Non-Alcoholic Craft Beers: Should Your Brewery Consider an NA Brew?

In an increasingly health-conscious world, non-alcoholic beers are growing in popularity. Brewing a flavorful craft option might be a wise move.

Many beer lovers are cutting back on non-alcoholic options. Craft breweries like Athletic Brewing Co. specialize in non-alcoholic craft beers, but many other breweries are getting in on the trend and offering at least one zero alcohol option. Here’s what it takes to brew NA beer that actually tastes good and appeals to patrons.

Drinking habits are changing. Millennials and Zoomers are hiking, biking, eating sushi, and looking for healthier options—but they still want to have fun. They also tend to view companies with a more critical eye. They prefer small, local companies with ethics they can trust over faceless corporations. This concern could spell an excellent opportunity for independent craft brewers with a lot of heart and the skills needed to turn out a tasty brew.

Millennials started the trend toward healthier lifestyles and better work/life balance, and Gen-Z (Zoomers) are on board. This huge generation just coming of age could be your ticket to fame and fortune if you can brew an NA beer that appeals to their tastes, lifestyle choices, and ethical concerns.

There are 72 million Millennials already of age. They represent the largest generation alive today, and Gen-Z is coming up right behind them with 67 mil. That’s a lot of potential demand riding a growing trend.

Smaller craft brewers are not just taking advantage of the trend; they are creating it. Younger consumers are looking for uniqueness, new experiences, and more exciting choices, as evidenced by the upswing in traditional flavored beers. When you can order a spicy chili pepper beer or a chocolate milk stout, it’s a clear indication that consumer tastes are rapidly expanding from the stodgy familiarity enjoyed by generations past. You can even get pumpkin ale replete with pumpkin pie spices.

What is a Non-Alcoholic Craft Beer?

The definition of non-alcoholic beer is a little slippery. Brewers weigh in with different offerings, ranging from low alcohol beers to zero alcohol beers. Non-alcoholic beer is essentially a malt beverage with very little alcohol. You may have also heard it called near beer, small beer, small ale, or NA beer. The best alcohol-free beers have all the flavor and mouthfeel of a regular beer and none of the consequences, so non-drinkers and designated drivers can join the fun without feeling like they won a participation trophy just for showing up.

There’s even a new term trending, “sober curious,” with events like Dry January and Sober October attracting more participants every year.

Major beer companies have taken note of the rise in NA popularity. Heineken, Busch, Budweiser, Guinness, and Beck’s have recently introduced new NA or low-alcohol beers.

So what does it take to ride the trend? The short answer is flavor. Brewmasters strive for authentic beer flavor featuring the same malt and hops flavor profile at the heart of regular beers.

The Origins of NA Beer

Low-alcohol beer began its existence in Medieval Europe as a practical solution to polluted water. With just enough alcohol to kill the germs, it was safer and considered more nutritious to drink small beer than water. In the U.S., NA beer enjoyed a resurgence in 1919 at the start of prohibition, when draconian lawmakers cracked down on drinks containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). Lawful breweries started making pale, watery beer with just enough alcohol to stay on the right side of the law.

How Big is the Non-Alcoholic Beer Market?

Craft near-beers don’t enjoy the same widespread distribution as, say, Budweiser, and people were staying home more and driving less. It makes perfect sense that regular beer sales would do better after bars and restaurants closed during the pandemic. Still, non-alcoholic beer sales rose slightly in 2020, posting a modest increase in sales despite challenges faced by craft breweries, according to the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis Report. One interesting finding in the report: Zero alcohol beer sales are growing faster than low-alcohol beer.

Experts predict global sales to surge by 31% by 2024, and a small slice of a big pie can still add up to roaring success. In the US alone, beer is a $94 billion industry, and craft beers account for $22.2 billion of that.

The Science: How Alcohol-Free Beer is Made

According to the Food and Drug Administration, non-alcoholic beer can contain no more than 0.5% alcohol by volume.

Crafting a quality low-alcohol or zero alcohol beer is not easy. There are three “traditional” ways to go about it:

  • Vacuum distillation: This process starts as a process similar to traditional beer making, but the brew is heated to evaporate the alcohol. Alcohol brings its own flavor, and heating to remove the alcohol can leave a syrupy, flat result. The vacuum chamber boils the brew at a cooler temperature to help preserve aromatics and flavors.
  • Reverse osmosis: Filtering the brewing mixture through a fine membrane with microscopic pores separates the alcohol molecules from the water, leaving what is essentially concentrated, beer-flavored liquid. The brewer then adds more water to restore volume.
  • Arrested fermentation: The beer mixture is cooled to prevent the yeast activation that produces alcohol content.

Each of these methods has drawbacks, and it takes a talented brewmaster to tease out the rich, well-developed flavors without falling flat. Low-alcohol beer with 2% to 3% ABV can be brewed more or less like a regular beer but substitutes fermentable malt sugars with a different type of carb that doesn’t ferment with yeast.

Some craft brewers have struck out in different directions and are trying out new, alcohol-free brewing methods, but the proprietary methods are carefully guarded secrets.

Popular Craft Non-Alcoholic Beer Brewing Companies

The NA beer competition is heating up, and it’s hard to say what the best alcohol-free beer on the market is, but here are some of the most popular brewing companies.

Athletic Brewing Company

Headquartered in Stratford, CT, the Athletic Brewing Company is one of the first brewers out there to make alcohol-free beers exclusively. Flavors include chocolate, coffee, honey, and pine. Pine? For a very near-beer taste, try Run Wild IPA.

Hairless Dog Brewing Company

Located in Minneapolis, the Hairless Dog Brewing Company offers three NA choices, an IPA, Citra Lager, and Black Ale.

BrewDog

After ten years in the industry, BrewDog is one of the most well-known names in the business. Names like Faux Fox, Elvis AF, and Nanny State don’t reveal much about what’s inside, but complex flavor profiles and mixed hops give regular beers a run for the money.

Bravus Craft NA Beer

Located in Anaheim, CA, Bravus is a well-established NA company with many interesting flavor choices on its menu. Whether you’re in the mood for an Oatmeal Stout or a light, refreshing Raspberry Gose, Bravus has a range of flavors wide enough to make any beer lover happy.

Wellbeing’s Brewing Co.’s Intentional IPA

Wellbeing’s Intentional IPA is one of the most full-flavored NA beers available. The flavors sing with citrusy notes of pineapple and orange, with a sharp bitterness you’d expect from a traditional beer.

As NA beers grow in popularity and market share, brewmasters will get more innovative. The range of flavor profiles will get more adventurous. And since you can already sample Dogfish Head Mango Smoovie, Bravus Brewing Peanut Butter Stout, and Islamorada Brewing No Wake Zone Coconut Key Lime Ale, the future for non-alcoholic beer flavors is wide open.

 

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