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Non-Alcoholic Beers Are Finally Cool

Craft brewing creativity, flavor innovations, and good ol’ consumer demand have set the stage for non-alcoholic beers to get a much-needed makeover.

Imagine kicking back with friends at the end of a long week. The weather is beautiful, the night is young, and everyone cheers when the perpetually late friend finally shows up with the beer cooler. Cans get cracked open, the crisp scent of hops perfumes the air, and the group settles in for what is sure to be a memorable evening. 

The best part? All of the beers taste phenomenal… even the non-alcoholic beers. Between brewing creativity, flavor and aroma innovations, and consumer demand, non-alcoholic beers are stepping into the spotlight in a very good way. 

However, it wasn’t too long ago that they had a serious PR problem. Even when NA beers were arguably good, the idea that they were a substitute for a more desirable beverage tended to spoil the experience. Considering their Prohibition origins, it’s easy to understand why this image has been hard to shake.

So, how did non-alcoholic beers suddenly become so cool? What’s fueling consumer demand? Most importantly, what makes a non-alcoholic beer good? Read on and learn more about the origins, recent metamorphosis, and potential future of NA beer. 

Non-Alcoholic Beer Origins: Near Beer

Under Prohibition, brewers were forced to get creative to avoid financial ruin. That meant manufacturing beverages with a legal alcohol content of 0.5 percent or lower. “Near beer” was then created by taking a perfectly good beer and boiling off the alcohol until it met the legal threshold. Later in the 20th century, brewers used reverse osmosis, but the method still required starting with a finished beer.

While demand for Near Beer grew somewhat during Prohibition, consumers were still enjoying a home-brewed or bootlegged full alcoholic beer when available. Unsurprisingly, once Prohibition was repealed, consumers quickly returned to the alcoholic beers they’d been craving all along. By then, however, the PR damage had been done. 

PUNCH explains “NA beer was a product of deprivation. Through the 20th century, it remained a necessary evil—an option only for people who couldn’t drink, whether because of medical conditions, pregnancy or alcoholism.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that non-alcoholic or low-ABV beers began making a comeback. 

Admittedly, it would still take several decades before this beverage category shed its previous image. These early NA beers were often described as lacking in flavor, and they were the butt of many jokes. There was even an Onion headline stating, “Non-alcoholic beer inventor unveils non-adhesive glue.” While the sting of such statements was undoubtedly sharp, the NA beer industry would get a much-needed makeover just a few years later.

The Non-Alcoholic Beer Transformation

One of the biggest turning points for non-alcoholic beers came in 2018 with the first commercial shipment from a new NA beer brand. The creator of Athletic Brewing Company noticed a lack of modern and flavorful non-alcoholic beers after he made the decision to go sober in 2012.

It took years to perfect the recipe and process, but the final product gave the NA Beer industry the facelift it so desperately needed. A big part of this success comes from their unique marketing strategy. The use of chiseled athletes communicated to consumers that this was a non-alcoholic beer fit for those with athletic aspirations, while chef collaborations drove home the idea that this NA beer simply tasted good. They effectively made NA beers cool.

Who is Drinking NA Beers Today and Why?

Honestly? Everyone.

While the “mindful drinking” movement has certainly contributed to lower alcohol consumption, there’s an NA beer product for just about everyone at this point. A recent Washington Post article stated, 

There are craft beer connoisseurs who are cutting back on their drinking. There are designated drivers who are sick of sticking to soda. There are the sober curious who have realized you don’t always need alcohol to socialize, and then there are those who still love a good beer but don’t always feel like courting a brutal hangover.

Nonalcoholic Beer is Better Than Ever

Washington Post

As more research becomes available, “wellness” is clearly a contributing factor. Sophia Shaw-Brown, an insight manager at the global drinks industry analyst IWSR, told Business Insider that wanting to avoid the effects of alcohol was a key reason for cutting back. "That came far above other factors like cost, medical, pregnancy, weight loss—things that you'd assume would play a bigger role."

Pandemic and post-pandemic drinking habits likely helped fuel this behavior. While there were indications that many consumers had increased their alcohol consumption during lockdown, it also forced many to take stock of their drinking habits and how it affected their health. “A third of the drinkers Shaw-Brown’s team spoke to said they were entering 2021 determined to be healthier; nearly 40% said that the pandemic had made them drink less.”

Today these consumer behaviors are still holding strong. The 2024 Beer Report from Insider Beverage explains that healthier lifestyle trends like Dry January, Sober October, or Mindful Consumption have helped fuel this growth. 

While Ryan Toenies and Cara Piotrowski, client insights consultants for Circana, cite mature buyers (those aged 55 and up) and millennials as the driving demographic behind demand, S&D Insights’ Sudano told Insider Beverage, “Most likely consumers are younger consumers who generally don’t drink alcohol, middle age people that are pursuing a healthier lifestyle, and those that engage in other forms of adult products that do not fit with alcoholic beverages.”

What Makes a “Good” Non-Alcoholic Beer?

One of the most difficult things about making a good NA beer is… making a good NA beer. That’s why the majority of brewers who have managed to do so guard their methods so carefully.

While alcohol doesn’t necessarily impart “flavor,” it plays a big role in how flavor is carried on the palate. The texture or “mouthfeel” that alcohol contributes can help support the creaminess of malt, the rich tang of hops, etc. Take the alcohol out, and it’s easy to see why early NA beers were often described as “watery.”

Until recently, the two most widely used brewing methods left much to be desired in terms of flavor. They could halt fermentation before too much sugar is converted to ethanol. Conversely, they could brew a standard beer and then boil off the alcohol à la “near beer.” This isn’t to say that these methods can’t result in an NA beer that’s satisfying and full of flavor. It’s just really tricky.

More recently, brewers are reviving old techniques, antique recipes, and even specialty grains to achieve the desired flavor, aroma, and texture. For example, “lazy yeast” ferments slowly enough to develop flavor while minimizing alcohol levels. Lactose can be added to create a weightier mouthfeel, which was traditionally used during the Victorian era in British “milk stouts.”

Today, innovative hop extracts provide even more options for brewers looking to gain a competitive edge. Optimized Hop Extracts can be easily used regardless of whether a brewer is making an NA or standard beer. The most exciting aspect, particularly for NA brewers, is that they’re built entirely for flavor and aroma. That means NA beers are going to taste and smell just like the hops that customers are craving.

Brewing the Non-Alcoholic Beers of the Future 

Whether they’re thirsty for a non-alcoholic or traditional beer, consumers want the authentic taste of hops. That’s why we’ve designed our Quantum Series to make it easier than ever to infuse your brews with varietal-specific flavors and aromas. 

Want the juicy fruit bomb of El Dorado? Brew with ELD Quantum Brite. Do your customers crave those hints of pine and cedar from Centennial? CEN Quantum Brite will provide the aromatics you’re looking for. The NA beer scene is just getting started, and the Quantum Series is giving brewers a serious advantage.

Ready to take your NA beers into the future? Contact us, and let’s get started today.

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