Bill Shufelt was striking out. It was 2016, and Shufelt had a successful career in finance, but what he really wanted to do was quit his day job and make nonalcoholic (NA) craft beer. “I was finding that as I got older, alcohol didn’t really fit into my life. But I loved craft beer. So that was a huge pain point for me,” he says.
Shufelt knew he could run the business side of the operation, but he needed a brewer. That turned out to be hard to find. “I got rejected by over 200 brewers. Absolutely everyone I talked to rejected it. There was zero appetite for this in 2016,” he remembers.
After 200 negative responses, Shufelt finally got a yes from John Walker, the head brewer at Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At the time, Walker was also questioning the health of being surrounded by booze all day, every day. He packed up his family and headed to Connecticut in 2017. There, the two founded Athletic Brewing Company and got to work making nonalcoholic beer that can compete flavor-wise with its fully loaded cousins. Now, two years later, the market looks a lot different.
“Sober curious” is probably the most written about bar trend of 2019. (See here, here, here, and here. Oh, and now this piece.) And it seems like an especially appealing option for athletes, since we know that alcohol is not a PED. In fact, a 2018 New York Times piece theorized that nonalcoholic beer was the secret weapon of many German athletes at the Winter Olympics.
However, there’s not much hard data to show whether opting out of alcohol will go mainstream, beyond Athletic Brewing Company’s impressive tenfold growth in its first full years. What does exist is research showing Gen Z’s alcohol preferences may be setting the tone for a new generation that isn’t that big on booze. A 2016 study found 35 percent of college kids drank beer occasionally or frequently. In contrast, 63 percent of kids the same age back in 1994 said they drank beer occasionally or frequently.
Millennials, meanwhile, have been pegged as problem drinkers in some research, but, well, maybe that’s changing. They’re spending less on booze. They’re also health conscious, and the days of wine being seen as a health food are over.
All this means that there’s a healthy market for an alternative. But until recently, nobody was offering one.
“For so many years, [nonalcoholic beer] was such a tiny part of the market that it was an afterthought. Beer companies didn’t care if it was good beer or not,” says Jeff Stevens, founder of WellBeing Brewing Company, which makes only nonalcoholic beer. When Stevens decided to give NA brewing a try, he didn’t even look at what other U.S. brewers were doing. Instead, he looked to Germany. Those efforts have spurred more American brewers to adopt these techniques to innovate craft NA beer.
So it should be no surprise that the easiest method for making NA beer comes from Germany. In the 1970s, the Brewing University in Munich invented the vacuum distillation machine, which removes alcohol from brewed beer, Stevens says. He uses one of these machines at WellBeing Brewing Company.
Vacuum distillation works by lowering the boiling point of the beer and then gently boiling the brew at that lowered temp until all the alcohol evaporates. While you could remove the alcohol just by boiling it at a normal temp, the high heat would introduce all kinds of horrid flavors, Stevens says, which is why you need to keep things as chill as possible.
The other option is to brew your beer so it creates almost no alcohol during the fermentation process. “We brew it like it’s super-sessionable beer,” Shufelt says. Athletic Brewing Company makes ten to 12 tweaks to every traditional beer recipe to help keep the final alcohol content below 0.5 percent (the standard to be considered nonalcoholic in the United States). These tweaks include changes in brewing temperature, pH, amount of malt used, and even when and how ingredients are added. Shufelt prefers his company’s method because it includes no boiling, which he feels “torches the beer and removes its best elements.”
Stevens, however, argues that when done carefully, vacuum distillation can still offer a premium final product. In fact, on his website, he mentions that “stop fermentation”—the process some brewers use to inactivate or remove yeast, and thus the production of alcohol—does exactly that: stops the beer from developing its best flavors. Who is right? We don’t really care so long as they’re making stuff we want to drink.
Another reason this may be a golden moment for NA beer is that if you’re up for experimenting, the range of nontraditional ingredients used in brewing has never been more robust. For example, in WellBeing’s new wheat beer, “the electrolyte mix we use added this amazing body to this beer,” Stevens says.
Of course, not everything is a hit. WellBeing hasn’t been able to nail the brown ale yet, saying “for whatever reason, it just wasn’t good.” And the brewery is about to embark on a super-hoppy IPA, but that took finding hops that would not have its flavor changed by the dealcoholizing process.
It took Athletic Brewing a long time to nail its signature golden ale. In fact, the company brewed more than 100 batches in a nine-month period to get its first few beers just right, with the golden ale being the hardest. “It’s so hard to hide flaws in a really clean, crisp beer,” Shufelt says.
The real hurdle to nonalcoholic beer, though, may be food safety. “Alcohol is a great preservative and stabilizer, but nonalcoholic beer doesn’t have that,” Shufelt says. Plus, pregnant women and folks with health issues comprise part of the nonalcoholic beer drinking demographic. That means everything has to be super safe. Shufelt says his company has spent more on its food safety equipment than on all of its brewing equipment, including purchasing a $300,000 pasteurizing device and hiring a full-time food safety expert. He theorizes that the food safety challenge is likely why you won’t see every craft brewery adding NA beer to its lineup as the trend continues to grow.
That may be true, but count us in for celebrating each new option that enters the marketplace.
If you’ve never tried a nonalcoholic beer beyond an O’Doul’s, it’s time. Here’s what we’ll be sipping on weeknights this summer. (Best of all, these are available via mail order nationwide with few restrictions, since they don’t contain alcohol.)
Athletic Brewing Company Run Wild IPA
Plenty hoppy with a surprising amount of body for an NA beer. Getting that oomph is surprisingly hard without booze, but this beer does it well.
WellBeing Brewing Company Intrepid Traveler Coffee Cream Stout
As rich and malty as you want a stout to be, with plenty of mellow coffee notes.
Partake Blond Ale
This Canadian brewery sells three of its beers in the United States, including this refreshing sparkling ale. It’s very light and has just 15 calories. When you chug an ice-cold one, it’s probably the most refreshing sip on the planet.
Bravus Brewing Amber Ale
Full of malt and with just the right amount of bitter at the end, the Bravus amber is perfect for pairing with hearty fare or for enjoying when you want something heavier than a blond but not quite as hearty as a stout.