“Blasphemy! A crime against nature!”
Yeah, many people feel the same about non-alcoholic beer just the same way they feel about decaffeinated espresso.
“It is just wrong and what is the point,” they think.
Non-alcoholic beer may not be your drink of choice, but there are plenty of valid reasons for drinking non-alcoholic beer. Maybe you are a designated driver, or you are on antibiotics.
Perhaps you are pregnant and miss the taste. And maybe you just don’t feel like getting intoxicated, but you would instead look like you are drinking the same drink as your co-workers because social dynamics are tiring and weird.
We are not here to judge. We are here to check out this interesting drink.
How is it made? Why is it almost always terrible and can we make it better?
Let’s find out.
A Brief History Of Non-Alcoholic Beer
Well, non-alcoholic beer first started popping up in the United States in 1919. Why? The answer is-Prohibition. It was decided that the strongest an alcoholic beverage could be is 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Does that number sound familiar? Well, it is because that percentage has struck and non-alcoholic beers today still have that 0.5 percent alcohol by volume as their upper limit. And because of that, some of the most important breweries began making “near beer.”- Stuff that didn’t have much flavor was very pale and was right at 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.
13 years later, Prohibition was banished, but something had happened in that time. Lots of people have developed a taste for that bland, super light (compared to the ales of the day) beer- a sort of alcoholic Stockholm Syndrome. And for the breweries which had been making that kind of beer during Prohibition, it was pretty easy to carry on as usual, but they left more of the alcohol in.
This is just a partial explanation for the popularity of the bland, light lagers (Coors, Miller, Bud, Pabst, etc.) in the United States, though it should be noted that even science can’t fully explain that particular proclivity.
How Non-Alcoholic Beer Is Made
Non-alcoholic (or NA beer, as it is sometimes called) beer starts its life just like a regular beer. To be precise, it goes through almost the full process, from making the mash, boiling the wort, adding hops and fermenting. But here is the fork in the road, though. Non-alcoholic beer has to have its alcohol removed, while regular beer will then be bottled (or kegged or canned).
And the most common way which alcohol is removed from beer is through heating. Alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water, and at sea level, it is roughly 173 degrees Fahrenheit. The fermented beer is heated up to that point, and after that, it is kept there until the solution is only 0.5 percent alcohol by volume.
However, heating significantly changes the flavor of the beer, because you are cooking all the ingredients again. Some operations practice vacuum distilling to minimize that effect. And depending on the power of the vacuum, the boiling point of the alcohol may be lowered as far as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is much less disruptive to the flavors.
Another technique which is sometimes employed is reverse-osmosis. Beer is passed through the filter with pores which are small enough only for alcohol and water (and a few volatile acids) to pass through. The alcohol is distilled out of the water-alcohol mix using conventional distillation methods, and after that, the water and remaining acids are added back to the mixture of flavor compounds and sugars left on the other side of a filter.
Bingo- a non-alcoholic brew! Because the main ingredients are not heated, this technique causes much less flavor degradation which gives excellent results but requires more equipment, and it is more labor intensive.
And even after the alcohol is removed, we are not finished yet. We have got some liquid which tastes reasonably like beer, but it is flat. Most respectable beer carbonates itself just as it finishes out the fermentation process inside the bottle.
As yeast is metabolizing sugar into alcohol, one of the byproducts is CO2, and it gives you bubbles. But our now non-alcoholic brew has no more yeast, and it is not fermenting. Because of that, most of the producers of non-alcoholic beer just inject the brew with CO2 during the bottling (or canning or kegging) process.
And it is beer-flavored soda. Others may toss in a little bit of starter yeast and a little more sugar and let it ferment in the bottles, but it is also a trickier process because you are liable to re-introduce a little amount of alcohol. What’s even worse, your bottles may explode if you do it wrong.
Why It Tastes Different?
Drinkers will probably tell you “Just because it does not have alcohol! Duh!” then walk away feeling smug and picking their noses. They are not entirely wrong, but more than flavor, alcohol adds the feel of the beer to the mouth. And it gives it that dryness and can accentuate some of the sweet flavors in the malt, but alcohol itself doesn’t add any flavor.
Alcohol removal process is the largest culprit, especially when heat is involved. Hops are added to the boiling process at three stages: the early hops to add bitterness, the later hops for flavor (citrusy, piney flavors), and after that, they are added at the very end of the aroma.
Some beers are also dry-hopped, which means hops are added to it for a period after the beer is removed from heat. And the bitterness of hops is hearty, as is the beer’s malty sweetness.
However, the aroma and the flavor are far more delicate and are not likely to survive the reheating for the removal of alcohol.The hop aromas will likely be gone within the first five minutes, while the hop flavors will be driven off within the first fifteen minutes.
Another complaint you will hear about non-alcoholic beer is that it has a sour or metallic taste. That problem isn’t unique to NA beer, but without the hops masking it, it is far more noticeable. The process of adding CO2 to drinks doesn’t just add bubbles – it aids carbonic acid. And carbonic acid has a sour-some, would say metallic taste.
That taste tends to be even more noticeable when injecting CO2 directly into the brew, but it can still be present when using sugar and starter yeast.
The adage of NA beer is universally disgusting just doesn’t hold up anymore. Yeah, many of them still taste like seltzer water with dirt in it, but thankfully, there are exceptions. One of them is Clausthaler Golden Amber (Germany) – it is full bodied and tastes like a real beer.
Kaliber (made by Guinness) is nutty and sweet, and it is a bit richer than the others. Buckler (made by Heineken) has a lot of complexity for a non-alcoholic beer. Even O’Douls Amber (made by Budweiser) is pretty good.
And when it comes to flavor, w e’d instead drink most of those non-alcoholic beers over most of our macro-brewed light beers.