Dry January, No-Drink November, or just a personal decision to go alcohol-free for a while can have you scouring store shelves for an adequate substitute for your favorite brew. We won’t lie; finding the “perfect” non-alcoholic beer is similar to finding the “perfect” sugar-free chocolate; the best substitutes are like rare gems.
The good news is that the popularity of non-alcoholic beer is exploding, which means the demand for brewers to make non-alcoholic beer that rivals your favorite, most-hoppiest IPA is at an all-time high.
If you watched any of the 2018 Olympic Games, you probably saw athletes downing non-alcoholic beers in the Olympic village. Beer contains a healthy amount of organic compounds called phenols, which help with muscle recovery and support heart health. The 2018 Olympics drove the demand for non-alcoholic beer through the roof.
We may not be Olympians, but we won’t pass up a cold one after an intense workout, especially if its alcohol content is more guilt-free than our usual beer.
Here’s everything you need to know about how non-alcoholic beer is made.
Wait, What Even Is Non-Alcoholic Beer?
Is non-alcoholic beer even a thing? It is, but not a thing like you might think. If you’re equating non-alcoholic beer to diet soda, there’s a big difference. First and foremost, most non-alcoholic beer actually does contain alcohol, just not a lot of it.
Most beer contains between 3-13% alcohol by volume, or ABV. That means that for the entire bottle of beer you drink, only 3-13% of it is actually alcohol. That’s a very wide range, and most beer will fall somewhere between 4-7%.
Non-alcoholic beer is… complicated. Some brands do offer beer that is completely 100% free of alcohol; we’re talking 0.0% alcohol content. Most non-alcoholic beer, however, will contain less than 0.5%. In the U.S., a beverage that contains 0.5% or less ABV can legally be labeled non-alcoholic.
What Makes Beer Beer?
Let’s take a step back from the alcohol content for a moment and talk about beer ingredients, because their combination is what makes beer, well, beer.
Beer is made up of four main ingredients: grains, hops, water, and yeast.
Grains, or malt, are the foundation of beer. Most of the time, beer is made with barley malt or wheat. However, rye, rice, sorghum, and millet are also used. Grains affect the beer’s flavor, color, and aroma.
Hops are cone-shaped parts of the Humulus lupulus plant that are added to all beer. If your beer doesn’t have hops, you’re drinking gruit, which is essentially flavored with a blend of herbs instead of hops.
Hops are crucial to beer, and blending them together creates different flavors, textures, and mouth feels. Hops add bitterness to beer, help stabilize it, and add to its aroma.
Beer is about 95% water, and the quality of the water affects the taste of the beer. Brewers continually check pH levels to make sure the acidity is within the range they need for their worts.
All beer contains yeast. There are three main types: ale yeast, lager yeast, and wild fermentation yeast.
- Ale yeast. Ale yeast is called saccharomyces cerevisiae, or “S. cerevisiae.” It’s also referred to as top-fermenting yeast, as it is added to the top of the wort when it is very hot.
- Lager yeast. Lager yeast is also called saccharomyces pastorianus, or “S. pastorianus.” It’s referred to as bottom-fermenting yeast because it is added to the bottom of the wort when it is cooler.
- Wild Fermenting Yeast. Wild Fermenting yeast uses a combination of lactobacillus and pediococcus bacteria together with a yeast called Brettanomyces, or “brett.” This combination results in a sour beer, which you should add to your beer bucket list if you haven’t tried one.
All beers contain these basic ingredients, even non-alcoholic brews.
When Does the Alcohol Happen?
To make beer, the above ingredients get added in five simple steps.
- Grains. Grains are dried and cracked, causing them to malt.
- Mashing. The grains are then boiled, which causes them to release natural sugars. They are mashed and then separated from the boiling sugar/water liquid, which is now called the wort.
- Boiling. Brewers then boil the wort, add seasoning and hops, to create their desired flavor.
- Fermentation. Yeast is added during fermentation. Depending on which type of beer you’re making, you’ll add a particular yeast.
- Bottling. Once the beer has been fully fermented, a brewer will bottle it.
Alcohol isn’t added to beer; it’s a byproduct of yeast and sugar that happens during fermentation. When yeast consumes the malted grain sugars in the wort, ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide are released as a result.
What Makes Some Beers Have a Higher Alcohol Content?
The major factor determining how much alcohol will be in the end product is how much sugar is available for the yeast to eat.
Length of fermentation doesn’t affect alcohol content, because once the sugars in the wort have been consumed by the yeast, the yeast will settle to the bottom, signaling that fermentation is done.
Adding more yeast doesn’t give it higher alcohol content either because increasing the yeast doesn’t increase the amount of available grain sugar the yeast can consume.
The takeaway: The more malt the wort contains is usually the deciding factor that determines how much alcohol will be in the beer.
Making Non-Alcoholic Beer
Non-alcoholic beer goes through a similar (if not identical) process as traditional beers to establish flavor, consistency, and aroma. There are three ways a brewer can make a beer non-alcoholic.
It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, and it’s definitely science-y. Dealcoholization is the process of removing the alcohol from the end beer product. This step happens between fermentation and bottling. Beer can be “dealcoholized” by:
- Distillation. Distillation involves heating something until the unwanted element reaches its boiling point and evaporates (in this case, alcohol). The unfortunate result of distillation is that it dramatically changes the taste of the beer.
- Vacuum distillation. This method uses low pressure to heat the beer, which allows the alcohol to evaporate and the beer to maintain its flavor.
- Reverse Osmosis. Using pressure and a thin membrane, alcohol and water molecules are forced through the membrane while the ale or lager molecules remain. The water is then separated from the alcohol through distillation and added back to the beer.
- Gas. By forcing nitrogen through the beer, alcohol is removed (it’s picked up by the nitrogen atoms), and the flavor remains intact.
Dealcoholization is just one method and arguably the most popular. However, because fermentation is where alcohol is made in the beer, a brewer can also manipulate fermentation to change the alcohol content.
By adjusting certain elements of fermentation, a brewer can ensure the end result beer has the desired ABV. You might manipulate fermentation by using grains that are lower in sugar or yeast that doesn’t break down sugar as efficiently.
Brewers can also adjust the mechanical aspects of the fermentation process. Temperature, acidity levels, and pressure can all affect how effectively the yeast converts the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which will affect the overall alcohol content of the beer.
There’s also a process referred to as “simulated fermentation,” which basically means a brewer uses a blend of ingredients that simulate the flavor a beer has after fermentation. This isn’t a popular method of creating non-alcoholic beer, because quite frankly, they usually taste like garbage.
The final method brewers can use to create non-alcoholic beer is diluting. With the diluting process, the brewer creates a highly concentrated beer and then simply dilutes it until they’ve reached an ABV of 0.5% or less.
Non-Alcoholic Beers To Try
Whether you’re team #dryjanuary or team #giveitashot, we think you’ll love Run Wild IPA. This true IPA has approachable bitterness and refreshing amounts of hops that keep it light, balanced, and completely drinkable.
If you’re looking for an IPA session beer, the ABV of 0.4% in this one hits the mark. At 70 calories per can, it’s also a more New Year’s diet-friendly option than the average alcoholic beer.
Find Great Beer—Alcoholic or Not
Whether it’s non-alcoholic beer you want or the best traditional beers from around the nation, TapRm has you covered. We make getting the most exclusive, “locals only” microbrews completely accessible by connecting you to the best and most passionate brewers in the U.S.
We also have numerous exclusives that our partners only release through our platform, making it incredibly easy for you to get great beer no matter where you’re located.
Go ahead, take on a non-alcoholic beer. With TapRm’s selection, Dry January might be a lot more achievable in the coming year.