and different options, he says, “We just rolled up our sleeves and started brewing.” The Chandelier Red IPA is complex, with peach and mango notes “well-balanced by a toasty caramelly malty backbone and earthy roots,” according to the beer description.

The number of people seeking non-alcoholic beverage options is growing as people shift away from drinking alcohol. According to Beverage Daily, 84 percent of people who drink alcohol are looking to drink less, and a recent article in Business Insider notes Generation Z is consuming less alcohol than previous generations.

In response to this growing trend, a new wave of brewers are creating unique non-alcoholic craft beers, which are technically low-alcohol with under 0.5% ABV. But just who is drinking them? It turns out, everyone from health-conscious consumers to those with medical issues who can't mix alcohol with medications. Some abstain for religious reasons, while others are in recovery. Creating craft beer without alcohol allows non-drinkers to partake in drinking-based social activities.

Philip Brandes decided to found Santa Ana, California-based Bravus Brewing Company and create non-alcoholic brews after a close friend of his needed to abstain from drinking. His friend called ahead to the Mexican beach resort where they were going on vacation to see if they offered non-alcoholic beer. When staff had never heard of such a thing, so he decided to bring his own by lugging two huge suitcases stuffed with 12 cases along on the trip.

Brandes asked his friend if he had any non-alcoholic amber ales or stouts he could try. When he didn't, Brandes decided to learn how to brew craft non-alcoholic beer in order to create a variety of different styles. He started brewing in his garage in 2015 and ultimately hired a molecular biologist to perfect the process, starting distribution in early 2017. Their beers include an India Pale Ale with “earthy, piny and fruity” notes, an Oatmeal Stout with notes of “caramel, coffee and smoke” falvors, along with an Amber Ale with “earthy and citrus” tones.

His customers have a wide variety of reasons for abstaining from alcohol. “A good part of our market is in recovery, a good chunk are boomers or seniors who can’t drink because of health reasons or they’re on medication that prohibits them from drinking,” Brandes says.

He receives messages and thank you notes from fans of his beer, including everyone from veterans with PTSD to parents of young children who needed to quit drinking alcohol for a variety of reasons. They express their gratitude for Brandes's products and relish the fact they can enjoy craft beer flavor without the alcohol. “I had no idea going into this there would be that sort of reception,” Brandes says. “It seems like we're doing just a little bit more than making a beer here, and I'm really happy about that part.”

But not everyone respects non-alcoholic beer. “We get our share of people saying 'What's the point?' or 'Why? We have a non-alcoholic beer, it’s called Diet Coke’,” Brandes says. However, for every naysayer, there are plenty of people who appreciate being able to have a non-alcoholic craft beer. Some industry veterans are even leaving the alcoholic beer world to move to the non-alcoholic side of things.

Award-winning brewer John Walker moved cross country from Santa Fe, New Mexico—where he brewed at Second Street Brewery—to collaborate with Bill Shufelt on Athletic Brewing Company. The two co-founded the Stratford, Connecticut-based brewery, where Walker is head brewer. The 10,000-square-foot facility just opened in May, and comes complete with a 2,000-square-foot taproom. Around 100 people come each weekend day to enjoy beers, food trucks and outdoor games. Athletic’s brews include Upside Dawn Golden Ale, which is “clean, balanced and refreshing,” and Run Wild IPA which they dub “the ultimate sessionable IPA.”

“We built the taproom as a way to get immediate feedback from our customers and have somewhere where people who’ve been left out of the brewery movement have a place to go and try out beers,” Shufelt says. “It’s really turned into both that and a really family-friendly environment. We’ve been really honored and humbled by how far people have been coming to visit.” He notes visitors have come from as far as Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont. “[It’s] really exciting, after four years of planning, to put beer in people's’ hands who are so excited about trying it,” he says.

Not having a quality craft beverage available for folks who are not drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, is just not as inclusive.”

So just how does one get the alcohol out of a non-alcoholic beer? With a lot of finesse—and a variety of proprietary processes and ingredients. Traditionally, non-alcoholic beer was created by removing the alcohol through dilution or evaporation, but the new wave of craft brewers use different—and top secret—methods. They often hire chemists and scientists to painstakingly perfect the process.

“I don’t know if there are any two craft NA brewers that brew it exactly the same way, which in itself is very interesting,” Zein-El-Abedein says. “If you brew a traditional beer product, chances are you brew it very similarly. You may have different ingredients and a recipe, but the process itself will be maybe 90 percent plus identical to each other, but in the NA craft world that is not the case.”

The next step for brewers of non-alcoholic craft beer is to get their beverages into more hands by increasing distribution. In many cases, brewers of non-alcoholic beers can ship their products directly over state lines, without having to deal with the frameworks and regulations that apply to alcoholic beverages.

Providing more non-alcoholic beer options not only gives people a new beverage to enjoy, but it also helps people feel more included. “At the end of the day, beer is pretty all-American,” Zein-El-Abedein says. “If you’re going out with a bunch of folks in any setting, whether it’s a happy hour or an end of work celebration or whatever, most likely there’s going to be beer there. And not having a quality craft beverage available for folks who are not drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, is just not as inclusive. We thought it was high time people had a more inclusive and thoughtful option if they’re not drinking.”

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