How One Brewer’s Illness Inspired a New Age of Non-Alcoholic Beer

May 10, 2019

By Jerard Fagerberg, May 10, 2019

It was a deep, persistent ache. The diagnosis was easy: acute pancreatitis, an episodic punch of discomfort caused by excess enzymes building up in the eponymous gland. The treatment was more troubling. In order to prevent future episodes, Matt Schwandt, COO and head brewer of Minneapolis’ Bauhaus Brew Labs, needed to stop drinking beer.

“I didn’t even know what pancreatitis was when I was diagnosed with it.,” Schwandt says. “I was freaking out. I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do, my entire livelihood and financial future is tied up in a business that is involved in the production and sale of beer.’”

Schwandt likens the pain to someone grinding a spoon into your midsection, and he wasn’t keen on living through it again. So he followed doctor’s orders. That was the fall of 2017. Since the attack, he’s been without another episode. He’s also lost 30 pounds and wakes up feeling fresh. But damn, does he miss drinking beer.

“I’m not a novice to the beer industry anymore, I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want to brew, and I can write a recipe and execute it and get what I want,” he says. “I still do tastings. I still sample stuff all the time. I’m just not drinking regularly.”

Across the river in St. Paul, unbeknownst to Schwandt and the crew at Bauhaus, beer-loving entrepreneurs Patrick Frimat, Kurt Koppelman, and Ben Jordan were throwing back a few in the latter’s garage. They were kicking around business ideas, but after a couple craft beers, they felt like they were losing focus.

“We realized we couldn’t keep on talking because we’d had two [beers] already,” Firmat remembers. “Then Ben said, ‘Oh I think I have an idea on how to remove alcohol from a beverage without affecting the taste.’ And that’s how we started.”

Jordan, a computational whiz who just got his PhD in biology from Harvard, deduced that he could develop a process for splitting a normal beer into two liquids—a flavorless ethanol solution and a craft-quality non-alcoholic beer. The trio spent all of 2016 and 2017 experimenting with the process.

We’re very gentle. At any step in the process, we’re never shearing the beer of molecules.”

Traditional non-alcoholic beers like O’Doul’s and Kalibur are made by one of three ways: raising the temperature to cook off the alcohol, chilling the beer to separate the alcohol out, or stopping fermentation early. Every existent process harms the beer on a chemical level. More than that, the base beer is typically a less flavorful version of its alcoholic counterpart. The result is what most dads refer to as “piss water.”

In 2016, Frimat, Koppelman, and Jordan founded their company ABV Technology around the same machine built in that garage. It separates beer and alcohol using a pressure vacuum, never raising or lowering the temperature during dealcoholization. Sucking out the ethanol does take away some of the sweetness and slick mouthfeel that naturally comes with the booze, but you walk away from the process with a keg of beer that’s totally uncompromised.

“We’re very gentle,” Frimat says. “At any step in the process, we’re never shearing the beer of molecules.”

When ABV finally completed their pilot machine in late 2018, the first brewery they approached was Bauhaus. Firmat liked the brewery for their approachable beers and culture of inclusiveness. Little did they know they had a ready-made evangelist in the form of their head brewer.

“Selfishly, it was a way for me to enjoy beer again,” Schwandt says. “I knew that I wasn’t alone in that feeling, and that there were other people who would be super receptive to it.”

Schwandt’s deduction was right on trend. The rising generation of drinkers are consuming less beer than Millennials, and low-alcohol, low-calorie options are swarming the market. ABV was offering that possibility on a regional scale, all without compromising his recipe, so Schwandt said yes.

The kismet birthed a nonalcoholic version of their house Helles lager Homeguys. The classic German lager lent itself naturally to ABV’s process because of its low IBUs, sweet flavor, and utilitarian appeal. Their first run of NA Homeguys hit taplines in December of 2018, making Bauhaus the first Minnesota brewery to produce an non-alcoholic beer in over 100 years.

The NA version uses a bit more herbal Hallertau hop, and it’s far less sweet. Otherwise, it’s an incredibly close amalgam of its progenitor, and an upstanding beer in its own rite. Best yet, for Schwandt, it doesn’t mess with the enzymes in your pancreas. “No one’s going to be tricked into thinking it’s real beer,” Schwandt says. “But it’s a great alternative.”

ABV’s machine is currently stationed in Fulton Brewing’s Northeast Minneapolis location while the company sorts out some complications with the post-shutdown Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Once the red tape is clear, NA Homeguys will return, as well as a slew of other local beers. So far, ABV has tested a porter with Fulton, a blond ale with Excelsior, a red ale with LynLake Brewery, and an almond milk stout with Eastlake Craft Brewing.

The team is also currently working on finishing its second machine, and then after that, a contract fabricator will be taking orders for breweries who want a unit in-house. Smaller breweries can protect their budget with a service contract for one of the units. After proving success and demand with Bauhaus, ABV is ready to bring the non-alcoholic revolution to breweries of all scales.

“The craft NA market is gonna happen,” Frimat says. “There’s no good NA beer in the market. There’s a lot of NA beer coming into the market, Heineken 0.0, for example, but if you start with crappy beer, you’re gonna end up with crappy beer.”

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