How craft brewers make it, and how far the flavor's come.
5 months ago, by Sierra Nevada
Posted in Our Beer
Even just a few years ago, you wouldn’t spot many non-alcoholic beer options on store shelves. Maybe one or two mainstays with questionable flavor at best — not the most desirable alternative to a silky smooth hazy IPA. But craft brewers have jumped in to reimagine this important beverage (that is, make it genuinely tasty). Now when you want to skip the booze, your local grocery is likely stocked with solid non-alcoholic choices.
Despite its name, non-alcoholic beer is legally allowed to contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). A trace amount is permitted because the common methods for brewing non-alcoholic beer make reaching absolute zero rather difficult. Yet there is also true 0.0% ABV beer, which is formally called alcohol-free beer. Some versions of alcohol-free beer are reminiscent of soda, the result of mixing water with the likes of alcohol-free malt and hop syrups.
The general idea of low-alcohol beer goes back to medieval Europe with what’s called “small beer.” One way of making small beer involves using the “second runnings” of the mashing process, when brewers rinse their grains with water. This diluted wort contains less fermentable sugars, so yeast simply can’t create as much alcohol. But small beer can still land in the 2–3% ABV range.
Non-alcoholic beer, at least in the United States, became relevant in the Prohibition era — perhaps no surprise there. The Volstead Act, passed by Congress in 1919 (but originally vetoed by President Wilson!), capped the alcohol level of any beverage to 0.5% ABV. Some industrial breweries did produce non-alcoholic beer as part of their strategy to stay in business until the 21st Amendment passed.
To brew non-alcoholic beer, “the two divergent paths are: you can make it without alcohol, or you can take the alcohol out,” says James Conery, manager of brewing innovation at Sierra Nevada.
We’ve been test brewing non-alcoholic beer using the first approach, which means we hyper-control the brewing process, namely mashing and fermentation. Mashing is when brewers mix hot water and grains, which creates sugars. For non-alcoholic beer, to say it plainly, we mash to get only the simplest types of sugars — glucose, sucrose, and fructose; it’s the more complex sugars (maltose) that, in the presence of hungry yeast, will yield high volumes of alcohol. But we also don’t use our typical ale or lager yeast strain.
“The yeast we use is purposefully designed so it can only metabolize the less complex sugars,” James says, “and we mash so there’s already a low amount of them in the wort. So during fermentation, you end up with just a little bit of alcohol, that 0.5% threshold.”
The other path — alcohol removal, or dealcoholization — often entails either vacuum distillation, which lowers the boiling point of alcohol, or using a membrane filtering technology to better isolate the alcohol before distillation. There are more sophisticated methods like reverse osmosis, but a common thread with dealcoholization is expensive equipment. Unless you’re all-in on non-alcoholic brewing, the investment can be steep.
Now that craft brewers are taking non-alcoholic beer to the next level, it’s easy to incorporate these brews into a full, active life. Maybe it’s Friday happy hour with friends, but you’ve got dawn patrol — running that new trail, backcountry snowboarding, etc. — so wisdom says sip a non-alcoholic beer. Or maybe it’s just lunch with coworkers and you have a busy afternoon ahead. Whatever your reason for choosing non-alcoholic beer, “going without” still means going big on craft flavor.
What style can’t you find is more like it. You’ll spot everything from easy-drinking session IPAs to rich stouts with non-alcoholic origins. The same tasting notes tied to alcoholic craft beers — fruity, juicy, malty, nutty, herbal, and so on — are vibrant in today’s non-alcoholic brewing. And if you’re keen on other details, like calorie count, there’s surely a non-alcoholic beer that checks the boxes.
If you’re an IPA fanatic but it’s not the right time for a beer, get your hop fix with our Hop Splash sparkling hop-infused water. Made with Citra and Amarillo hops for refreshing notes of peach, mango and grapefruit, Hop Splash infuses maximum flavor — zeros for everything else: 0.0% ABV, 0 calories, 0g carbs, 0g sugar.
And that refreshing, bubbly carbonation? Totally sustainable. We capture, clean, and reuse carbon dioxide from beer fermentation to carbonate Hop Splash, keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere and closing the loop.
You can find Hop Splash at Whole Foods stores and retailers nationwide, or you can save big with our subscription — up to 15% off and free shipping