Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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Nonalcoholic beer: Can it pass the flavor test?

Yes, and many craft brewers are joining in


An alert reader wrote me and raised a great point: When going for long-haul football watching, it makes perfect sense to intersperse nonalcoholic beers along with the “real thing” for general health as well as for safety, especially when curtailing alcohol intake because driving is involved. And you’ll feel much better the next day to boot.

The reader and I agreed that NA beers have come a long way since the days when there was O’Doul’s and not much else, and he pointed me toward WellBeing NA beers.

WellBeing is one of many options these days for those going alcohol-free for whatever reason. Well-known craft brewers BrewDog and Lagunitas, for example, have more than one offering, and WellBeing (which is exclusively NA) has seven, including an amber, a stout and a wheat. Countless other craft brewers have gotten in on the act as well.

Major labels also have alcohol-free versions, including Budweiser, Coors, Heineken and Beck’s. O’Doul’s, once a laughingstock, is having the last laugh by still being around some 30 years after its initial release. Heck, even Old Milwaukee has an NA (insert snarky joke here about what’s the difference between that and regular Old Milwaukee).

Amid the opening of niche bars that don’t serve alcohol and the rise of alcohol-free “mocktails,” there also is an increased market for NA beers of all stripes.

WellBeing’s website tells the story behind its NA brews, how they are made and how they fit into a lifestyle that emphasizes having a good time without alcohol.

“Hi, I’m Jeff Stevens and I’m a Non-Alcoholic” is the opening greeting from Stevens, who, with his wife, Genevieve, founded WellBeing in 2017.

Stevens said he realized he would never have “a successful, harmonious relationship” with alcohol but still loved a lifestyle of socializing, seeing live music and being around friends. Drinking NA beers, he said, “in many ways it saved me” by allowing him to have fun while also staying sober.

Yet, as he saw craft beer boom, he questioned why NA beers generally remained stagnant and unevolving. A desire to remedy that, as well as provide tasty options for nondrinkers, led to WellBeing.

Brewing NA beer can get complex

Though I use the term “beer” liberally throughout this review to describe NA brews, “near beer” is the legal/technical term, and the word “beer” appears nowhere on the labels of two of the of the three I tried. Instead, it is called “malt beverage.” (The third was labeled as “near beer.”)

So how, exactly, is near beer made? The answer, of course, is, “It’s complicated.”

Though beer’s end users love the social nature of a rousing happy hour on Friday or the relaxation of winding down with a brew in the evening, in reality, the making of beer involves a hop ton of science.

The “Beer 101” page on the Lagunitas website has a kegful of information about the NA process that includes things such as “membrane filtration,” “vacuum distillation,” “arrested fermentation,” “alternative yeasts/microbes,” “changed mashing regimes” and “the introduction of alternative microbes for fermentation.”

As a longtime beer drinker, I can assure you that I understand exactly none of that, although “filtration,” “distillation” and “fermentation” all rhyme, and some brewer out there with a Les Paul and a Marshall stack could write an arena-rock anthem about it.

WellBeing, meanwhile, touts its high-tech extraction method in which it “funnels fully brewed craft beer through a vacuum and lowers the temperature to gently remove the alcohol. The finished product is a craft nonalcoholic beer that has all the body, aroma, mouth-feel and flavor of fully brewed craft beer.”

However, after all that science-y alcohol-reduction stuff, it should be noted that many “nonalcohol” beers do contain trace amounts; the standard for NA beers is 0.5 percent alcohol by volume or less.

For carb-counters, the removal of alcohol doesn’t always have a big effect on the total carbs (sad emoji); two of the beers sampled for this review are 13 and 18 carbs per serving, which is equal to or slightly lower than a standard beer with alcohol. If you’re looking to cut carbs with an NA beer, BrewDog’s Punk AF is a winner, with only 2.3 grams of carbs per 12-ounce can, and 20 calories.

The flavor test

And, finally, we reach the most important question for any beer drinker: How do NA beers taste?

Not bad. Not bad at all.

As someone who likes big, roasty stouts and imperial IPAs, I find the NA beers I tried to be light-bodied. However, they do have a hearty-enough and nuanced flavor profile that can make you forget you’re not drinking beer with alcohol. They have very similar mouth-feel in terms of carbonation.

If you haven’t already, go ahead and dip your toe in the NA waters, especially if you’re looking to cut back on alcohol consumption.

“We want to become your Tuesday night beer or your third beer,” WellBeing’s Stevens told Feast Magazine in 2019.

And that’s a great way to look at it. Want another beer but probably shouldn’t? Grab an NA beer. Got a hankering for a Tuesday night beer but have an early meeting on Wednesday morning? Grab an NA beer.

You can scratch your beer itch without the negative effects of alcohol, and these days, there are lots of worthy options from which to choose.

Beer, minus the alcohol

There are many nonalcoholic beers available these days — these are the three that were sampled for this review. Each is available locally, though not every one might be in stock at every grocery store or carryout.

  • Intentional IPA (0.3 percent ABV): WellBeing Brewing Co., Maryland Heights, Mo. $10.99 for a four-pack of 16-ounce cans

Quick sips: The fullest-bodied of the three I tried, this well-balanced brew pours a deep copper with a slight cloud. Mosaic and Citra hops run the show here, giving it a profile of fruit and a mild bitterness that isn’t overpowering.

  • Lagunitas IPNA (0.5 percent): Lagunitas Brewing Co., Petaluma, Calif. $9.99 for a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles

Quick sips: Those of a certain age (old) will remember Chris Schenkel touting “beer tastes better in a bottle.” And, by jove, this beer does taste good in a bottle, with standard IPA hop-forwardness (Citra and Mosaic, among others) and malt backing. It pours clear with an orange hue and has a light body with little bitterness.

  • Punk AF IPA (0.5 percent): BrewDog, Canal Winchester. $11.99 for a six-pack of 12-ounce cans

Quick sips: We’re gonna guess that “AF” in this beer’s title refers to “alcohol free.” Pouring hazy with a light straw color, Punk has notes of lemon and pine with a hit of bitterness on the back end, the most bitter of the three.