Dry January has begun its devolution into Wet February. It’s the month bookended by the imbibing holidays of Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, featuring the drinking-one-way-or-the-other Valentine’s Day smack in the middle.
But as a quick postscript on January, we wonder, where did your Sober Curiosity take you? For us, it was the warming embrace of black tea with honey and ginger. Sparkling water on the more mild days, and getting our kombucha SCOBY out of winter hibernation. And among all the NA options, we didn’t reach for a non-alcoholic beer.
Why would we? The stereotype of the category hasn’t been stellar—it’s been a punchline on late-night TV, and an afterthought on menus. Even as bartenders grew more serious about making thoughtful non-alcoholic cocktails, it seemed NA beer was still relegated to a dusty O’Doul’s in the back of the cooler, far past its expiration date.
But we weren’t looking closely enough. There’s been growth in the NA space, especially in Europe. In Germany, it’s estimated that one in every 15 beers consumed contains no alcohol. Its 1,500 breweries now produce up to 500 different varieties of NA crafts. And Spain drinks the most NA beers of any country. Their low- and zero-alcohol beers, called sin beers for “without,” account for 13% of all beer sales, and NA taps can be found in every bar.
And recently, more temperate trends have been growing stateside. It’s become a well-documented phenomenon that young people in America are drinking less and less often. And even among drinking-aged adults, health and wellness movements are latching on to lower-carb and lower-calorie beers that naturally feature less and less alcohol.
Whatever the root causes, brewing companies worldwide have seen the writing on the wall. Non-alcoholic beer is currently the fastest growing segment of an overall sluggish beer market. AB InBev has committed to making 20 percent of its global beer volume no- or low-alcohol by 2025, recently launching a dozen new brands toward that goal.
And our local beer coolers have become stocked with an ever-growing selection of new and interesting NA beers. Some are imports, some are macros, some are made by the independent craft brewery down the block.
But for all this new excitement in the category, our question is: do they taste any good?
A Note on NA
The legal standard under which a beer can be called “non-alcoholic” (and thus be exempt from excise taxes) is 0.5% ABV. NA beer often begins life as a fully fermented beer and then various methods are employed to remove the alcohol. So unless a beer specifically claims to be “0.0” or “Zero Alcohol,” it’s good to assume that “NA” beer does contain a trace amount.
We gathered 31 NA beers from around the Twin Cities. Most are available at retail—only a few were submitted as taproom-only specials. We feel confident that our field comprises just about every NA beer you will run into around the metro.
The Growler editorial staff judged them all double-blind on a standard rubric (aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, flavor, finish, overall impression) with a special premium on “beer flavor,” the degree to which we think it lives up to the flavor of full-strength beer.
In the past, the NA beer category had been largely limited to variations on pale European beers, and these imports still comprise a healthy percentage of your NA options in the Twin Cities (they made up about half of the samples in our tasting.) But we expect to see more modern and hoppy craft styles shaking up the rotation as more U.S. craft breweries move into the NA space.
Athletic Brewing Co. Run Wild NA IPA
Athletic Brewing Co. Upside Dawn NA Golden Ale
Bauhaus Brew Labs Nah
Brooklyn Brewery Special Effects
Eastlake Almond Milk Stout NA
Einbecker Brauherren Alkoholfrei
Hairless Dog IPA
Hairless Dog Coffee Stout
Hairless Dog Black Ale
Indeed Mexican Honey Extra Light NA
Labatt Blue NA
O’Doul’s Premium Lager
Old Milwaukee NA Malt Beverage
Paulaner Weizen-Radler NA
St. Pauli NA
Surreal Brewing Natural Bridges Kolsch
Surreal Brewing Juicy Mavs Hazy IPA
Surreal Brewing 17 Mile Porter
Not a beer, but a damn fine NA Bev
It doesn’t contain malted grains, so it would have fared poorly on our rubric. But we’d be remiss to not point out Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher as one of the buzziest NA drinks on the market today, and rightfully so. It’s a bitter dose of citrusy hops and lively carbonation—a wonderful hop seltzer that aches for a warm and sunny day.
We have to doff our proverbial caps to any brewer that makes a tasty NA beer. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve, because ethanol is (besides its more pleasant chemical properties) a remarkable flavoring agent. Its volatility enhances a beer’s aroma and its solvent properties help capture complex flavors from a beer’s raw ingredients.
So absent that, an intriguing and balanced NA beer is quite the feat, and we’re sad to see many iconic brewers falling short. We found Heineken 0.0 dingy as dishwater. Coors Edge tastes like wet cardboard. Weihenstephaner makes the best wheat beer in Germany but their NA is watery as the Rhine.
We’re happy to have tasted all of these for you, dear readers, because this category is a minefield, littered with both confusing palate-wreckers and almost-water weaklings. We certainly don’t fault anyone who’s been entirely discouraged away from the category, but here are seven NA beers from our tasting that we can endorse.
In a field mostly comprised of imports, here are the four that stood out:
Erdinger is a pretty good stab at a full-flavored German weissbier. It plays to the style’s inherent grainy sweetness, with a raw cereal taste that evokes unfinished malt—like bananas and toffee get mixed into Grape Nuts. Not much hop balance, so it skews sweet, but it showed a complexity and left a fine lingering flavor.
Brewed in Amsterdam by Heineken, Buckler has much in common with those sundry Euro lagers you might swill canalside. It’s dried grasses on the aroma and a bran-like flavor on the sip, with a compelling roundness to the body. The finish is indistinct, but vaguely sweet and pleasant. If you’re attracted to the idea of Heineken 0.0, this is actually the beer you want.
Beck’s NA is in the same vein as Buckler, but even lighter, with some Pilsner-like malt character. The finish offers some bite, some brightness, even a little dank CBD flavor and more bitter notes as it warms. But overall it has good balance and a multi-note flavor.
Clausthaler Dry-Hopped is on the maltier side of things, with a firm bitterness to balance out a decent sweetness. Tastes more like a good nut brown ale than the West Coast–style dry-hopped ales we’re used to, but it’s dry and balanced with no lingering off flavors.
The Old Standby, Redeemed
We can’t believe it, but let’s get this out there: O’Doul’s Amber actually does taste like a solid macro amber lager. It has the robust, grain-rich body NAs often lack, with just enough caramel sweetness and carbonation to fill out the finish. It stands out in a sea full of watery, pale NA beer (which includes Amber’s vapid older cousin, O’Doul’s Premium.)
The Grand Champion
Our favorite brand in the tasting was Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing Company, which offers two beers that both bear a striking resemblance to West Coast IPAs. The only problem is they’re difficult to find around here (we’ve seen several retailers sell out of it during the month of January), so call ahead to your favorite bottle shop.
Their Upside Dawn Non-Alcoholic Golden was the overall winner of our tasting, featuring clarion citrusy hop notes, in a clean and light body, with solid bitterness on the finish. It’s orangey and juicy, like a modern American pale ale, with a firm foundation and balanced presence. And their Run Wild Non-Alcoholic IPA was not far behind: that same juicy hop quality with a huge aroma that shouts ‘IPA’ from the rooftops. It has good balance, a great mouthfeel, and uses that sticky web of hoppy flavor to fill out its body. We’d happily add either into our regular beer drinking rotation.