At the start of this month, Adnams released a no-alcohol version of its best-selling pale ale Ghost Ship. As Imbibe reported at the time, ‘it tastes like beer’ which, without being facetious, in itself, made it something of a news story.
The previous month has also seen the Campaign for Real Ale announce that the Great British Beer Festival would be offering a no-alcohol beer for the first time in its history, from Dutch-based brewery Braxzz.
Elsewhere, no-alcohol beers from the likes of Big Drop, Nirvana, Infinite Session and BrewDog are creating a buzz among beer connoisseurs in outlets such as London’s Mother Kelly’s, various Draft Houses and BrewDog bars.
Barely 24 hours before this article went live, it was announced Euroboozer was to start importing Stiegl’s non-alcoholic Friebier to the UK, launching it at Imbibe Live in July, but with listings already secured at the Diner venues, plus The Delaunay, Fischer’s and The Wolseley.
No-alcohol beer appears to be going craft, which shouldn’t be too surprising considering figures suggest that 16-to-24-year-olds drink less than any other age group. Recent stats revealed that 30% of customers sitting in a pub or bar are not actually drinking alcohol, which makes a drinkable no-alcohol beer the new holy grail.
‘We’re seeing tremendous interest,’ says Rob Fink, who founded Ipswich-based Big Drop in 2016, ‘and the demand isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. It also feels that trade operators are growing in confidence that this is an area with real potential for growth.’
Rather than waiting for someone else to take the lead and test the market, they’re now starting to dip their toes in and seeing the opportunity for themselves.
The appeal of no-alcohol beers is obvious to everyone from designated drivers to the health conscious and diligent 20-somethings worried about feeling below-par at work the following day. But the options thus far have been lamentable. Fizzy water, coke, orange juice or a thin, potation laughingly called beer.
This new wave of flavoursome no-alcohol beers, however, raises the bar several notches, offering plenty of flavour while dispensing with the alcohol. Could this be the non-alcoholic version of the craft beer revolution that has shaken up British brewing so much in the past decade?
Steve Dass would certainly so say. Last year, he started Nirvana Brewing in East London and the company produces two pale ales, an IPA and a stout, all at 0.5%. For him, having worked in the industry since 2009, there was a sense of something missing: specifically, no-alcohol beers that tasted good.
‘I would say that the buzz around no-alcohol beers is probably the same vibe in the industry that was back in 2008 when we saw the initial rebellion from the likes of Thornbridge and Brewdog,’ he says.
‘Fast forward to 2018 and what we see on the shelves is mainly bland and boring alcohol-free beers. This sector of the industry needs to innovate, as we have seen with the spectacular growth of the craft brewing scene. A new breed of discerning, savvy consumers has emerged, who appreciate quality, provenance and craftsmanship.’
Old guys on the block
As Adnams demonstrates, it’s not just the new guys on the block taking the no-alcohol route. Harvey’s in Lewes has produced a no-alcohol version of its Old Ale and Best Bitter under the names of John Hop and Bill Brewer since 1990, though they have recently been renamed as No Alcohol Sussex Best and Old Ale.
Meanwhile for St Peter’s, one of Adnams’ near neighbours in Suffolk, its 0.5% beer Without is up to 30% of its production, according to the company’s CEO Steve Magnall.
‘We believe the category is being driven by two main sources,’ he says. ‘One being the likes of people like myself, — over-35s who are trying to reduce intake of alcohol for whatever reason — and the younger generation, with one in five being teetotal, and they want something different. I regularly get emails thanking us for creating a proper-tasting beer that is alcohol free. Previously people were put off by poor flavours — I think now there is a great range of low- and no-alcohol beers to try.’
Unsurprisingly, country pubs – which people usually have to drive to – are a key sales point, though national chains in city centres are also popular.
‘If we take our own pub, the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, we sell Without on draught,’ says Magnall. ‘I see people drinking it at lunchtime — so they can return to work unaffected — or last thing at night after a couple of pints.’
When Chris Hannaway started Infinite Session with brother Tom, the more they looked at the category, the more they thought it had great potential.
‘We never wanted to be the box-ticking beer that is purely aimed at people that have to drink it because they can’t drink regular beer,’ he says. ‘This is usually the space where “compromise” is accepted and expected: a worse beer, a worse package, a worse experience.’
Infinite Session spun that around, viewing it as a means of putting the drinker in control. ‘It’s about being able to choose how much alcohol you want to consume in that day, week, month or whatever,’ says Hannaway. ‘The better quality of beer that we make, the easier we’re going to make it for people to do that.’
At the moment, the company makes a pale ale (brewed at Sambrooks in London), but some new beers are on the horizon.
There are two ways of making no-alcohol beer. Adnams and Harvey’s use reverse osmosis, which involves filtering out alcohol and water leaving the flavours of the beer behind, all of which is done at very cold temperatures.
The alternative is to use less malted barley alongside other grains, which means there is less sugar to convert to alcohol, judicious hopping and controlling fermentation.
‘From the very start, I took the view that I didn’t want to impact the flavours in any way by changing how beer is traditionally made,’ says Big Drop’s Rob Fink.
‘I just wanted to make great beer. We’ve come quite a long way already and achieved what many people said was impossible: Big Drop has developed a way of producing great tasting 0.5% beer that retains a full depth of flavour. What’s more, the brewing process has been applied across a series of beer styles so we now have a stout, pale ale and lager in our core range as well as limited edition seasonals in our spiced ale and sour. Anything is possible!’
Three no-alcohol beers to try
Tart, refreshing with a brisk carbonation and hints of citrus.
0.5% abv, Big Drop Brewing Co
Crisp and medium-bodied with a bitterness and dryness in the finish.
0.5% abv, Adnams
Good balance of gentle roastiness and hints of chocolate and vanilla.
0% abv, Nivana Brewery
While you’re here…