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How the coronavirus has boosted non-alcoholic beer

Andrew Dickson   

How the coronavirus has boosted non-alcoholic beer
  • Non-alcoholic beer, like Brooklyn Brewery's Special Effects, has seen huge growth in the past year.
  • Covid lockdowns are leading us to rethink our habits, while innovations have made NA beer tastier.
  • The global market for NA beer could be worth $29 billion by 2026, according to one prediction.

A few years back, Eric Ottaway was traveling in Europe when he noticed something about the way people were drinking.

Ottaway is the CEO of Brooklyn Brewery, one of the largest craft-beer outfits in the United States, so has an eye for such things - and what he saw intrigued him. Instead of knocking back full-strength beer, a surprising number of folks in pubs seemed to be choosing low-alcohol beverages.

"At lunch, after work, wherever," Ottaway says when we speak. "It was just totally, completely normal."

In some European countries, "low- and no-", as the sector is called, is indeed pretty hefty: one in ten beers sold in Sweden is alcohol-free, while in Spain, cerveza sin makes up 14% of sales. Nearly every local brewery in Germany offers an alkoholfrei alternative, a characteristically pragmatic balance between the Protestant work ethic and a weakness for lunchtime pils.

In the U.S., by contrast, until recently non-alcoholic beer has accounted for less than half a percent of the beverage sold annually. Ottaway saw an opening.

Ottaway and his brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, got to work, and 18 months later they unveiled Special Effects. They launched it in Europe in 2018, where it promptly became their fourth-best seller. Since debuting in the U.S. in late 2019, it's done nearly as well.

Encouraged - and, Ottaway admits, a little surprised - Special Effects IPA, with bright citrus notes and more powerful hops, came next. It, too, has been doing remarkably well: in January, the new Special Effects duo accounted for a quarter of Brooklyn's sales.

Non-alcoholic (NA)'s share of the total American beer market is still tiny - less than 0.5% of overall sales in liquor and grocery stores - but it's increasingly seen as the next trend in craft beer. In early 2020, NA beer sales jumped by nearly 40% over the previous year, according to Nielsen. Another report predicts that by 2026 the market for non-alcoholic beer could be worth $29 billion globally, and $6.4 billion in the U.S. alone.

Craft outfits such as Brooklyn, Connecticut's Athletic Brewing and California's Surreal Brewing - which produce only no-alcohol beer - are leading the charge, but the multinational goliaths are racing to catch up. The Asahi group launched Peroni Libera in time for Dry January 2019, closely followed by the "malt beverage" Heineken 0.0%. Budweiser Zero was unveiled last July, under the tagline "zero alcohol, zero compromise." There are even alcohol-free "spirits" such as the British brand Seedlip, which launched in the US in 2017 and, at around $30, will set you back roughly the same as a decent gin.

What's curious is that all this is happening during a one-in-a-century pandemic. Early indicators suggested that many Americans (particularly women) were drinking more alcohol than ever, and that binge drinking and drug overdoses increased as people entered lockdowns. Even the WHO sounded the alarm, going so far as to produce a dossier in September pointing out that alcohol can't prevent anyone catching Covid-19 - and, of course, as the most abundantly available psychoactive drug on the planet, consuming too much of it causes untold harm.

But even before the pandemic left us more isolated, more lonely, more bored, more scared - or some toxic mix of all of those things - it seemed that many of us were starting to think about what we were drinking, and wondering whether it was time for a fresh start.


There is at least no great mystery about why so few Americans drank non-alcoholic beer until recently: it tasted repellent. Making beer that's low in "gravity," the technical term for low-alcohol, while retaining its flavor is one of the toughest tricks in the business. Until just a few years ago, brewers basically had only two options to make zero-alcohol beer: either halt fermentation before enough sugar had converted to ethanol, or brew as normal and then heat the liquid until the alcohol has boiled off, which removes its characteristic hoppy top notes.

"The problem is, both taste a bit grim," says Rob Fink, who runs the boutique British brewery Big Drop, which is now being brewed in Chicago and distributed nationwide.

Beer's sheer complexity - the orchestral range of organic flavors, from the creamy bass of malt to the astringent tang of hops - means that one bum note can ruin the whole ensemble. Alcohol doesn't originate flavor, but plays an all-important role in carrying it, improving texture and "mouthfeel" as well as giving heft to a brew. "It's like salt," is how Fink describes it. "Almost everything tastes better with salt."

Fink notes that until recently drinks industry experts called alcohol-free beer a "distress purchase" - something consumers buy only because they have no other option. "And it really was distressing," he adds.

Super-light beers have been part of brewing culture for centuries: in Europe during the Middle Ages, brewers manufactured so-called "small beers" containing less than 2% alcohol, which were even given to children (safer than drinking untreated water, it was thought).

Americans became interested in alcohol-free options during the early twentieth-century Temperance movement. Under Prohibition, the only way for many breweries to survive - legally, at least - was to switch production to so-called "near beers", which sat under the 0.5% alcohol threshold.

Unfortunately, "near beer" was roughly as successful as the rest of Prohibition: it simply didn't taste anything like the real thing. And nothing much changed in that department for decades.

But in the last five years a revolution has been under way. Taking inspiration from the revival of long-dead styles and techniques, specialist microbreweries have gone back to their pilot brewing kits and adapted antique recipes and employed specialty grains, among them barley, rye, wheat and oats. One option is to use so-called "lazy yeast" - usually scorned by brewers - which ferments more slowly, thus enabling flavor to develop while keeping alcohol levels low.

Different hop variants ("some really expensive ones!", laughs Fink) can add more depth and texture, helping them fine-tune taste profiles. Fink's brewery sometimes adds lactose to thicken mouthfeel and make their brews taste heftier - a tradition that harkens back to the British "milk stouts" of the Victorian era, which were sold as fortifying beverages.

Science has also come to brewers' aid. One approach is vacuum distillation, reducing the liquid's boiling point so that less damaging heat is required, which was pioneered in the 1980s but has recently come into its own; the British brands Free Dam and Lucky Saint are known to use it. Another - employed by the TwoDEEP craft brewery in Indianapolis - is "reverse osmosis," a chemical filtration process. Others use "membrane filtration", running the beer through a customized filter that allows only alcohol, color and some flavors through; water is removed, the alcohol distilled off, and then the water is re-added, resulting in NA beer.

Ottaway - like many of his rivals - is wary of giving away trade secrets about how Brooklyn makes its two kinds of Special Effects, but says he's confident that they taste every bit as good as full-strength brews. "It's a technical challenge, for sure, but I think we've gotten pretty good at it."


OK, so brewing techniques have adapted, but attitudes toward alcohol itself seem to be undergoing a sea change, the likes of which we haven't seen for generations. Beer, it might be said, is changing more rapidly than during the "real ale" campaigns in the UK in the 1970s and 80s or the North American-led craft beer revolution of the 1990s and naughts. Conceivably even since the ninth century, when French Benedictine monks first thought of adding hops as a preservative.

Perhaps as a result of that ill-fated experience with Prohibition, or lingering associations with religious constraints or finger-wagging puritanism, many American drinkers are sensitive about saying they'd prefer a low- or no-alcohol option, especially in a bar.

"That's beginning to shift," says Sophia Shaw-Brown, an insight manager at the global drinks-industry analyst IWSR, which has identified the low- and no- trend as the biggest earthquake to hit producers in years. "There's a lot less pressure for people to follow social norms than there once was; if you're going for drinks after work, it's more acceptable to say, 'I'm going to moderate.'"

Certainly "mindful drinking" seems to have gathered steam in recent years. Generation-Z twentysomethings drink perhaps a fifth less than millennials did at their age (they may simply be getting intoxicated more creatively, though: some research suggests that they use recreational drugs more often).

After interviewing hundreds of consumers across 10 countries, the IWSR team found that low- and no- consumers skew older: professionals settling into their careers. And there was one key reason to cut down: wanting to avoid the effect of alcohol on their bodies. "That came far above other factors like cost, medical, pregnancy, weight loss - things that you'd assume would play a bigger role," says Shaw-Brown.

Ottaway agrees: "When you're not 21 any longer, drinking 7% beer hurts the following day. And retailers are wising up to that. They're realizing that they're losing consumers who only want to have one drink because they've had enough alcohol." NA beer is also significantly better for your waistline: a 12oz serving of Brooklyn Special Effects contains 102 calories, as opposed to 170 for a standard Brooklyn Lager.

To put it in other words, the trend for wellness seems finally to have caught up with the industry. The pastel-bright, Instagram-ready branding of many low- and no-alcohol products indicates the market segment they're aiming for; so too do the names of alcohol-free beers like WellBeing Brewing in Missouri and the UK-based Nirvana, which go heavy on the healthful vibes.

Erdinger, one of Germany's most famous export brands, now markets its low-alcohol wheat beer as an "isotonic, vitamin-rich" drink and even doles out free samples at major sporting fixtures like the Berlin Marathon.

Even dietary restriction fads seem to have touched the world of beer, says Rob Fink: "You have to laugh. A few years ago, we couldn't persuade bars to look at no-alcohol beer. Now everyone asks: 'Is it gluten-free? Is it vegan?'"

Where is Covid in all this, though? Drink sales have traditionally depended on people going out - which, of course, almost none of us are doing at the moment. Fink, who entered 2020 with ambitious plans for expansion in bars and pubs, says that the collapse there has - to his mild astonishment - been offset by a surge in web sales.

He doesn't think the reasons are complicated. "I'm sure I'm as guilty as the next man at saying, 'OK, it's 3pm, we're in lockdown, let's open the beer,' he says. "But that's not sustainable: you can't do that long-term, particularly if you're looking after kids and trying to work remotely or whatever."

"People who like to drink nice wine have set up wine subscriptions or meat and veg-box subscriptions," he adds. "Buying alcohol-free beer by the case fits nicely into that."

Ottaway wonders if lockdown has, in fact, made many of us more aware of how much we drink; whereas in a bar someone else clears away the empty bottles and rinses the glasses, when we're stuck at home there's nowhere to hide. "You can feel it in the curbside recycling," he laughs.

More than that, a crisis such as Covid has made so many people more conscious of how alcohol consumption affects our health. A third of the drinkers Shaw-Brown's team spoke to said they were entering 2021 determined to be healthier; nearly 40% said that the pandemic had made them drink less. "Suddenly health and wellness are at the forefront of people's minds," she says. "For alcohol-free, it's a kind of perfect storm." 101 years after Prohibition began, only to be abandoned, teetotalism seems to be creeping back into the US by stealth.

The huge question, of course, is what happens in the post-Covid world. If vaccinations manage to turn the tide and we're able to lead some version of the lives we used to - assuming that day ever arrives - will we head straight to the bar on the corner and cram into that sweaty basement gig, beer in hand?

Ottaway hopes yes - it's just that the beer might not be an alcoholic one. "Alcohol is a great social lubricant," he observes. "But you don't have to have alcohol to feel social."


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