I am now the go-to guy for journalists from newspapers and radio when it comes to their questions about enjoying non-alcoholic beer. Recently it happened again. In one and the same week they called from the NRC (a Dutch newspaper) and the daily newspaper De Limburger. And such a conversation always starts with the question: why is it that non-alcoholic beer has taken off so enormously in recent years? My answer is twofold: that is up to the beer lovers and the brewers.
Success factor beer lovers
Beer lovers are developing an increasing health awareness. This ensures that they increasingly do not automatically turn to alcohol when they feel like beer. In addition, more and more consumers are opening up to other colours, smells and flavors in beer. Gone are the days when beer should be clear and golden yellow. As a result, countless 'new' beer styles are on the rise, which lend themselves very well to making a non-alcoholic variant. Perhaps even better than the lager that is still the most consumed beer in the world.
The 'physical' and the 'biological' method
But brewers also contribute to the success of non-alcoholic beer. The technological possibilities for brewing beer that are at least 99.5% free of alcohol have undergone a spectacular development in recent years. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to make non-alcoholic beer: a 'physical' and a 'organic'.
In the 'physical' approach, brewers first brew beer with alcohol. They then remove the alcohol using an advanced technological process. In many cases this is done with vacuum distillation. Then the beer only has to be heated to a degree at 35, a temperature at which it does not suffer too much damage. The alcohol evaporates. That is why you saw large breweries hand out free hand sanitizer to healthcare institutions on a large scale last spring, during the first corona lockdown.
What the evaporated alcohol leaves behind in taste and character in beer, brewers then have to rebuild in the dealcoholized beer. That is quite a job and a craft in itself. To this end, at Heineken, they first meticulously deconstructed all the odors and flavors in their renowned lager into all chemical components. That may sound a little dubious. But don't forget: although beer has long been a natural and artisanal product, all the delicious smells and flavors are the result of chemical connections. It always has been and always will be, so nothing crazy.
What is also possible: a brewery adjusts its beer recipe before it goes into the installation that removes the alcohol from the beer. They use this method in Lieshout at Royal Swinkels Family Brewers. Their installation, the Fenix (the Phoenix), is perhaps the most advanced in the Netherlands at the moment. The image below gives you an impression of the Fenix. This includes Swinkels' 0.0%: if you ask me the best non-alcoholic lager in the Netherlands at the moment.
Another example of a 'deacoholised' beer is Sportzot from the De Halve Maan brewery. This family brewery from Bruges uses reverse osmosis to extract alcohol from their famous Belgian blond Brugse Zot.
You understand that producing non-alcoholic beer via the 'physical' method is only possible with state of the art technology. A very capital-intensive affair, only reserved for breweries with a lot of money. Only in this way is it possible to make beer that is really 0.0. The installations that brewers use for this are hardly reminiscent of the old brewery trade. They would not look strange in a place like the ports of Antwerp or Rotterdam. That doesn't mean I disapprove of it though. There have always been technological developments and improvements in the brewing profession. The wooden mash tun and stirrer have long since been renounced. And there was a reason for that. A much more interesting question for me as a beer sommelier and enthusiast is: how do brewers make the best beer? Without skimping on quality!
It costs a lot less if a brewery wants to make non-alcoholic beer via what I call the 'organic' method. It is much more artisanal. This approach is close to the way brewing has been done for millennia. The big difference is that brewers work with yeast that produces very little alcohol. In this way, brewers can ensure that no more than 0.3 to 0.5% alcohol is produced in their beer. Fermentation takes place at a very low temperature.
Brewers also play with the composition of their recipe. In this way they can ensure that fewer sugars enter the wort, which the yeast converts into alcohol.
The yeast strains that brewers use for this were originally known as a by-product of viticulture. But today they are widely cultivated by brewer's yeast producers, especially for low-alcohol beers. You can order them online for a few euros. This means that every homebrewer who works a bit hygienically can brew his own non-alcoholic beer.
Great opportunities for 'small' brewers
Probably all smaller, independent brewers in the shop of OnderNulPuntVijf use this 'organic' method of cold fermentation. VandeStreek Bier from Utrecht has become successful with it. More than half of their turnover now comes from low-alcohol beers. Which is not surprising, because they are really top of the bill. Have you tried their new Fun House NEIPA yet?
More and more beautiful non-alcoholic options are also coming from Belgium that are well worth getting acquainted with. I was positively surprised by Pico Nova from Brussels Beer Project. Finally, a recommendation: the non-alcoholic version of Cornet, from the De Hoorn brewery. With a beautiful generous head and a surprising amount of taste, without the enormous sweetness that is characteristic of this beer with alcohol. It is fair to say that Cornet Oaked Alcohol Free was created with Swinkels technology.
More and more beers can be discovered from large and small brewers that are at least 99.5% free of alcohol and that you enjoy drinking. And all developments are far from over. A nice prospect to raise a glass, don't you think? In that sense: cheers!