Society has grown more conscious of the downsides of alcohol, causing a high demand for non-alcoholic drinks. Iconic beer brands and craft breweries have expanded their vision to match consumer needs by producing high-quality, alcohol-free alternatives to traditional beer.
But have you ever wondered how these ‘near beers’ are made? Or how they taste almost identical to a standard craft beer?
Non-alcoholic (NA) beer is made from the same barley beginnings as a traditional beer that does contain alcohol. However, the key differences in production usually don’t come until after fermenting, when dilution or dealcoholization occurs. Brewers use vacuum distillation, water vapor or gas stripping, and reverse osmosis to remove the alcohol. The beer can also be made by limiting fermentable sugars, using modified yeast, or interrupting fermentation.
Simply put, non-alcoholic beer generally starts out as a regular beer. It goes through almost the exact same process – from mashing and boiling malted barley to adding hops and fermenting it with yeast. However, instead of bottling or kegging the beer, it veers into additional steps to remove the alcohol.
How is Non-Alcoholic Beer Made?
Non-alcoholic beer is made by following traditional brewing methods (except for fermentation-free brewing) and then using one of primary four methods:
Alcohol-free beer and its alcoholic counterpart start the same way. In all four non-alcoholic beer production methods, brewers use standard ingredients – grain, hops, yeast, and water – to mimic the nuances of traditional beer.
The flavors of non-alcoholic beer are partly developed by following traditional brewing and fermentation processes:
- Grains are cracked and mashed in hot water and then removed. They provide the sugars that the yeast interacts with to convert to alcohol through fermentation.
- The liquid, known as the wort, is boiled, and the hops are added at different intervals to infuse bitterness, aroma, and flavor. Hops also serve as a stability agent.
- The wort is rapidly chilled and pumped into a fermentation vessel before adding the yeast.
- Yeast is added, which initiates the fermentation process. It converts the carbs (sugars) into alcohol and releases carbon dioxide.
The selected brewing style and ingredients will help determine the beer’s color, taste, and aroma.
But after the traditional brewing process, non-alcoholic beer producers aren’t limited to a single approach. They can use multiple methods to produce a flavorful non-alcoholic brew.
Let’s take a detailed look at each method:
Fermentation releases chemical compounds like esters and phenols that contribute to beer’s iconic flavor and aroma. However, during fermentation-free brewing, brewers completely eliminate fermentation and possible alcohol production by withholding yeast from the wort.
Skipping fermentation requires tweaks and additives to achieve the sensory characteristics of the beer. Achieving the microbalance between beer components can be challenging for brewers. It can result in an overly sweet or dull-tasting beer. Nevertheless, fermentation-free brewing is straightforward and more economical than other non-alcoholic beer procedures.
Fermentation-free brewing guarantees a 0.00% brew. The method is common in Islamic countries and cultures where even trace amounts of alcohol are legally prohibited.
In this method, brewers use high amounts of hops and grains to produce a highly concentrated beer in body and flavor. After fermentation, the concentrated beer is diluted with water to reach an alcohol level below 0.5% ABV. This process is followed by adjusting the pH with organic acids and re-carbonating the beer.
Dealcoholization involves brewing non-alcoholic beer the traditional way. The alcohol is then removed using heat- and membrane-based methods like vacuum distillation, water vapor or gas stripping, or reverse osmosis. The remaining liquid is sold as non-alcoholic beer.
Once the beer undergoes dealcoholization, it must be re-carbonated to mimic alcoholic beer’s texture. Finally, brewers inject the beer with carbon dioxide during the canning or bottling process to finalize the brewing process.
It is possible to remove the alcohol from beer by heating it, as alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. However, many flavor components are lost during steam distillation and must be restored after dealcoholization.
During vacuum distillation, beer is put into a vacuum chamber that lowers the pressure, causing the alcohol’s boiling point to drop. This technique allows brewers to distill alcohol without heating beer to the point where it loses its character and flavor compounds.
After the alcohol is removed, brewers must re-carbonate the beer by injecting carbon dioxide. This practice is known as forced carbonation.
Water Vapor & Gas Stripping
During stripping, high-tech equipment gently heats the beer under a vacuum. Water vapor or a neutral gas (like nitrogen) passes through the wort under a vacuum to remove the alcohol.
The set conditions ensure that the water vapor or neutral gas carries the alcohol away from the beer. Some producers separate the flavor compounds removed from the alcohol and re-add them to the dealcoholized beer.
During reverse osmosis, extreme pressure is used to filter fully-fermented beer. The high pressure forces the water, alcohol, and volatile acids through the filter and retains the larger molecules, including flavor agents.
The alcohol is removed using traditional distillation methods and recombined with the concentrated beer, resulting in an alcohol-free product with the same unique nuances and flavor as ordinary beer.
Although effective, reverse osmosis is more labor intensive and requires specialized equipment – both factors equal higher costs.
Restricted Alcohol Fermentation
The restricted fermentation method allows brewers to limit alcohol in the early stages of fermentation.
During limited fermentation, the yeast is used under strict conditions in which it cannot produce alcohol but can excrete necessary metabolites to impart a beer taste.
Limiting alcohol fermentation to below 0.5% ABV is achieved using one of three common methods:
Using Special Yeast Strains
Brewers can limit fermentation by using special, modified yeast strains. Some genetically modified yeast strains cannot produce normal amounts of alcohol, while others cannot ferment maltose – beer’s primary sugar.
If the yeast cannot digest maltose, it cannot create ethanol.
The downside of using modified yeast strains is that more sugars remain after fermentation, creating an overly sweet beer. Other strains produce high levels of lactic acid, giving the beer a sour taste.
Fermentation only occurs in suitable temperatures and conditions. During the mashing process, different enzymes are only active at specific temperatures.
Brewers can restrict the fermentation process by tweaking the environment. High-temperature mashing or cold fermentation can slow or stop fermentation.
Limiting Fermentable Sugars
Brewers mostly lower the level of fermentable sugars in the wort than standard beer recipes. This prevents the yeast from forming high amounts of alcohol, producing ultra-low-alcohol beer.
Brewers can restrict fermentation by incorporating grains that naturally produce less fermentable sugars, like rice or maize with malted barley. They can also use a technique that extracts less fermentable sugars from the grains during the mashing stage.
Non-Alcoholic Beer Doesn’t Always Mean Alcohol-Free
All beers labeled “non-alcoholic” in the United States aren’t necessarily completely alcohol-free. By law, if a beer contains 0.5% ABV or less, it can be considered “non-alcoholic.”
0.5% ABV is roughly the same alcohol percentage in freshly-squeezed orange juice. It’s not nearly enough to get your head spinning.
While the trace amounts of alcohol don’t bother most customers, recovering alcoholics, pregnant women, or people who avoid alcohol for religious reasons may want to consider these factors.
Sober Curious? Try These Brands
If you’re curious to try the newest non-alcoholic beers, we recommend grabbing one of the following brews:
- Heineken 0.0
- Partake IPA
- Clausthaler Non-Alcoholic
- Athletic Brewing
- Barrel Brother Non-Alcoholic Hazy
- Brooklyn Brewery Special Effects
- Lagunitas IPNA
- Guinness 0.0%
Thanks to the evolution of brewing techniques, the previously limited non-alcoholic beer market now offers a diversity of non-alcoholic beer to enjoy and discover.
As the demand for alcohol-free beer continues to rise, so will the expansion and innovation of brewing techniques. We’re excited to see where this booze-free trend goes!