Is there a “best way” to make non-alcoholic beer?
Do you know how non-alcoholic beer is made? How does it have flavour? What is in it?
Non alcoholic beer contains the same ingredients as normal beer.
That is: water, grain, yeast, and hops, plus botanicals and fruit to add crafty flavours. Some beers also have lactose, a sugar derived from milk, which can be found in some full-strength beers as well and some can also contain preservatives. An ingredient sometimes used in non-alcoholic beer to mimic the fizzy texture of ‘normal’ beers is carbon dioxide.
In Australia, for a beer to be sold as non-alcoholic its alcohol by volume (ABV) needs to be below 0.5%. Low-alcohol beer is up to 1.15% ABV.
How to remove or reduce the alcohol content of a beer?
The first non-alcoholic beers were made by simply boiling away the alcohol. While it worked in reducing the alcohol content, it unfortunately also eliminated most of the flavour and aroma in the beer. That is why non-alcoholic beers had a slow start and a bad reputation.
With the non-alcoholic beer market booming worldwide in recent years, breweries had a new motivation to improve the non-alcoholic beer-making process. There are now several ways of producing a non-alcoholic beer and the quality and choices available have increased drastically.
Controlled fermentation (more on that to come) has been noted as the best practice and most popular way to make a non-alcoholic beer. After all, that’s how all the craft guys are doing it right? But this is not the only method and the latest beer release from Peroni, their Nastro Azzuro Zero uses a dealcoholisation process and the result is GOOD.
It’s been a few years since I drank a full strength Peroni, but when I did, I DID. 3 years ago you could cut me and I’d have bled Peroni. My memory may have faded, but in my mind the taste of the new Zero is SO SO on par with the original. This is particularly significant following on from the disappointment that was Peroni Libera. In reading about the new release, I was very surprised to find out that the Libera was made using the limited ferment method, but Peroni have decided to ditch that method and move on to dealcoholising their traditional, tried, tested and much-loved Nastro Azzuro recipe. So, you see my long-held belief that limited fermentation is the superior technique to dealcoholisation was completely shattered on that first sip.
Keen to learn more about both techniques I jumped on a call with Julian Sanders, Founder of Upflow Brewing and technical brewing wunderkind. Julian has been in the beer technology space for a long time (his other company Spark Brewing specialises in brewing equipment) and developed Upflow in 2019 in a bid to be more socially conscious and to make a positive contribution to Australian beer culture.
Upflow beers are all a perfect example of the controlled fermentation process. In a bid to keep things as pure as possible they all only contain water, hops, malt and a slow fermenting yeast. The yeast strain used means that no alcohol is generated in the first place. The flavour comes from the ingredients and the process control, rather than taking the beer apart and putting it back together again (which is what happens with dealcoholisation processes such as vacuum distilling or reverse osmosis). Temperature, pressure and how fine you grind your malt ultimately determines just how sweet your final product is going to be. Unlike a full strength beer not all of the sugars get fermented out.
Upflow took the standard accusation given to non alcoholic beers of tasting like water and having no guts and dialled everything up to eleven to give the maximum amount of flavour, body and chew. Getting the temperature and mashing right gives you a wort (wort is the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer) that gives you a big, full flavoured, chewy beer with a nice booming head and a lot of body without any residual sweetness.
So what about the other side of the coin. Who is dealcoholising their beer? This seems to be the process favoured by the bigger, commercial breweries wanting to make a zero version of their full strength offering; think your Carlton, Heineken and Great Northern. The reason for this being, it takes a much bigger upfront investment to purchase the equipment needed for the alcohol removal process. The requirement for the big breweries is to add something on to their existing facility in order to create the non-alcoholic product. As opposed to creating a separate plant to create a totally different product.
So these beers are created as a full strength brew, then the alcohol is removed either through distillation or osmosis and then there are esters added back in to make up that flavour profile. This can often result in a beer with very simplistic flavour profiles. Julian notes that it’s not all bad news for the dealcoholised beers, the new Nastro Auzzuro Zero being an example of this process being done well.
Julian also notes that there are a lot of techniques yet to be used in non alcoholic beer making, are are perhaps as little as 20% of the way on what a zero alcohol beer can be. There's a huge amount of development and improvement potential in the this beer space. So the sky is really the limit on what is to come! Upflow have some exciting new beers on the horizon and are not ruling out distillation as a process to play with in the future.