Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part one)

Assonance-loving charity Macmillan Cancer Support has proclaimed the tenth month of the year as “Sober October”, with fundraisers asking for sponsorship for a full 31 days of abstinence. ICIP has decided to use this opportunity to investigate the world of low- and non-alcoholic beers.

In part one we look at the lack of choice available at present and ask why these beers have such a bad reputation.

What first comes to mind when you think of an alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer? For ICIP it’s a sad, battered 4-pack of Cobra Zero on the supermarket shelf, those horrid little glass bottles of weak French lager our mum let us have when we were 14, or a disappointingly unrefreshing can of Bass Shandy. We’ll probably just have a coke, thanks.

“The biggest problem I have with alcohol-free beers is that they are so infrequently bought that even when you find a pack at the store it tends to be old, dusty and sometimes skunky.” – Dan, 30, USA

In an era where we are constantly being bombarded with healthy-living messages by the government, health professionals and the media, you’d think that guilt-free booze would be a hot little potato right now. Yet a quick peruse of the shelves in your local Sainsbury’s or Tesco will probably bring up the same few brands – Becks Blue, the aforementioned Cobra Zero, maybe Bavaria. There don’t seem to be many options readily available, and what there is seems pretty substandard. These products have a pretty poor reputation, and given the choice, most people would probably pick a soft drink.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is that low-alcohol beers just don’t pack a punch in the taste department. Let’s face it – most of them taste like fizzy water and bear little resemblance to their boozy cousins. So why is this? What is it about alcohol that makes beer taste so good?

“When you drink a beer that has alcohol in it, as soon as it hits your mouth it starts warming up,” explains Annabel Smith, Beer Sommelier and friend of ICIP. “Alcohol is volatile, and when it’s in your mouth some of it comes out of the beer solution. This will give rise to ester and fruity flavours, and maybe a bit of diacetyl, which smells and tastes a bit like butterscotch. When no alcohol (or very little alcohol) is present, you just don’t get these flavour sensations that we associate with ‘proper beer’. This may lead to some opinions that these beers are bland and tasteless.”

“I’d rather have just one or two normal strength beers than non-alcoholic, as they’re rarely good.  They’re pretty much like Christian rock music – I’ve nothing against it as a concept, but the end product is usually horrifyingly bad” – Jouni, 32, Finland

So maybe we can retrain our palates to appreciate lower-alcohol beers over time. After all, low-alcohol beers start off in exactly the same way as “real” beer.  “The beer is brewed in the normal way, and then the alcohol is removed by either distillation, freezing, or osmosis,” says Annabel. “Each method will affect the flavour in a different way. Osmosis is perhaps the best method of preserving the flavour of the original beer – but it’s also the most expensive method.”

The only craft brewery we can find making a well-publicised non-alcoholic beer is Scotland’s Brewdog. At 0.5% their Nanny State, an imperial mild, has been designed to shake up the trend for tasteless alcohol-free booze. “We use Pale Ale malt in Nanny State for the majority of the sugars, and then we bump up the malt bill with specialty malts like Rye, Crystal and Caramalt,” says Brewdog brewer Charlotte Cook. “These add flavour, colour and mouthfeel without increasing the Original Gravity of our wort too much. We also hop it to hell and back, which is pretty uncommon with low ABV beers!”

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It’s interesting that of all the big-name breweries it is Brewdog who are making a low-alcohol beer. The Scottish brewer has repeatedly hit the headlines for their uber-strong brews, including Tokyo* (18.2%), Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) and Sink the Bismark (41%). Although most of these are intended to be drunk in spirit measures and are seen as a new way to enjoy beer, the brewery certainly attracted a lot of negative press for these concoctions (a motion was even brought in the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to ban Tokyo*). So is this the only reason that Brewdog felt the need to make Nanny State – as yet another middle finger to the man?

“Initially, this was something that influenced brewing Nanny State, which is an extreme of low alcoholic beers,” admits Sarah Warman, Brewdog’s  Digital Marketing Manager. “We were proving a point and standing our ground, showing that flavour and complexity don’t have to be compromised by ABV, and that even a low ABV beer would be consumed in an appropriate fashion.” Charlotte defends the decision, pointing out the brewery is not just about high-percentage headline-stealers: “BrewDog really excels at brewing comparatively low ABV beers. Dead Pony Club (3.8%) and How to Disappear Completely (2.8%) are both great examples of this.”

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Nanny State has been phenomenally popular for a low-alcohol beer, both at home and abroad. “It has a massive audience considering its low ABV! It flies out of our online shop and bars when we have it in stock, and our international markets, particularly those in Scandinavia, really dig it,” says Sarah .”Because it offers a low ABV without scrimping on flavour and bitterness, it’s ideal if you want to stick with something relatively sober whilst enjoying a proper, flavoursome beer.”

“I think most non alcoholic beers taste so awful, so that I am reminded for every sip, that I am not drinking proper beer!” – Kjetil Jikiun, Nøgne Ø co-founder

Given Brewdog’s enthusiasm, ICIP is surprised that more breweries are not jumping on the bandwagon. Isn’t it a bit of an untapped market? “It’s not the easiest process to make a low ABV beer,” says Charlotte. “With such little alcohol flavour, you really have to work to balance the beer out well. There is still a negative image around it – to a lot of people, you’re not seen as fun if you’re not drinking, which is an unhealthy and unproductive attitude which needs to change. If people knew they could still have a great beer, and not get drunk, or take a break from higher ABV beers, then their popularity might increase.”

ImageA bit of speedy Googling reveals that low-alcohol beers are much more common in Europe. In Germany especially, most of the main breweries, such as Erdinger and Bitburger, offer an alcohol-free version. There also seems to be plenty of experimentation – for example, Danish brewer Mikkeller has produced a 1.9% hefeweizen, Drink’in the Sun, and Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø has been working on a non alcoholic ‘Inferial Stout’: “Inferial Stout is one of few unfiltered non-alcoholic beers (if not the only one) to go through a normal primary and secondary fermentation,” says co-founder of Nøgne Ø, Kjetil Jikiun. “We have made it once, as a prototype, but need to wait until we have a pasteurizer before we can regularly make and sell this product with an acceptable shelf life.”

So if the likes of Brewdog, Mikkeller and Nøgne Ø – all well-respected brewers – believe that it is possible to deliver on flavour despite the lack of alcohol, maybe it’s attitudes that need changing. What can we do to remove the stigma of drinking low-alcohol brews and stimulate demand? We’ll be looking into this in part two.

– PS

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2 thoughts on “Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part one)

  1. Pingback: Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part two) | It Comes In Pints?

  2. Pingback: Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder | It Comes In Pints?

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