One trend I’ve been watching (and tasting) recently is the growing popularity of nonalcoholic (NA) beers. For a long time there were only a handful of choices for drinkers of “near beer,” such as O’Doul’s and Clausthaler, modeled after American macro lagers, which many found unappealing.
Over the past several years, however, an increasing focus on health and lifestyle choices have brought NA beers to the forefront, and a number of craft breweries have been throwing their hats into the alcohol-free ring with a variety of styles.
Bend’s own Deschutes Brewery and Crux Fermentation Project are among them. Deschutes introduced its first nonalcoholic brew, Irish Style Dark, a year ago, while Crux formally released NØ MØ Nonalcoholic IPA last month.
Each brewery approached the problem of how to create an alcohol-free beer differently, and to better understand these methods, a bit of background is in order.
To legally qualify as nonalcoholic, the beer must have 0.5 or less percent alcohol by volume. There are different ways to achieve this target; one of the more common is known as arrested fermentation. This method sees the beer recipe formulated and brewed normally, but then the fermentation process is stopped before it reaches half a percent of alcohol.
Naturally, you’re left with unfermented sugars, and I find that NA beers created via this process can have a sweeter, “wort”-like (unfermented beer) quality.
Another method involves some manner of removing the alcohol from the beer after fermentation is complete. There are several ways to do this, including vacuum distillation and reverse osmosis, which can be complicated and are often proprietary, requiring specialized equipment.
Deschutes follows this path in brewing its Irish Style Dark. The brewery partnered with Colorado-based Sustainable Beverage Technologies, using its proprietary BrewVo process “that gently manages alcohol content, while maintaining flavor and aroma.” Details are vague, but according to Veronica Vega, Deschutes’ product development director, it starts out brewed as a full-strength beer, with a starting gravity of 13.8 degrees Plato (which would ordinarily yield around 5% alcohol by volume).
“Thus far, the BrewVo technology provides the closest flavor profile to full strength beer that we have tried,” Vega said via email.
Finally, a third process for crafting NA beer is simpler than the others — brewing an extremely low-gravity beer that yields a low percentage of alcohol. The alcohol isn’t subsequently removed, but if necessary, the beer can be diluted with water until the volume reaches 0.5% or less.
This is the method Crux followed in developing NØ MØ.
“Most nonalcoholic beer on the market has simply had the alcohol removed, but this was not the approach we wanted to take,” brewmaster Larry Sidor said in the brewery’s press release. “NØ MØ was developed from the ground up, with a formulation built specifically for this ‘near beer.’”
I’ve sampled a number of different NA beers recently, with varying quality, and I found both Irish Style Dark and NØ MØ to be among the forerunners in terms of drinkability and similarity to “real” beer.
With Irish Style Dark, Deschutes modeled the recipe on that of an Irish stout, dry and roasty. It has an appealing aroma with coffee, roasted grains, creamy caramel and light chocolate notes. It has a decent roasted barley flavor that gives the impression of diner coffee and burnt toast, with some raw wheat and grassy character giving a slightly “unfinished” impression. The body is thin and light, with a dark roastiness that finishes dry.
NØ MØ is brewed with Mosaic and Citra hops that imbue it with a nice punch of hoppy aroma in the nose and a fruity presence showcasing pineapple and lemon peel. It’s not overwhelming with bitterness, mostly achieving balance against the light malt body, although I do find that the hops become slightly harsh as it warms (like oversteeped tea). It’s also light bodied and quite clean, with a dry finish.
Both of these NA beers offer up a credible beer-drinking experience in their respective styles, and are worth checking out if you’re looking for alcohol-free options. Other options are available on the market as well, with more and more retail locations carrying craft near beers. 3rd Street Beverage, for instance, stocks a selection from Athletic Brewing Company, Partake Brewing, Three Magnets Brewing Company and more.