Sunday, June 2, 2024

Pouring over non-alcoholic beer - navigating taste, style and authenticity: a guest post by Collin Zreet

Non-alcoholic efforts to this point have covered a range of different beer styles (Collin Zreet).

While recently taking a break from drinking alcohol, I have embraced the opportunity to explore the fast-growing realm of non-alcoholic (NA) beers.  This is an especially great time to do so, since there has been a surge of these beers being produced in the craft and macro beer markets.

After trying several different brands, styles, and production methods, it has me thinking: what makes a good (or great) NA beer?  Does it have to be “to style?”  Does it have to taste exactly like a version that contains alcohol?  Does it even have to taste good?  All of these questions have been rattling around inside my brain as I reach for more NA beers from known, unknown, local, national, and international breweries.

First and foremost, any beer has to taste good to you and your own preferences.  Too many times I hear: “It’s good for an NA beer.”  “It’s better than I thought it would be.”  So … is it a good beer then?  Or just not that bad?  Whether you are not drinking alcohol for health or personal reasons, drink what tastes right to you.  Just because someone else doesn’t like it, or someone is shunning the entire NA category, it shouldn’t shy you away from an NA beer that you might end up liking.

On a similar note, I’ve had several people tell me that Guinness 0.0 and Heineken 0.0 are the best NA beers simply because they taste exactly like the regular versions.  While I do agree that those respective NA versions taste incredibly similar to their alcohol-laden counterparts, what if you don’t prefer those beers to begin with?  Does that still make it a good NA beer?  If those are your kinds of beers, then great!  That is the best scenario:  a beer that you enjoy whether it has alcohol or not.  If not, don’t feel obligated to claim those as the best NA beers for you.  Personally, if it tastes good, I am all for it, and extra bonus points if it tastes like the version that has alcohol in it.

But does an NA beer have to be “to style?”  I can see this going a few different ways, but first let’s see how the professional guidelines define NA beer.  While the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) does not list an NA category (as they cater more to homebrewers), The Great American Beer Festival, being a competition for only commercial beer, does.

From the 2023 Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines:

  • Non-alcohol (N/A) malt beverages can emulate the character of any beer style defined within these guidelines but with no or nearly no alcohol (less than 0.5% ABV). Ethyl acetate should not be present. Due to their nature, non-alcohol malt beverages will have a profile lacking the complexity and balance of flavors that beers containing alcohol will display. N/A beers should be assessed with this in mind, and should not be given negative evaluations for reasons related to the absence of alcohol.

Essentially, NA beers need to follow the guidelines for the declared base style, but the guidelines do allow for some flexibility in judging for lack of complexity and balance from the alcohol not being present.  This being said, should we hold NA beers to the same strict guideline standards as alcohol-containing beers?  Or should we allow some flexibility and lenience even outside of what the guidelines already state? 

I have yet to find an NA IPA (hazy, West Coast, or otherwise) to completely solve the issue of lack of balance and astringency that occurs when there is no alcohol present.  Some have come close, but none close enough to convince me that it is 100% possible.  The perceived sweetness of the malt and alcohol is needed to offset the bitterness of the hops.  While NA IPAs will never reach the IBUs of a standard West Coast IPA, I believe the term “IPA” here is still valid to use because it implies that the beer contained inside is going to be pale and very hop forward.  The term “IPA” has been used for less than this before in many applications, so I am totally comfortable with it.  I notice a similar imbalance with darker styles (porters, stouts), except in this case the bitterness comes more from the dark roasted grains than hops.  Lighter styles seem to be the best example so far, since they traditionally lack bitterness and don’t have to worry about balancing it out with malt sweetness.

On the reverse, I do see some breweries taking liberties with very unique and nuanced styles, trying to claim those styles attract more savvy and knowledgeable beer drinkers who are above drinking more commonly labeled styles.  A brewery may be trying to label an NA beer as a Kölsch, when some of the key characteristics of the style are missing (light bready sweet malt character, continental European hop character with moderate bitterness), when they could have easily called it a blonde or golden ale.  That being said, there are also plenty of examples of this same misappropriation within standard alcohol-containing beers as well.

So, what should one be looking for if a beer is trying to be more to style?  Here are a few things that might be different with a style being tweaked to make it NA:

  • Appearance:  There should be really no change here.  Using fewer base malts, which provide most of the sugars for converting to alcohol, may lighten color, but can be easily adjusted with specialty malts that would not add any significant sugars.  Head retention may be affected by the use of less malt (and therefore head-forming proteins), but once again, specialty malts can be added in to compensate.
  • Aroma:  Changes in malt may slightly affect the aroma, but the biggest difference here would be in yeast-driven aromas, especially fruity esters and spicy phenols that are primary.
  • Flavor:  The most significant change I have noticed here is in the balance between sweetness and bitterness of the beer.  Having less malt and alcohol in these beers, the overall perceived sweetness is substantially lower, leaving a stronger perceived bitterness as well.  This can leave an overwhelming sense of dryness and astringency in the beer, especially in more hop-forward styles, like IPAs.  Bitterness from other sources, like dark roasted grains, can also lead to this imbalance.
  • Mouthfeel:  Because malt adds body to beer, when less malt is used in general, the body tends to be a bit thinner. Also, when there is less body, more hop-forward styles can come across as astringent, meaning that they imbue a drying puckering sensation in the mouth, like sucking on a tea bag.

Taking all of these into consideration, the styles that would be best represented as an NA beer would likely be those definitely lower in overall intensity and especially lower in bitterness.  Pale lagers definitely fit this, as well as similar other styles like Kölsch and blonde ales. 

In the end, it comes down to you and your own preferences.  If you need to have NA beer for personal or health reasons, there are more options out there than ever before.  Not just the macro brewers, but now the smaller and local brewers too.  If NA beer just isn’t the same to you as their standard counterparts, that’s fine too.  Find what fits you best.

Collin Zreet is a former brewery owner (Funky Picnic Brewery & Café) and one of only eight Advanced Cicerones in the State of Texas.  Throughout his experiences in the craft beer industry, he has specialized in sensory and beer quality, judging several professional beer competitions, including the Great American Beer Festival and being an instrumental part of setting the styles and guidelines for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild’s annual state-wide Brewers Cup.  He also specializes in beer and food pairing, creating and leading over 25 beer dinners across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

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