In the UK and Europe, low-alcohol and non-alcoholic beers are increasing in popularity as brewers start to push boundaries to make them more interesting and flavorful. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, these beers are hardly even talked about. (When they are, it’s often people poking fun at them.)
This week, the Fervent Few discusses these low-to-no-buzz beers. Have they noticed the increased quality? When do they drink them? And could these beers catch on outside of Europe and the United Kingdom?
Eric Gibson: “It's already happening here in America, but the stigma is that they aren't real beers. It's almost an extreme form of session beer. Pound a few non-alcoholics back after a rigorous lawn care adventure or while cruising down the coast in a boat. If marketed right, what's to stop it?”
Jaron Wright: “It's not for me. I'll shoot for something different if I'm not trying to have alcohol. But cool to see that people who dig it might have some more options.”
Keith Allen: “Beck's Blue is my new staple for when I feel a midweek thirst but am trying to not have any alcohol. It's basically wanting the fizz and some beery flavor, but no alcohol. I've only recently done this, through wanting to keep a clear head for work or fitness goals. Previously, I'd have had a lime and soda, but found if I'm at home, having a bottle of soda and limes is not something I've always got in—keeping a six pack of Beck's is easier. It's also the malty bitterness I want rather than a zesty citrus taste.
I've a lot of respect for brewers trying low/no alcohol brews, especially craft. It's a hard process, and I'd assume lots of opportunity for oxidation if the alcohol is getting heated off. I've been keen to try using a SCOBY with a beer wort to see if it works.”
Colin Marshall: “We brewed an inspired Kvass about two months ago. This beer included a base malt of 2 row (for fermentable sugars) and 200 pounds of spent rye bread from a local Baltimore bakery. Post-fermentation, we conditioned on strawberries and raisins. Svetlana hasn’t flown off the tap, but it has intrigued customers to ask about a beer they rarely, if ever, see in Baltimore—let alone the east coast. It’s a labor-intensive beer to brew, and we do not intend on brewing it often. However, when we do, there’s plenty of fun being had around brewery and within the marketing team.
I do think there is a place for low ABV. I wouldn’t dip below 2%, as that’s jumping back into nooner beers where you want the taste of beer but not the alcoholic effect.”
Caldwell Bishop: “I would love to see more low-ABV beers. I don’t find being drunk to be fun or exciting, and really do drink for taste and socializing more than anything else. It would be great to see everyone offer a low-ABV beer for people just wanting to hang out without the buzz.”
Lana Svitankova: “I had great Table Beers, but nothing tasty enough lower than 2% ABV. Don't want to be snobbish and turn to 'it isn't a real beer without alcohol,' and maybe I wasn't lucky enough, but I'd opt for something flavorful.”
Daniel Pavey: “Personally, I prefer a good Table Beer to low/no-alcohol beer. But as a beer buyer/manager of 10 venues in London, we have seen a big increase in demand in low/no-alcohol and gluten-free beers. Some of our sites have the Paulaner Hefeweizen 0.5%. Some UK brewers like BrewDog are following the trend with some great tasting low-alcohol or gluten-free beer.
The biggest struggle is price point. Consumers are reluctant to pay the similar price to full-strength beer bottles and cans. On the supplier side, big/mainstream brewers like Paulaner provide a pretty hefty discount on the low/no-alcohol beers. For us, it’s 90p per bottle for their Munchner Helles and 80p for the 0.5% hefeweizen. Considering the difficulties in producing these beers, I find it hard to see the value proposition for small, independent brewers to make them. I would definitely love to see more of them. Don’t mind paying more for it, either.”
Nick Yoder: “It's going to take a large shift in the American market for no- and low-alcohol beers to catch on. There are far too many people still in the 'I'll drink whatever has the highest ABV' stage in the beer life cycle.
One factor that could certainly affect the adoption would be if the U.S. were to continue lowering the legal limit for driving. In Europe, several countries have zero tolerance, making NA beers a necessary option.”
Sam Wood: “In the UK, the only popular low-ABV beers from UK craft breweries that I know of are Kernel Table Beer and the Cloudwater small series. Then there's BrewDog Nanny State. I don't drink a huge amount of them, but they have always been good when I've had them.”
Matt Modica: “I don't think any small brewery should be focusing on anything like this. It could deviate from identity and take too much tank space. I do think that larger breweries will begin to dabble in this, though, as they have the resources to capture a seemingly untouched (craft) market. Goose Island and Sprecher both have pretty strong soda lines that seem to attract a buyer’s attention simply because they have trusted the quality of their mainline alcoholic beverages. [Editor’s note: Goose Island’s name is no longer attached to what is now called WBC Craft Sodas.] They also happen to be solid lines of soda.
I think, too, that the meteoric rise of Stiegl Grapefruit Radler after it was put into cans here in the States is also an indication that people are willing to pay $7 for a 3.5% Shandy. The UK has an odd tradition of putting ice in their cider, which dilutes it, making it stretch for a longer session. I would assume this was born of bad insulation and lack of proper refrigeration though, and not for fear of ABV.
That said, I never reach for an N/A beer because I don't enjoy them and don't have a need for them in my life. I would, however, be interested in tasting something that was flavorful and thoughtful, which is why I love the rise of the 'session' beers, Stone Go To IPA being amongst one of the best-produced as well as any fresh English Mild you could get your hands on.”
Craig Watkins: “Lower ABV beers are, and always will be, at the forefront of all decent pubs in the UK. Most of my work colleagues think I’m fucking insane when I order even a half of something that is slightly cloudy and over 5%. In the UK, I feel cask rules the lower ABV segment. Unfortunately, cask also comes with an attached perceived price. We therefore end up with a pint of beer that has a less exotic malt profile and probably goes nowhere near dry hopping.”
Quinn Thompson: “We recently brewed a 2.1% Hefeweizen in the taproom and I think it's going to to be a tough sell. Personally, I'm excited to have such a low-ABV option for those days I spend watching loads of soccer on TV. By using a Hefe yeast, there's also a fair amount more flavor than one would probably expect in a 2.1% beer. With that said, I have to assume that the majority of folks walking into a taproom are looking for a more flavorful beer and this simply can't be that when you're trying to keep alcohol low. I want it to do well, but I have serious doubts that the U.S. market is ready for it.”
Brandon Morreale: “It's been a few years, but I remember liking Evil Twin's Bikini Beer. I thought there was a surprising amount of flavor for the 2.3%. The fact that it was $18/six pack was a deal breaker, though.”
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