The brewing secrets behind tastier no-alcohol beer

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Staff member
Mar 17, 2013
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Ulverston Cumbria.
Joe Thomson stands surveying his shiny brewery from the elevated glass fronted taproom.


At one end of Firebrand Brewing Company's factory stand four towering 9,000 litre vessels, a recent purchase to help meet growing demand for non-alcoholic beer.
"We weren't sure what to expect when we launched our first non-alcoholic beer, Shorebreak, in 2022, but it is now our biggest selling canned beer by a long way," he says.
Firebrand, which sits in an industrial estate not far from the wilds of Bodmin Moor in Launceston, Cornwall, reflects a much wider trend.
Mintel estimates that retail sales value of low and no-alcohol beer in the UK grew by 28.7% and volume sales by 18.8% over 2021-23.
The keen appetite for a healthier, non-alcoholic alternative to traditional beer is fuelling innovation as brands explore ways to mimic the taste of traditional beer.
Alcohol gives beer a sweet, warming, full-bodied taste, as well as affecting how other flavour compounds evaporate, resulting in its distinctive flavour. So, removing it presents a challenge.
"With alcohol free beer you are breaking the rules. You have to find creative ways to brew a tasty balanced beer," says Mr Thomson.
One of the most widely used approaches to brewing non-alcoholic beer is arrested fermentation, which either removes the yeast or stops the yeast from becoming active.
Firebrand does that by adding less malted barley - the main source of sugar which ferments into alcohol.
"In a normal mash we might add 400kg of barley whereas in our non-alcoholic beer there is more like 25kg. The challenge is how you still achieve that flavour. It's about manipulating unfermented sugars and ingredients as well as temperatures to give the sensation of beer," explains Mr Thomas.


Another UK-based brewer, Impossibrew, which specialises in non-alcoholic beers, uses a different means of arrested fermentation. "We brew it in such a way that we can cryogenically stop the fermentation process," says founder, Mark Wong.
"By suddenly putting it in a very cold state, parts of the process are halted and parts of the process are activated to make sure the flavour is retained," says Mr Wong.
Impossibrew also adds its "proprietary social blend", a mix of nootropic herbs designed to imitate the feeling of relaxation induced by traditional beer. It is a precise blend developed in collaboration with Professor Paul Chazot at Durham University's Biophysical Sciences Institute.
Nootropics are natural compounds - billed as "smart drugs" - which improve cognitive functions.
Including them, Mr Wong says, adds to the challenge: "Our social blend doesn't enhance flavours so we have to work extra hard to make sure the flavour aspect of the beer is as close to the beer experience as possible."

Bigger breweries such as Heineken tend to use vacuum distillation, which requires costly technology, to produce palate-pleasing non-alcoholic beer. This process reduces the atmospheric pressure, lowering alcohol's boiling point and allowing the beer to be heated to a warm temperature to retain taste while evaporating the alcohol. But because alcohol is removed, there is still a lower concentration of flavour compounds.
Willem van Waesberghe is the global master brewer at Heineken. He says to produce Heineken 0.0 the company uses almost the same ingredients as traditional Heineken but with less malt, before removing the alcohol using vacuum distillation.
The flavours lost during evaporation are added afterwards. "There are five fruit esters, or aroma compounds, which are very typical for Heineken, and we know which ones to bring back," says Mr van Waesberghe.
"This is where the trick is: Heineken and Heineken 0.0 aren't the same taste, but the flavour and aroma profile is very close, and we try to make the brain think it is the same."


Another innovation being seen in the non-alcoholic beer space is aroma capture during vacuum distillation. Shane McNamara, who is responsible for beer education at brewing giant AB InBev, says this has marked a significant advancement in flavour preservation.
"In earlier methods, much of the beer's aroma was lost during the process. Now, brewers can capture and reintroduce these aromatic compounds into the beer. This technique ensures that the distinctive aromas, which are integral to the beer's overall sensory experience, are retained."
Luke Boase, the founder of non-alcoholic beer brand, Lucky Saint, which launched just over five years ago, spent two years working with six breweries in three countries to test different processes, ultimately investing in vacuum distillation.
"Fundamentally we adhere to the 'Reinheitsgebot' German purity law [where it is brewed] which says you can only brew with the four ingredients which you are supposed to find in lager - nothing else," says Mr Boase.
"But the beer we put through de-alcoholisation isn't brewed to be a full-strength beer, it is brewed with the knowledge that there will be an additional process which will have lots of different effects. So, a lot of work goes into the upfront brewing process."


Other brands may be tapping into the recent development of specialised yeast strains capable of fermenting while producing very little alcohol. As Mr McNamara says, "This innovation allows for the full fermentation process, enhancing flavour profiles without significant alcohol content."
Some brewers want to keep their techniques secret.
Bill Shufelt and John Walker, founders of US-based Athletic Brewing Company, which launched in the UK in 2022, are cagey about their process, other than to state that they don't remove or add any ingredients, making a fully fermented no-alcohol product.
Mr Shufelt says, "We decided to do it using a totally different process to everyone else."
The pair deemed their approach unique enough to justify having their own breweries. The company now has 200-barrel breweries in Connecticut and San Diego.
Brewers large and small are combining centuries of learning with new technologies to capture a share of this growing market, but Alice Baker, senior research analyst, Mintel says brands could push further.
"We believe the sector will grow and alcohol free beer brands will use fortification to stretch into the health space, ie added vitamins for a health halo, relaxing ingredients, and added protein and electrolytes for post sports recovery."

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