Brewing the Nonalcoholic Beer Boom: Why it May Come Later Than You Think

Nonalcoholic craft beer is on the rise. Here’s why (most) local breweries haven’t jumped on the trend.

Nicholas Dekker
BrewDog's family of nonalcoholic beers

America’s drinking culture has shifted in recent years to become more inclusive of those who enjoy a libation without the alcohol. More establishments offer dynamic nonalcoholic or low-ABV cocktails, but what about locally brewed NA beers?

For decades, nonalcoholic beer has suffered under the stigma of O’Doul’s, harkening back to a time when American beer was defined by light yellow lagers. Today, more U.S. breweries are either focusing exclusively on alcohol-free beers (namely Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co. whose beers are widely available in Columbus), or adding one to their roster. However, the trend hasn’t exactly caught fire in Columbus yet.

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BrewDog USA's Nonalcoholic Beers

In Central Ohio, the craft brewery with the largest "near beer" lineup is Canal Winchester’s BrewDog USA, the American headquarters of the Scottish brewery. “I’ve worked in beer my entire career, and now we have a complete changing of the guard where more people are open to nonalcoholic options,” says Erika Wojno, BrewDog’s U.S. head of marketing.

What’s differentiating these new offerings from the O’Doul’s era is the variety of beers. Instead of the standard lager, breweries whip up booze-free pale ales, IPAs, stouts, even sours. BrewDog labels several of its nonalcoholic options with “AF,” the popular emphasizer on social media. So BrewDog fans who love their signature Punk or Elvis Juice IPAs can enjoy Punk AF or Elvis AF.

How does one brew nonalcoholic beer? In “arrested fermentation,” the brewer prevents yeast from fermenting the sugary wort (and thus producing alcohol), either by deactivating the yeast or removing it, explains Steve McMillen, BrewDog USA’s brewing manager. In “vacuum distillation,” a beer is brewed and fermented but then distilled like a spirit. The beer is placed in a vacuum, which lowers its boiling point and makes it easier to evaporate the alcohol.

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At BrewDog, McMillen opts for the “low-gravity brew” method. “We start with a little bit of malt and not a lot of sugar content,” McMillen says. “We let the yeast ferment it all the way, but it’s not able to create the alcohol.” The benefit of this process, McMillen says, is that brewers can control the flavors, aromas and colors.

The Trials and Tribulations of Brewing Nonalcoholic Beers

Seventh Son Brewing Co. has dabbled in nonalcoholic beers, but after attempting to use non-fermentative yeasts to achieve arrested fermentation, head brewer Colin Vent says he wasn’t satisfied. Without fermented elements in the beer, it could be more likely to spoil. “With that small [level] of fermentation, we couldn’t confirm that what we made was food-safe,” he says. “And it didn’t taste great.” He also highlighted the danger of calling a beer nonalcoholic, when even trace amounts of yeast left in a bottle or can could ferment the beer right on the grocery store shelves.

Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, echoes Vent’s concerns, adding that most craft breweries forgo NA beers because of the small market and the high cost of specialized equipment. “Arrested fermentation and distillation leave a lot of fermentable sugars behind in the beer typically,” he says. “Which means the beer won’t be very stable as it ages, and the risk of re-fermentation in a bottle or can is high without the use of pasteurization, which is another costly investment for small breweries.”

McMillen sees the rise of nonalcoholic beer as a bit of history repeating itself. “If you look at the roots of craft beer, it started with consumers looking for a beer that’s different than your macro lager,” he says. The industry is once again following the lead of its customers. “It’s a chance to elevate the quality of nonalcoholic beers in the marketplace,” he says. The question is whether more local breweries are willing to take that chance.

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.