AS A FOUNDING father of the modern American craft-beer movement, Garrett Oliver has experimented with it all. Oliver’s been the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery for the past 27 years, and he’s overseen IPAs, brown ales, red ales, farmhouse ales, pumpkin beers, winter beers, Belgian ales, session ales, and even an American wild ale aged on sour cherries in bourbon barrels. Yet up until two years ago, there was one style of beer he found so repugnant—so offensive to beer—that he would not think to drink it, let alone brew it himself. "I had zero interest in nonalcoholic beer the same way that I have no interest in sugar-free or fat-free cakes and cookies," Oliver says.
But after Brooklyn’s CEO, Eric Ottaway, observed the prevalence of "near beer" on business trips to Europe, the company began to consider paying for market research for the first time in its history. In 2018, a six-figure investment showed encouraging potential and prompted Oliver to begin development on Brooklyn Brewery’s first NA beer.
The result was Special Effects Hoppy Amber, which debuted in 2019 and quickly became the brewery’s fourth most popular beer globally in a portfolio of around 20 year-round and seasonal offerings. With hints of black tea and zesty grapefruit and a mild maltiness, Special Effects looks like beer, smells like beer, and—of course, most important—tastes like beer. Oliver, ever the showman, calls the amber, and its ability to deliver the satisfaction and flavor of beer without the caloric load, a "miracle."
That miracle, which is due in part to skill and in part to evolution of brewing techniques, means that Brooklyn is one of a growing number of breweries, from big-time to upstart, producing high-quality nonalcoholic beer to match increasing demand. In 2020, NA-beer sales rose 38 percent, according to the research firm IRI. But the market, admittedly, is still young.
The promise is bold: Beer, in all its deliciousness, with fewer calories and no morning-after consequences. It’s a party to which everyone’s invited. The only question is: Will enough people show up?
Three Cheers for Wellness
NONALCOHOLIC BEER'S reputation was always an afterthought at best and, at worst, a joke. Near beer in America dates back to Prohibition, when the threshold for what was classed as an alcoholic beverage became our now time-honored 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It wasn’t until a half century later when Anheuser-Busch launched O’Doul’s that NA beer turned into whatever you’d call a meme in 1990. O’Doul’s was a symbol not of a great taste but of a great compromise. The malty beer and subsequent O’Doul’s Amber have never fallen out of production, but brewers suggest that’s likely because these are default drinks among recovering alcoholics and pregnant women.
"I think that stigma went hand in hand with the idea of bad flavor," Oliver says. "It was like, 'Well, if you had a problem with alcohol, here’s the beer that you deserve.'"
Another better-near-beer pioneer on a mission to alleviate that stigma is Bill Shufelt, a cofounder and the CEO of Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing. The fitness-minded former finance guy gave up drinking years ago because it interfered with his career. In 2017, Shufelt quit his job and poured his savings into starting one of the first breweries dedicated solely to nonalcoholic beer that actually tastes good. Back then, his only real competitor was O’Doul’s. How hard could it be?
"In 2016 and '17, when I was trying to find a partner to build this business with, the first 250 brewers I talked to pretty much laughed in my face," Shufelt says. He eventually teamed up with John Walker of Second Street Brewing in Santa Fe, who was intrigued by the scientific challenge of brewing nonalcoholic beer that didn’t taste like, well, O’Doul’s.
Athletic debuted in May 2018 and scraped together an outreach plan that included Shufelt himself handing out cans at the finish lines of half marathons and Spartan races. Athletic’s sales grew 1,000 percent in 2019 and another 500 percent in 2020, pulling in about $15 million last year.
It’s no coincidence that Shufelt’s brewery is named Athletic, and that other upstarts like WellBeing Brewing and Bravus Brewing are beginning to capitalize on a growing consumer thirst for wellness. These breweries are not only touting beers with fewer calories—the average NA beer runs about 60 (as compared with a typical lager at around 150)—but also explicitly positioning non-alcoholic beer as the beverage of choice for weekend warriors and adventure-seeking athletes. Fit Europeans have been drinking nonalcoholic beer for hundreds of years—the tradition of "small beer," with very low alcohol, goes back to medieval times. It’s about damn time Americans caught up.
"I’m a big believer that alcohol fits great probably in maybe 5 percent of people’s lives in very specific windows on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, or special occasions," Shufelt says. "Nonalcoholic beer could potentially fit in the other 90 percent." Like while driving in your car, during a work meeting, or even at break-fast—because why not?
Jeremy Marshall, the brewmaster at Lagunitas, gets that and puts it another way: "It’s similar to how the public view of cannabis has shifted. It’s gone from unfavorable to favorable, and it just takes time." You’d probably never heard of CBD, essentially the NA of marijuana, a decade ago. Now it’s everywhere, perceived less as some sort of vice and more as a socially acceptable wellness solution.
That said, Marshall knows that in the long run, no amount of crafty marketing can convince people to try NA beer. Only a sip taken by a skeptic and then enjoyed will do that. "I mean, ultimately, I think no one can harsh on you for drinking something that tastes good."
The Flavor Fix
AH, YES: THE FLAVOR. Old-school NA brewers had to heat their beer to a toasty 173 degrees to evaporate the alcohol, which had the unfortunate side effect of killing all the flavor. Today’s craft brewers have solved for the problem using new technology. They kill the booze but save the taste in one of two ways: either through reverse osmosis, which superfilters most of the alcohol out, or with vacuum distillation, which lowers the beer’s boiling point and evaporates alcohol without raising the heat.
While nonalcoholic brewers like Athletic may be inspiring trusted craft brewers like Boston Beer Company and Lagunitas to add a few NA beers to their rotation, the big guys, like Anheuser-Busch, are also revitalizing their efforts in the space. Just last year, A-B launched Budweiser Zero in partnership with NBA legend Dwyane Wade. Even O’Doul’s is in the midst of along-delayed rebrand. No joke.
Marketers are essentially arguing that NA beer is the new health drink—lower in calories than hard seltzer and far more delicious than even the tastiest La Croix.
Yet some health claims, like NA’s potential as a post-workout recovery drink, are misleading, says Dezi Abeyta, R.D.N., a Men’s Health nutrition advisor. Beer, alcoholic or not, is not a significant source of protein, so you should look else-where if you want a drink that will help with gains at the gym or post-5K.
However, Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., also on the MH Advisory Board, sees the glass as half full. Nonalcoholic beer could be good for hydration. (Beer with alcohol is not, since it’s a diuretic.) And it typically has less sugar than the sports drinks focused on keeping you hydrated. You’re also likely to have a better night’s sleep after drinking nonalcoholic beer, which can lead to all kinds of benefits, including improving your mental health and weight-loss efforts.
And again, there are the calories.While IPAs with alcohol normally start around 200 calories, Athletic’s Run Wild IPA has only 70. So let’s say you’re a casual drinker who has three regular IPAs on the weekend and you switch to NA. That’s a savings of roughly 1,500 calories over the course of a month—the equivalent of about 125 Cool Ranch Doritos.
Oliver admits that he was wrong to condemn near beer, but not because his tastes have changed. If anything, his commitment to quality helped ignite the revolution. “Those who come to scoff shall remain to pray,” he says. Yes, he has a vested interest in more people drinking up. But he’ll trust your sober judgment.
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