Ask any beer-lover what the hardest part of Dry January is and they’re likely to tell you some variation of the same thing: Most non-alcoholic beers are cloyingly sweet, excessively malty, or taste like dirty, hopped-up bathwater. Sure, the lack of hangovers, the clear skin, and the boost in energy are terrific, but there aren’t a whole lot of satisfying alternatives while your friends are boozing it up at the bar.
It’s a problem that hit Jeff Stevens hard when he checked into rehab for his alcohol addiction at age 24. Even after his recovery, he enjoyed the camaraderie of bars and would go on to frequent them for decades—totally sober. While he grew comfortable with the situation, he never felt that he could fully participate in the basic social rituals.
“I drank Coke or whatever all night and never really questioned it. There’s all this unspoken weirdness, where people ask you why you aren’t drinking or wonder if it’s OK to drink in front of you,” Stevens says. “It became apparent to me that there’s an entire underserved market of people who don’t drink alcohol, can’t drink alcohol, or don’t drink alcohol anymore.”
Stevens turned that frustration into a business plan. In 2017, he launched WellBeing Brewing Company, a Missouri microbrewery where all the beers have an ABV of 0.5% or less. Since opening a year ago, the brand has spread to 26 states and business continues to grow.
He isn’t the only one. A growing contingent of consumers are monitoring their drinking habits more carefully—not necessarily ditching the IPAs forever, but perhaps being a bit more mindful about how and when they order a pint. In 2017, the global market for non-alcoholic beer and wine exceeded $16 billion and sales of both are on the rise. As a result, breweries are investing the time and effort to offer teetotallers something beyond bland, token lagers. Athletic Brewing Company in Connecticut sells all-natural IPAs, stouts, and golden ales; Surreal Brewing in California brews a triple-hopped IPA and a porter; and Brewing Company’s lineup includes a coffee cream stout.
“When the craft explosion happened, anyone who didn’t drink really felt like they were missing out. I didn’t even know what an IPA tasted like,” Stevens says. “I recently tried my first stout and I loved it. We have a beer called Hellraiser because I want to make it clear that I’m here to raise as much hell as you are. I’m here to participate, I just happen to be sober.”
Part of the problem with non-alcoholic beers lies in the techniques traditionally used to brew them. In order for non-alcoholic beer to taste anything like, well, beer, it needs to go through a fermentation process, which produces ethyl alcohol. Skipping this step would result in a saccharine, malty mixture crammed with unconverted sugars. In the past, most brewers simply heat the beer up to 173.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes the ethyl alcohol to evaporate. While this effectively removes the alcohol, it also removes much of the flavor. After just 15 minutes, all those bright hoppy notes are gone. It yields subpar results, but for years non-alcoholic beers constituted such a minor subset of the overall market that brewers tended to consider them good enough.
When the craft explosion happened, anyone who didn’t drink really felt like they were missing out. I recently tried my first stout and I loved it.”
Over time, breweries have developed several methods of producing ultra-low ABV beers, all of which are a significant improvement. One of the most commonly used is reverse-osmosis, which uses pressure to force beer through an extremely fine filter, thereby bringing the ABV below the critical 0.5%. As a final step, carbon dioxide is added to the brew to mimic the natural carbonation produced by yeast. First developed and used on a wider scale in Munich, the process works on everything from a pilsner to a black stout, with fairly impressive results.
Meanwhile, the method Stevens relies on is called vacuum distillation. By placing the beer in a vacuum, brewers can lower the boiling point and evaporate much of the ethyl alcohol without raising the temperature enough to destroy the flavor. Finally, researchers at the University of Valladolid in Spain several years ago managed to vaporize isoamyl acetate, ethyl acetate, and isobutyl alcohol—aromatic compounds that make beer taste beer-y—then add them back into a low ABV brew.
If it seems like the majority of the advancements in this field have come out of the European Union, there’s a reason for that. Stricter limits on what constitutes driving under the influence and a greater level of cultural acceptance mean that non-alcoholic beers have been a bigger deal on that side of the Atlantic for a while now. Spain has led the Continent in its demand for years, with non-alcoholic beers making up roughly 13 percent of total sales. In Germany, where beer-drinking culture is a way of life, heavy-hitting breweries like Weihenstephan and Paulaner offer credible booze-free hefeweizens and wheat beers.
“Non-alcoholic beer ranks among the most successful brewing innovations of the last 40 years in Germany. Although it was once looked upon critically, nowadays it has a strong place in the overall beer market,” says Juana Leister, Head of Marketing of Clausthaler, a Frankfurt brewery dedicated exclusively to non-alcoholic beers. “It’s growing increasingly popular with marathon runners, office workers on a break, or anyone looking for a more flavorful water substitute.”
Even German Olympic athletes have turned to these brews in order to stay hydrated. And why not?
“This beer is all-natural. It’s low in calories. It has antioxidants,” Stevens says. “Beer has a thousand years of sociability. You don’t celebrate a race victory by toasting with a sports drink—you want a beer.”
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo